On the trail of Roald Dahl

2020 has seen unprecedented restrictions on travel, socialising and activities, due to Covid 19. For a considerable amount of time, we haven’t even been allowed outside our city limits for anything but essential work or health needs. This has led me to explore more of my home city of Cardiff. I have joined a local cycling group that organises guided rides within the city, as outdoor gatherings for exercise have been allowed subject to social distancing. One ride I joined was entitled “On the trail of Roald Dahl”.

Roald Dahl is arguably Cardiff’s most famous son, although Ivor Novello and Gareth Bale might have something to say about that. A former fighter pilot and intelligence officer, Dahl is best known as a writer of children’s books, many of which have been turned into Hollywood movies, including Matilda and The BFG.

Our trail began in the city of Llandaff, which holds a rare distinction of being a city within a city. Just 2 ½ miles from the centre of Cardiff, it was Llandaff that was first regarded as a city because of its cathedral, although this has never been confirmed with a royal charter. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Cardiff expanded rapidly, engulfing Llandaff which became one of its suburbs. Despite this, the district holds on proudly to its city designation, although it has more of the atmosphere of a village, a green being the focal point surrounded by attractive old buildings.

This area was familiar to Dahl as he attended Llandaff Cathedral School, at that time located around the green. Turning the corner into High Street we found Mrs Pratchett’s sweet shop, where a mischievous young Roald was reported to have hidden a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers. In his autobiographical book “Boy”, he charitably described Mrs Pratchett as “a small skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip, little piggy eyes and a mouth as sour as green gooseberry”. Her shop, however, did provide inspiration for some of Dahl’s other books including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Of course, Mrs Pratchett (or whatever her real name was) is long gone and the property is now available for rent on Airbnb. It’s rather large, so you’d probably be best advised to assemble 15 or 16 friends if you fancy staying there. A blue plaque informs the passer by of its connection to Roald Dahl.

Mrs Pratchett’s Sweet Shop

The ride proceeded past the cathedral en route to the Taff Trail. This Trail is a cycle and foot path that starts in the Brecon Beacons National Park and follows the River Taff to where it enters the sea at Cardiff Bay. The Cardiff section runs through a nature reserve as well as parks and gardens. We headed upstream to the suburb of Radyr, which was a separate village when Dahl lived at Ty Mynydd (Mountain Home in English). It was then a 5 acre estate. Roald’s father owned a shipping company in Cardiff and had become wealthy enough to move out of the city to this grand residence. All that remains is the lodge, which is now a bed and breakfast also sporting a blue plaque to advertise its connection to the author.

We proceeded to St John’s Church at nearby Danescourt, which is home to the Dahl family grave. Dahl’s mother, father and sister are buried here although the writer himself rests at Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, where he lived in later life.

Riding back towards Llandaff, we found Roald’s birthplace in Fairwater Road. The house is now called Ty Gwyn, although it was known as Villa Marie in his time. This is one Dahl location where you can’t stay overnight, unless you know the people who live in this private home. The obligatory blue plaque helps you find it though. Just up the road from here are the lovely gardens and manor style house of Insole Court. As far as I am aware, Insole has no connection to Roald Dahl, but it would be a shame not to visit while you’re in the area. Apart from the beautiful gardens to explore, the house has a little café for refreshments and apparently there are panoramic views over the city of Cardiff from the top floor. James Insole, who built the house was the owner of a coal mine. In the front garden is a memorial to the 112 miners who died in his mine – a reminder of the terrible price on which such wealth was built.

Insole Court – Photo credit: Phil Lewis, HSBC UK Guided Rides

Insole is just a few minutes from Llandaff Green, where we began and ended our ride. However, suitably enthused, I returned another day to Llandaff for part 2 of this Roald Dahl trail, this time solo due to enhanced covid restrictions. Pedaling downhill past the cathedral car park took me onto a walking and cycle path heading south toward Cardiff city centre. Riding through Llandaff Fields, I took a left turn at a fork in the direction of Pontcanna Fields. Looking right at the fork, Howells School can be seen through the trees. The school’s nursery used to be the Dahl family home after Ty Mynydd.  

Llandaff Fields

I reconnected to the Taff Trail further downstream. Arriving in the city centre, you may wish to detour a couple of hundred metres to look at Cardiff Castle. A fortress in Roman times and added to over the centuries since, the castle was for many years the city residence of the Marquesses of Bute.

Cardiff Castle and Principality Stadium

Back on the trail, I passed the Principality Stadium, home of Welsh Rugby and the largest indoor arena in the UK, due to its retractable roof. Built just before the turn of the millennium, this was not a landmark Dahl would have been familiar with. Instead, he was a regular at Ninian Park, home of Cardiff City FC, where he was taken by the family gardener. Ninian Park was demolished in 2009 when City moved to a new stadium a few hundred metres away.

