Who doesn’t love a good series? At this time of lockdown, my daughter and I are working our way through various box sets on Netflix that we’ve – well, mostly me – managed to miss over recent years – we’re currently hooked on Killing Eve. Bingeing on TV is great, but I’ve always found it easy to become obsessed with book series too.
My first great reading love was The Famous Five and I genuinely think they ignited my passion for collecting books. At that time we lived in Streatham, south London, where there was a second- hand bookshop we often used to visit after school. For some reason I associate each trip there with my mother buying me a bag of pink sweets – sort of marshmallow flavour but a hard texture – and this may well explain my passion for eating sweets whilst reading!
Back to the books… this shop contained a section devoted to Enid Blyton and I can still picture the row of Famous Five red hardbacks lined up on the shelf. Each week my mother would buy me another one of the series and I gradually built up my collection – starting with Five on a Treasure Island (was Uncle Quentin a goodie or baddie?) and soon extending to over twenty. My favourite was always Five go to Smugglers Top.
I devoured these books with enthusiasm and quickly discovered the Five Find Outers (led by the non-PC-named Fatty) and the Secret series (Island, Mountain etc). Next came the school ones which were even more my cup of tea: the O’Sullivan twins at St Clare’s, and of course Darrell and Sally at Malory Towers. Malory Towers was my first paperback set, followed by Noel Streatfeild’s Gemma series which my grandmother bought me when they came out.
Around the age of 10, I started reading the Lone Pine stories by Malcolm Saville, centred around a club founded by children under a solitary pine tree in the Shropshire hills. It was instant love. My mother had known of the series as a child – the first few books were written during the war when the author spent some time in Shropshire – and she liked them too.
My feelings went way beyond liking them. I literally adored those books; in fact, I loved them so much that I’d copy out sections just for the joy of seeing the words in my own writing. Gradually I collected them all; 18 in total, from what I remember, and persuaded my parents to take us on holiday to the Shropshire hills near Church Stretton in the hope of finding the house called Witchend where the children lived.
The fact that the books contained a disclaimer saying there was no house called Witchend didn’t deter me. I sent a couple of letters to Malcolm Saville telling him how much I loved the Lone Piners and received gracious handwritten replies which I still have. I was absolutely convinced that Witchend existed and as I grew up I kept the Lone Pine books, always believing one day I would find the house.
As an adult I often returned to stay near the Long Mynd, sometimes persuading my then husband to help me try and track down the real Witchend. We searched around rather vaguely but never saw any clues. Then one day an amazing thing happened. I was in a newsagent’s in Church Stretton and found a book called The Complete Lone Pine giving details of locations in the books.
Literally shaking as I flicked through it, I saw the name of the farm that Witchend had been based upon. Part of me was scared to go there – 20 years on from my original eagerness to find the place – would it live up to expectations? My husband and I set off straight away, with the help of an Ordnance Survey map. It wasn’t far from Church Stretton and as we neared the turning I became really nervous. Was this a mistake?
As we drove up the green-fringed lane – vividly evoked in the Lone Pine books – towards the house, I felt I knew the route so well. Then we turned a corner and there it was, nestling snugly in a small valley with the wood behind, just as Malcolm Saville had described. I can’t deny that I shed a tear or two. Finally I’d found Witchend and, just as I’d always known, the house was real.
As we stood on the hill above the house and I took some photos, a man appeared and started shouting at us. I was mortified. Was he angry? But no, he seemed to be waving in a friendly way. As he got near, I could hear he was asking something: ‘Are you looking for Witchend?’
I nodded and he beamed at us. ‘Yes, this is it. We have people coming here from all over the world because they loved the books as children.’
So it wasn’t just me who’d been desperate to find Witchend. We chatted for a while – he was lovely – and then left, feeling that I’d uncovered a special link to my childhood. No wonder those books were written so lovingly about the Shropshire countryside; Saville was describing the very house where his children had been evacuated in the war and he used to come to stay.
Another location in the Lone Pine series was Rye – particularly the Mermaid Inn – and the books sparked a long-held ambition to go and stay there. Earlier this year I did it. My daughter and I spent a wonderful day and night in Rye staying in Dr Syn’s Bedchamber (where the Queen Mother had stayed nearly 40 years ago!) and it lived up to all my expectations; atmospheric, beautiful and truly historic.
My bookish friends and I often discuss our favourite various childhood series – the characters are imprinted on our memories despite the fact we remember little of school lessons from back then – and it’s a real bonding experience. Seeing even one of those books in their original format gives me a jolt of nostalgia and delight.