A first for me, not only a book review but, as an extra element to merely reading the story, I also visited the very locations described in the book!
Although I have quite enjoyed some of Malcolm Saville’s books, I wouldn’t say I was a dedicated fan. However when I found out that this story was set around my beloved home turf of Swaledale and Richmond, I was intrigued. This is a fairly gentle children's holiday adventure story with a slight mystery element. It is actually the last in a series (the Nettleford series) about a brother and sister, Sally and Paul Richardson and their friends. All the books are set in the children’s home town of Nettleford, except for this one in which the action moves to North Yorkshire.
The plot involves a holiday in which Sally and Paul are taken along with their friend Elizabeth Langton and her Vicar father when he swaps Parish for a couple of weeks with a Yorkshire clergyman so that his family can have a bit of a break. Before they leave Sally and Paul’s father gives them a mysterious note in which they are told to visit a Mrs Quegley in her bookshop at Richmond. There begins a series of clues and intrigues and they also meet a rather unpleasant red-haried man whom they christen ‘Ginger Whiskers.’. When they arrive at the village where they are staying they immediately set off to explore, despite the rather inclement weather! They visit a mysterious ruined house called Crackpot Hall, and venture into an exciting cave at the top of a hidden valley. They also keep running into ‘Ginger Whiskers’ and begin to suspect him of nefarious goings on! What is his secret and what does it have to do with the cave and the ruined Crackpot Hall…?
There is a lot to like in this book but for me it is the realism throughout that impresses me the most, along with the contrast to the more usual (and fairly clichéd) holiday adventure stories. The almost workmanlike denouement at the end of the book may perhaps be a little tame for those readers who like the rather garish adventures of the Famous Five and their ilk, but I preferred this more realistic ‘adventure.' For me this was far more like my own childhood in which children wove fantasy scenarios around real situations and people, and I feel that readers will be able to identify with this sort of adventure far more than with the unlikely kidnappings and various nefarious goings-on of Enid Blyton’s more lurid tales. In some ways this was a type of ‘Northanger Abbey’ scenario in which the children build up all sorts of wild and wonderful theories of what could be happening before finding out the more prosaic reality. Such is life!
Realism also comes in the form of the setting. Like most of Malcolm Saville’s books this was set in a real place and, despite the unlikely name, Crackpot Hall actually does exist - as does the cave, the town of Richmond and the River Swale. Although a few liberties have been taken with the exact location of some places and a few real villages have been amalgamated to form the fictional village the children stay at in the book, it is possible to actually visit a lot of the locations in the story (And indeed I did visit them – see below) The author really captures the character of the place and re-creates in words a very real picture of the locations. He even weaves the lead-mining heritage - a huge part of Swaledale history and identity - into the plot. This evocation of real places is perhaps Malcolm Savilles’s greatest strength as a writer and sets him apart from most other children’s authors of the time.
Even the weather is more realistic than (and a direct contrast to) most holiday adventures I have read. Usually long hot days where kids bask in shorts are the order of the day. However in this book the rain is pretty relentless. Apparently the author is writing from the experience of a long wet holiday spent in Swaledale. I can’t help but wonder if there was also some ironic contrast intended here. Just as the reader expects a deadly villain but is given something more real, so the reader gets rather more realistic weather than the surely idealised holiday adventure sun. Even the (for me somehow irritating) habit children have in these books of going for a bracing early morning dip is contrasted with the unplanned near drowning in the treacherous and icy waters of the River Swale. As I was reading this book a few weeks ago when we were experiencing the coldest wettest spring since I could remember, this was actually a refreshing change for me: I was becoming heartily sick of reading about the long hot summers in children’s books whilst I was shivering in umpteen layers of clothes! (Ironically, as I am publishing this blog post the weather has made a return to those old-fashioned hot story book summers!)
Despite this being far more realistic than most children’s adventure stories, the author still keeps the reader hooked throughout the book by creating a sense of excitement, mystery and danger throughout. The story is populated by various mysterious characters such as Mrs Quigley, Mr Scarlett and Ginger Whiskers, there is a sense of menace in the creepy ruins and the scary dark cave. And there are very real dangers in the swollen rivers of the Swale and the perilous remains of houses and mines. This weaving of adventure and mystery over a more down to earth backdrop exactly evokes the way that childhood imagination – without the need for computers or video games it may be added – can create amazing and magical worlds within the framework of reality.
Perhaps not a classic in the genre, but this is a clever, thoughtful exploration of the contrast of fantasy and reality, as well as a cracking holiday adventure story.
A friend and fellow Malcolm Saville fan and I set out from Richmond to visit two of the main locations in the book – Crackpot Hall and the cave and waterfall at Swinner Gill. Despite the previous few days being warm and sunny – a marked contrast to the weather in the actual story – life began to imitate art as we set out on a cold and grey day with rain in the air. I hadn’t actually seem either the ruin or the cave before so I was almost as excited as the child protagonists as we set up the beautiful Swale Valley towards Carckpot Hall. This is a very impressive ruined house set high on the side of the valley with a wonderful view over the River Swale. However I didn’t feel any of the menace which the children attributed to the place in the story. To me it seemed a peaceful and starkly attractive place. But to childish eyes looking for adventure and danger, I could see how it could easily be converted into a haunted house or villain's hide-out.
From Crackpot we headed further above the Swale into the dramatic deep sided gorge of Swinner Gill. Here the pretty waterfalls contrasted with the gloomy grey remains of lead mining and here once again it is easy to see how the wildness of the place could spark off many vivid imaginings.
The cave entrance was actually quite a pretty spot where a dainty waterfall trickled over a profusion of rocks. The entrance itself however was anything but pretty. I had somehow expected a large welcoming cave mouth but this was a low blackly grinning tunnel in which one has to scramble quite a way on hands and knees in order to reach the large main chamber. Sadly the children in the story proved far more intrepid than us. After a few feet of scrambling through the tunnel on treacherously slippery rocks, juggling both torches and claustrophobia, we decided to beat a sensible retreat. In the parlance of those fictional adventures we would no doubt have been dubbed ‘feeble’ but age changes priorities somewhat and being labelled feeble somehow does not have the menace of the threat of a broken ankle!
|The waterfall and cave entrance|
The visit was enjoyable and brought the book even more to life, however it made me realise that, as much as adults may enjoy reading children’s adventure books, they are far more suited to re-creating those adventures in their heads rather than in real life. It thus proved a fitting tribute to a book which contrasts fantasy and reality!
More info on the book and other Malcolm Saville titles can be found on the Malcolm Saville website