Roald Dahl and the Chiltern Hills

Posted by
Annie Price, The Roald Dahl Museum
Posted on
8:50am, 29th April
Danny, Fantastic Mr Fox, Matilda, Museum, Short stories, The BFG
The Chilterns, view on the Countryside Trail

With the May Bank Holiday approaching there’s no better time to head to the Chilterns to explore Great Missenden and the surrounding countryside

Roald Dahl lived in the Chilterns for over 40 years of his life and wrote many of his most famous books for children ensconced in his little writing hut in the Buckinghamshire village of Great Missenden. However, his stories were often influenced and sometimes even inspired by the surrounding landscape. Roald Dahl explained in the pamphlet Reflections: A Profile of Roald Dahl in 1975, when looking for the plot for his next book he would “mooch around the house, the garden, the countryside, the village streets, searching and searching for this bright and fantastic new idea..." The Chiltern Hills were clearly very important to Roald Dahl and this area became the stimulus for the settings and characters in many of his best-loved books.

When Roald Dahl returned to Britain in 1946 after serving in the RAF during the Second World War, he settled down to country life with his mother in rural Buckinghamshire. It was while living in the picturesque town of Old Amersham that he became close friends with a local man named Claud, who went on to inspire some of the stories in Roald Dahl's adult collection, Someone Like You. In the documentary Middle English with Roald Dahl in 1989 Roald Dahl described Claud as “a countryman who knew all about poaching." He recalled how together they would go out into the woods looking for pheasants, however adding that “it was really for the fun of it actually. And we never caught one. And one day...I thought, I wonder if I could do a children’s book on that because it would be fun”. He was speaking, of course, of Danny, the Champion of the World. Not only were the events in the story inspired by Roald Dahl’s first-hand experience, but, as he explains in an interview in 1988, it was also “the one that was most dependent, purely on this countryside around here”.

Another of Roald Dahl’s children’s books which was greatly influenced by the landscape in the Chiltern Hills is Fantastic Mr Fox. In a TV interview Roald Dahl revealed that the book originated as a bedtime story for his children, set in the countryside they grew up in:

“I used to tell my children the story about Mr Fox and how he lived underneath a great beech tree which is at the top of our orchard.”

He adds that the actions of the farmers in the story did not only torment the Fox family, but also damaged something of real value to them and us all, explaining that, “the three farmers, in their pursuit of Mr Fox, they destroyed all of this. They dug up the beautiful tree, they dug up the whole hillside in searching for him and they didn’t find him.”

Great Missenden is also the home of some of his other fictional characters. Matilda Wormwood toddled down to the local library every day when her mother went off to play bingo in Aylesbury, and Sophie was plucked from her bed by The Big Friendly Giant in a little house on the High Street. Great Missenden and the Chilterns didn’t only feature in Roald Dahl’s fiction, but also in the book My Year. In this book, printed posthumously in 1993, Roald Dahl beautifully observes and describes the changing seasons with a real warmth and appreciation, taking note of all the changes in nature in the countryside surrounding his home.

So why not head to Chilterns this weekend, to see for yourself what Roald Dahl loved so much about this part of the country? You never know, you may end up seeing a fantastic fox in the woods, the ghostly shadow of The BFG along a street, or Danny and his father walking hand in hand across the fields...

While you’re visiting the Museum, you can also pick up Village and Countryside Trails to help you explore the local area.