How the author's love of nature and the outdoors inspired his stories
Roald Dahl spent most of his writing career living in the village of Great Missenden. From his house on the outskirts of the village he would go for walks in the local woods and fields with his children and dogs, or potter in his garden.
Living and working in the Buckinghamshire countryside was a source of stimulus and pleasure for Roald. His garden and the local area provided the seeds of inspiration for several of his stories, from James and the Giant Peach to Fantastic Mr Fox.
Roald’s love of the natural world went back to his boyhood. He would write his diaries high up in the tall conker tree in the family’s garden in Llandaff, later describing the experience as sitting in a ‘cave of green leaves surrounded by hundreds of those wonderful white candles that are the conker tree’s flowers’, hidden from the rest of the world.
While at Repton School in Derbyshire, he went for long walks in the countryside, scrambling up trees to look for birds’ nests or to follow the local hunt. From letters to his mother, we get a sense of a boy who was unafraid to explore the outdoors and get muddy or wet.
He later recalled these days in one of his final pieces of writing, the Roald Dahl Diary, published in 1992 and later republished as My Year. This book is a loving tribute to the British countryside, evoking both his childhood and describing his later life living in the country. My Year gives us sound advice in dealing humanely with moles in the garden, as well as how to hunt for autumn mushrooms and spot migrating birds.
Roald was also a keen gardener, growing prize-winning Phalaenopsis orchids and fruit and vegetables, including enormous onions. Today, visitors still leave onions, along with pencils and chocolate, on his gravestone in the churchyard of the parish church in Great Missenden.
Above: Roald Dahl in his garden © Sanjiro Minamikawa
His knowledge of gardening proved to be responsible for the look of one of his most despicable characters. We have letters here in the archive from Roald to Quentin Blake, asking him to base the appearance of Miss Trunchbull on a famous gardener, Miss Beatrix Havergal, who ran a school of horticulture at nearby Waterperry Gardens. She wore a belted smock and breeches tucked into knee socks, although there is no evidence that she was as horrible a person as The Trunchbull!
However, Roald Dahl’s love of the outdoors is best found in the books which are based on the landscape around Great Missenden. In Danny the Champion of the World, he drew on his youthful experiences as a (largely unsuccessful) poacher to conjure the stillness and majesty of the local beech woods. Late in his writing career, his depiction of Little Billy entering the Forest in The Minpins gives a us similar sense of wonder at the natural world, adding an element of magic as Billy discovers the tiny, bird-riding Minpins hidden in the depths of the woods.
Similarly, the story of James’ giant peach grew from an idea Roald had while looking at the apples growing in his orchard and wondering what would happen if they didn’t stop growing. He was fascinated by the insects in his garden, writing detailed notes on earthworms and spiders so that that he could portray them accurately in the story. And he located Mr Fox’s den under the roots of an enormous beech tree (called the Witches Tree by his children) that used to stand at the top of his garden.
There is no doubt that Roald Dahl used his love of nature and wildlife to colour his stories. One of his many skills as a master storyteller was to take the local countryside that was his home as a basis for his tales, to draw the reader into the natural world to find magic and adventure.