As we near the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth, Emily Scaife explores his connections to farming and the countryside and chats to present-day farmers who have taken a leaf out of his book.
“Boggis and Bunce and Bean
One fat, one short, one lean,
These horrible crooks,
So different in looks,
Were nonetheless equally mean.”
Before he was even born, Roald Dahl’s father was adamant all his children must be brought up with an appreciation of the countryside. And as millions see the new adventure, fantasy film The BFG in cinemas nationwide, the award-winning writer is back once again in the spotlight.
Anyone who has read Fantastic Mr Fox and its depiction of three farmers could be forgiven for assuming Roald Dahl was not a lover of the agricultural industry, or even a fan of country ways.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
As Dahl himself writes in Boy, which highlight the early days of his childhood: “Every time my mother became pregnant, my father would wait until the last three months of pregnancy and then announce to her ‘the glorious walks’ must begin.
“These glorious walks consisted of him taking her to places of great beauty in the countryside and walking with her for about an hour each day so she could absorb the splendour of the surroundings.”
He believed this would instill in all his children an appreciation of the landscape before they were even born and, certainly in the case of Roald, it would appear he was successful. And something which often gets overlooked is the fact he lived on a farm for a proportion of his childhood.
In 1917, Roald’s father, Harald Dahl, bought Ty Mynydd, a large Victorian farmhouse eight miles from Cardiff.
“There were many acres of farm and woodland, and a number of cottages for the staff,” said Dahl in Boy.
“Very soon, the meadows were full of milking cows and the sties were full of pigs and the chicken-run was full of chickens.
“There were several massive Shire horses for pulling the ploughs and hay-wagons, and there was a ploughman and a cowman and a couple of gardeners and all manner of servants in the house itself.”
A photo of Dahl during this period shows him and his sisters gathering corn in the fields one summer, shortly before his mother was forced to sell the property following his father’s death.
As his biographer, Donald Sturrock, notes, Dahl was ‘part of a generation of British children for whom the natural world was a source of immense stimulation and pleasure’.
His collection of 172 birds’ eggs was an example of this, and a few months before his death in 1990, Dahl wrote he could always remember vividly how and where he had found each and every egg.
His love of the countryside remained with him his entire life. Sturrock also recalls during World War II, when he was in Africa and the Middle East as a pilot and Washington as a diplomat, it was not Norway he craved, nor the valleys of Wales he had loved as a child, but the fields of rural England.
His collection of short stories Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life, centres on the Buckinghamshire countryside and the eccentric characters who live in rural areas.
It includes tales of poaching, touching on his weakness for lesser encouraged aspects of rural living.
His appreciation of the countryside often teetered into the illegal, and most farmers would no doubt have preferred him to remain a distant admirer.
Alfie Cook and Lucy Gowler as the Big, Friendly Giant and Sophie at Edward Gowler's BFG-themed maize maze in Cambridgeshire
This aspect of his ‘appreciation’ was encouraged by his friend Claud Taylor who, according to Sturrock, shared Roald’s interest in those ‘grey areas of rural legality’ and taught him much about horse racing, greyhound racing, Canasta, and poaching.
But despite his predilection to dabble in these grey areas, there is no denying his affection for the countryside, writing as he did within a garden hut and creating stories which immortalised the British landscape he loved.
Given his affiliation to rural life and his enduring popularity, it is perhaps no surprise many farmers and rural businesses are choosing to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Two farmers in particular have created impressive maize mazes to celebrate the author; Edward Gowler, Cambridgeshire, and Tom Pearcy, York.
Edward has painstakingly cut more than 1.8 miles of pathways in his 12-acre maize field to create a giant image of The BFG.
Believed to be the biggest-ever BFG image created, it stretches to more than 150 metres.
Edward says: “I grew up with Roald Dahl books, and my kids love the stories now.
“He has a fantastic ability to inspire and enthuse children to read. With this year marking 100 years since Roald Dahl’s birth, I wanted to pay my tribute to the centenary celebrations which are taking place across the UK this year.
“I decided to create a BFG image as it seemed fitting to put a giant in a giant maze, and it coincides with the release of The BFG film this month.”
The maze, located in March, Cambridge, will be open until September 4, when it will be harvested for animal feed.
Tom Pearcy is the brains behind York Maze, which is believed to be the largest maze in Europe and one of the largest in the world.
The image carved into his 15 acre maize field features a selection of some of Dahl’s most famous characters; Willy Wonka, the BFG, Fantastic Mr Fox and the Enormous Crocodile.
Tom says: “Roald Dahl’s stories speak to the child in us all and are loved by children, parents and grandparents.
“Throughout the year, there will be celebrations for Roald Dahl 100 around the UK but I wanted to pay my own special phizz-whizzing tribute to the amazing storyteller.
“Willy Wonka is definitely my favourite Roald Dahl character. He is an adult but still has childish qualities, incredible curiosity and excitement. He relishes nonsense and reminds us life is fun and we shouldn’t forget it. Much like what we aim to achieve here at York Maze.
“You can come to the maze and get totally lost in a world of imagination. It’s a great opportunity to bring the family out and get lost for the day. It’s the only place you can tell people to get lost and get away with it.”
But the celebrations don’t stop there. To mark Dahl’s centenary, as well as his interest in horticulture, David Austin Roses has created a new English rose in his honour.
The peach-coloured flower is a tribute to Dahl’s first major literary success as a children’s author, James and the Giant Peach, which was published in 1961 – the same year the company launched its first English rose.
David J.C. Austin Jnr says: “My father’s number one passion is roses but he also has a great love of literature and many of our roses have literary connections.
“To name an English rose for one of the most eminent literary figures of our time is a great privilege. This, combined with Roald Dahl’s love of gardening, makes a perfect fit.
“Following nine years of trialling, every rose which we introduce has to be special and provide a unique character but I have to admit this new rose has the extra-special Roald Dahl magic.”