The Taff Trail takes an unsignposted left turn at a zebra crossing, traversing a bridge and following a cycle lane to its finish at Mermaid Quay, a regenerated area of eateries and leisure attractions bordering a fresh water lake inside a barrage, which separates it from the sea. In Dahl’s day, this was the busiest coal port in the world. The centre piece of Mermaid Quay is Roald Dahl Plass, a big open space named after the writer and used for events. It is bordered to the east by Wales Millennium Centre, home to the Welsh National Opera and 6 other national arts organisations.

Roald Dahl Plass and Wales Millennium Centre

Cycling past the WMC and the Richard Rogers designed Senedd (Welsh Parliament), brought me to one of the few buildings that has survived from Dahl’s time here. The Norwegian Church on the waterfront was built for the many Norwegians employed in Cardiff’s shipping industry, which included Roald’s father. Roald himself was baptised here. The church is now an arts centre and café.

Norwegian Church

The final Roald Dahl landmark can be found on the bay barrage. Past a play park, is a model of The Enormous Crocodile, created in honour of his book of the same name. Just above here on a clear day, you can look across the sea to Weston-super-Mare, slightly north of the Brean Down promontory. After the death of his father, Roald’s mother honoured his wishes by sending their son to an English boarding school. The nearest one was at Weston, due to the ferry links it had then with Cardiff. Dahl was very homesick when he was there and apparently spent much time taking in the reverse view, gazing across the sea to his Welsh home.

Finding yourself on the barrage, you will be on the Cardiff Bay Trail. As I often do, you can carry on riding full circle around the bay lake, through Penarth Marina and finish up back at Mermaid Quay for some refreshment, perhaps at the Norwegian Church café? With the cafes closed though, I headed for home.

Factfile:

Location

Cardiff is in South Wales, about 150 miles west of London

Transport

The main railway station in Cardiff is Cardiff Central, which has links from many other UK cities. The nearest airport is Cardiff (12 miles), linked to the city by both bus and train. Next bikes can be rented from stands all over the city, via an app (details at each stand). They can be returned to any stand, although child bikes are not available. If you require children’s bikes, try Pedal Power at Pontcanna Fields ( www.cardiffpedalpower.org/how-to-hire ). You can find guided bike rides on www.letsride.co.uk in Cardiff and other UK locations, often free of charge. Most locations can also be reached by bus or train. Closest stations are Fairwater (Ty Gwyn, Insole, Llandaff and Mrs Pratchett’s sweetshop), Radyr (Ty Mynydd), Danescourt (St John’s Church) and Cardiff Bay (Roald Dahl Plass, Norwegian Church and The Enormous Crocodile)

Information

While the whole route can be ridden by anyone with a reasonable level of fitness, part 2 from Llandaff to Cardiff Bay is the most family friendly and also flattest section, taking in parks, cycle paths, quiet roads and cycle lanes. Numerous accommodation options are available in the city, including a camp site next to Pedal Power. Go to Visit Cardiff for details. Please check the latest regulations before you travel at https://gov.wales/coronavirus

Click the links below for other blogs on Cardiff:

Cardiff Bay & Techniquest

Cardiff Castle

Castell Coch

Cefn Onn Country Park

National Museum of Wales

Ridgeway Walk and Fforest Fawr

6 thoughts on “On the trail of Roald Dahl

  1. Yay The Enormous Crocodile! Joaquin has all of his books and just yesterday we started to re-read Esio Trot. Must be amazing to live so close to where these greats lived.

    We know he was a fighter jet pilot and an intelligence officer but we knew nothing about his father, so thank you for adding information about the dad.

    I wish they installed a pelican and a giraffe as well not just the crocodile. What a treat it would be if they added a massive BFG too! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now those additional sculptures are a great idea! They held a huge one off event to mark what would have been Dahl’s 100th birthday. Scenes from his books were re-created all over the city. F enjoyed immersing herself in the Matilda set. It attracted about 200,000 people in all.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Though in the normal scheme of things I would not have anything to do with a croc (except shriek and shriek and faint), this one is a cutie. I did not know about Llandaff, despite having been to Cardiff a couple of times. This goes to show how these local tours are fantastic in that they open your mind to what is in your backyard. Lovely post on Dahl including the image of the young author stuffing a mouse into a jar of gobstoppers (silent scream). A good rest of the week to you. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you and you’re right. You can discover a lot in your own back yard. Don’t be fooled by that crocodile though. It’s both dangerous and devious according to the book 😜

      Like

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