The Humble Garden Shed (writing hut) of Roald Dahl

I think that we all agree that the world would have been a much duller place without the magic of Roald Dahl. His stories have inspired children and grown-ups alike for more than fifty years with magical mystery tours like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to “James and the Giant Peach”, “Danny, The Champion of the World”, “The Twits”, “The Witches”, “Revolting Rhymes”, “Matilda”… the list is almost endless.

The birthplace of his most profound work has been well documented, although it may come as a surprise to some people – his Writing Hut – aka his little nest. The dream factory where many of his best loved stories were brought to life was nothing more than a shed at the bottom of his garden. He felt safe in his garden shed and often remarked that it felt like a little nest or a womb.

Roald Dahl found inspiration in his tiny hut which was kept exactly as he left it when he passed away in November 1990. He would sit in an old wing backed chair which had previously belonged to his mother, an extra cushion helped to make him comfortable after an injury from his days in the RAF when his plane was shot down.  Rather than an elaborate writing desk he chose to write on a green baize writing board across his lap, in a time before computers his brilliant stories were painstakingly written in his beloved HB pencil. His waste paper bin has not been emptied, nor the ashtray piled with tab ends from his addiction to Marlboro cigarettes.

Rather surprisingly, children were not permitted to enter the hut – he told them that ferocious wolves were inside to prevent them from sneaking in; his own daughters would always knock respectfully on the door. His children were sometimes allowed entry, his daughter remembering a sense of a laboratory or invention taking place – a sense of interrupting his deep focus and concentration.

His day would typically go something like this;

At around 10am he would make his way down the garden to the hut and sharpen six pencils using an electric pencil sharpener. The yellow pencils, Dixon Ticonderoga were kept in a cracked Toby jug. He would brush the shavings away using an old, inscribed clothes brush which he had kept from his childhood boarding school days.  His yellow legal writing pads were specially imported from America.

When all of the pencils needed to be sharpened again he knew that he had written for a couple of hours and it was time for lunch.  After a light lunch he would often indulge in another of his passions, a bet on the horses before having a nap and returning to the hut for another two hour writing session in the afternoon.

He used a paraffin heater and a strip heater during the coldest days of winter but still needed to huddle in a sleeping bag for warmth with a blanket across his legs. The light was not good but obviously adequate for his impassioned scribblings.

His imagination was not reserved for his stories alone. He would make unusual food combinations (marmalade with bacon anybody?) and use food colouring for unusual plates of food for his children.

He loved to eat chocolates and sweets – perhaps the inspiration for one of his earliest stories which has been made into not one but two fabulously successful films – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His waste paper bin was still full of shiny sweet wrappers and scribbled notes from his notepad. A large ball of chocolate foil is an ever present reminder of his sweet passion – dating all the way back to his days at school.

Other personal paraphernalia which was (and still is) present in the shed includes letters and drawings by his children which are attached to the crude walls using twisted paperclips. He later became very keen on picture framing with many examples present in the shed, in various stages of completion. His rather macabre side is also evident in his beloved writing hut – his own hip bone making a rather unique and unusual door handle.

The shed was built in the 1950s, the idea coming to him after he’d paid a visit to Laugharne and the writing shed of another literary genius – Dylan Thomas.  Dylan Thomas wrote in his own hut – “his word-splashed hut” – for the last four years of his short life. His hut was perched on top of the cliffs looking out across the Taf estuary, balanced on rocks and stilts providing a spectacular view across the sea and the Gower peninsula – an inspirational setting responsible for some of the most lyrical of verses to grace the English language.

Roald Dahl would make his way to his shed at the bottom of the garden, a tiny outhouse reached through a path of lime trees every day for more than thirty years.  The shed remained in situ in the family home at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, untouched for more than 20 years after his death until it began to fall into such a state of ill repair that his grand-daughter, Sophie Dahl, launched a campaign to raise £500,000 and save the garden shed, the birthplace of so many wonderful tales.

The campaign was successful and the shed was dismantled and moved piece by piece before being transported to the nearby Roald Dahl Museum where generations of his fans have been able to visit the writing hut and get some small insight into the wonderful world of his mind- his timeless stories and limitless imagination living on and exciting new generations.

Here are a few more interesting facts about the legendary Roald Dahl;

  • Roald Dahl didn’t start to write children’s stories until he had children of his own. His first children’s book “The Gremlins” was published in 1943.
  • His first collection of short stories was published in 1946
  • In 1940 Roald Dahl was involved in a plane crash over Libya whilst serving in the RAF.
  • He was working on his third “Charlie Bucket” novel when he died – “Charlie Bucket and the White House” which has never been completed.
  • “James and the Giant Peach” was almost “James and the Giant Cherry”.
  • Roald Dahl has been credited for inventing more than 250 brand new words – the majority of which appear in one of his most loved works – BFG – The Big Friendly Giant.
  • Among his own favourite writers are Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and William Makepeace Thackery. He was also great friends with Ernest Hemingway.
  • Born to Norwegian parents (Norwegians was his first language) he was named at Roald Amundsen, the explorer.
  • His teachers certainly didn’t recognize his writing talent at an early age – he was better at sports at school.
  • Roald Dahl died in 1990 and is buried in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. Some of his very favourite things were buried with him including HB pencils, a power saw, chocolate, red wine and snooker cue.
  • Roald Dahl has five children – Olivia, Ophelia, Theo, Lucy and Chantal. Olivia, the eldest child died at only 7 years of age.
  • Roald Dahl was a very tall man to work in such a small shed – he measured around 6’ 5”.

Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas are two very good examples of the potential of the humble garden shed / writing hut / little nest / womb / haven / den – call it what you like. You can never under-estimate the potential for creativity in a shed at the bottom of the garden.

Let your imagination run wild when you’re designing your garden shed or deciding what you want to do with that extra, private space. Roald Dahl is proof that you don’t need elaborate surroundings with modern technology in order to create something truly magical and unique. You need a space to reflect your own personality, surrounded by your own paraphernalia, stuff which is important to you. You need a space in which you feel comfortable, safe and secure . . . in which your imagination can run wild and free.

Whether your passion is for writing, for sewing, for woodwork, for gardening, for making models, for music, for cooking, for painting, for pottery, for drinking or for brewing your own wine . . . you can create the perfect space in nothing more than a shed at the bottom of the garden . . . or on a cliff top . . . or behind the garage.

A garden shed can be anything you want it to be with just a little imagination and creativity. Take the test, go and sit in a garden shed for ten minutes . . . away from the family, from the television, from the telephone, sit, let your mind wander as you are totally alone and let the interior of your shed talk to you.

Can you hear it? What’s it saying? Alright then, not to worry, you keep it a secret . . . .

Own this shed?

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