Copyright Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd
- ENID BLYTON AT OLD THATCH
Starting at Old Thatch
It looks like a fairy tale house, but it is real and special. Old Thatch is a 17th century thatched home - too impressive to be called a “cottage” - on the banks of the Thames, about 40 kms west of London in Coldmoorholme Lane, Bourne End, Buckinghamshire. It is a perfect setting to inspire a writer with a vivid imagination, which is one reason children’s author Enid Blyton penned many of her most memorable stories here. Old Thatch was Enid Blyton’s home from 1929 to 1938, and where her two daughters, Gillian and Imogen, were born.
As Blyton related in “The Story of My Life”, Old Thatch appealed to her because it was “exactly like a house in a fairy-tale of long ago.” It appeared in many of her books when the story called for a cottage or an inn. She had a strong sense that her time in the home was just a snippet of its long, fascinating history.
“It had once been a cosy little inn called the Rose and Crown, and many people had been happy there,” Blyton wrote. “For that reason I used to think the house had a lovely feel to it – friendly, happy, welcoming. It had an old well with a bucket to wind up and down, it had hidden treasure that nobody could ever find, and it even had a ‘ghost’.”
“There was a beautiful lych gate, with a thatched roof of its own, for a front entrance to the garden. There were thousands of crocuses in the spring-time. There was a pond where the water-hens nested every year, bringing up families of busy little chicks, bobbing merrily up and down on the water.”
The garden also had “several fine old yew trees and an orchard with apples and pears in abundance,” Blyton wrote in her magazine, Letter to Children. She described “a large, somewhat overgrown lily pond, a rosewalk, a kitchen garden ‘with everything growing there that you could possibly want’, a small wood and a brook ‘with a little bridge of its own’.”
Old Thatch and its surrounds experience the best of the four seasons – riverside fun in summer, leafy autumns, cosy firesides on wintry days and spring blossoms. A keen gardener who wrote numerous gardening and nature books for children, including Hedgerow Tales and Let’s Garden, Blyton would delight in the beauty of the Old Thatch gardens today. This important piece of heritage is being well cared for and enhanced by current owners, Jacky and David Hawthorne, who have lavished care and attention on the house since they bought it in 1994. It has never looked better and has recently been re-thatched with reed, designed to last a century.
Old Thatch is worth a visit on weekend and Bank Holiday afternoons in late spring and summer, when the Hawthornes open it up for those who enjoy a good ramble around an exquisite English country garden followed by “tea and scrummy cake”. A garden designer by profession, Jacky Hawthorne has weaved her creative magic across the two acres, resulting in Old Thatch being awarded one-star status in the Telegraph Good Gardens Guide from 2008. To put that honour in context, two stars is the only other accolade awarded under the scheme, and that goes to gardens of stately homes covering hundreds of acres.
The highly coveted star puts Old Thatch in the top seven percent of gardens open to the public in the British Isles and Ireland, another good reason for visiting it aside from the Blyton connection. Given the imagination and skill Jacky Hawthorne has used in breathing new life into the garden, it is not surprising that her services are in strong demand from residents across Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and west London. See www.jackyhawthorne.co.uk.
Another “must see” for Blyton fans is the Enid Blyton room at the Red Lion pub, Knotty Green, Beaconsfield, four miles away. Initiated by Bob and Tina Massie (yes, Aussie cricket fans will smile), the room’s books and prints were donated by members of the Enid Blyton society - which can be found at: www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk.
The room is listed in the Buckinghamshire Tourism Guide: www.visitbuckinghamshire.org/site/literary-connections. Enid Blyton and her family moved to “Green Hedges” in Beaconsfield after leaving Old Thatch.
Even many Bourne End residents who number themselves as Blyton fans do not realise that the author set one of her most popular, and many would argue her best, series of children’s novels in their village and surrounds. More than 60 years after it first appeared, the “Mystery” series, published from 1943 to 1961, still sells around 800,000 copies a year around the world in dozens of languages.
The 180-page books first appeared in different-coloured hardcovers, with a magnifying glass and fingerprint in the corners. Wrapped around each book was a well-illustrated dust jacket. Intact first and early editions are eagerly sought after, with prices soaring.
To a certain extent, the Mystery series was overshadowed by the phenomenal popularity of the Famous Five books about a different group of children (Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the dog) which owed many of their settings to another part of England – Dorset, where Enid Blyton and her family often holidayed. For those keen to follow that trail, author Vivienne Endecott sets it out well in The Dorset Days of Enid Blyton (www.gingerpop.co.uk). Blyton devotees would also enjoy The Ginger Pop Shop in the Square in Corfe, Dorset, where Vivienne sells all manner of Blyton books and memorabilia, and in true Blyton style, “lashings’’ of ginger pop.
Popular as the Famous Five were, however, many regard the Mystery books as the cleverest, funniest and best plotted books Enid Blyton produced out of her 700 published works. The 15 children’s novels featured a group of amateur child detectives who called themselves the “Five Find-Outers and Dog”. They included Fatty, the genius head of the group whose wit, tricks and disguises enlivened the action, Larry the eldest, Daisy his sister, Pip and his younger sister Bets, along with Buster, Fatty’s black Scottie. At the time the series starts, Larry was 13, Fatty, Pip and Daisy were 12 and Bets was 8. And unlike other Blyton series, the children grew older as the stories unfolded.
From The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage, the first in the series, through many more school holidays, the Find-Outers solved a raft of peculiar crime mysteries, outwitting the hapless local bobby, PC Goon, and raising plenty of laughs.
Peterswood, the fictitious village where the children lived, was based on Blyton’s Bourne End. A settlement there was first mapped as “Burnend” in 1236, meaning “end of the stream”, where the Bourne joins the Thames.
In the Mystery books, the local stream is referred to in The Mystery of the Hidden House. A local wood, with a closed-up house full of secrets in the middle, is Bourne Wood.3
In the main street of Bourne End, the road signposts point to names familiar to Find-Outer fans. And even for those who have never heard of the series, the signposts point (in miles) to some of south-east England’s most interesting places and glorious countryside: Burnham Beeches 5; Cliveden 2; Beaconsfield (where Enid Blyton lived at Green Hedges after leaving Bourne End) 4; Marlow 3; Maidenhead 4; Taplow 2. All are close to the Buckinghamshire/Berkshire border in the Thames Valley, between the M4 (exit at Junctions 7, 8 or 9) and M40 (exit at Junctions 2, 3 or 4) Motorways.
Regardless of whether readers first encountered some of these place names in a Mystery book on the beach in Australia over the long, hot Christmas holidays, in one of India’s teeming cities, on crowded London trains or in a foreign language, the signposts are a clue (or “glue” as Bets, the youngest Find-Outer used to say early in the series). A clue to what? A clue to the real world of the Mystery books, as well as a gateway to some “must see” locations.
Many of the Find-Outer settings were part of the early childhood landscape of Gillian, Enid Blyton’s elder daughter, who was seven when the family left Bourne End. In 2002, at her home in Ilkley, Yorkshire, where she had her mother’s writing desk from Bourne End and her garden statue of a small girl absorbed in a book, Mrs Gillian Baverstock, by then a grandmother herself, recalled life in Bourne End. She drew numerous parallels between the childhood she remembered and what the Find-Outers did in the books.
One of her strongest memories of that much safer time was riding her bicycle to Burnham Beeches for picnics in spring. “May was the time to go, when the ground was carpeted in bluebells,” Gillian recalled. Much of the ground is still carpeted in bluebells in May in what is one of Britain’s most ancient woodlands, a 220 hectare (540 acre) haven for plants and wildlife, owned by the City of London Corporation. It is dominated by the vast beeches, which attract 500,000 visitors a year. For instructions on finding it, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/living_environment/open_spaces/burnham.htm.
In the Mystery books, Burnham Beeches was a favourite Find-Outers picnic spot:
“Let’s take our lunch with us and go to Burnham Beeches,” said Larry in The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters. “We’ll have grand fun there, you should just see some of the beeches, Bets – enormous old giants all gnarled and knotted, and some of them really seem to have faces in their knotted old trunks!”
“Oooh – I’d like to go,” said Bets. “I’m big enough to ride all the way with you this year. Mummy wouldn’t let me last year” when she had to be content with a bunch of primroses brought back from the excursion by Fatty in The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage.4
Gillian also recalled the real-life police Inspector – Stephen Jenkins from the nearby Buckinghamshire town of Gerrard’s Cross – on whom her mother modelled Inspector Jenks, who appeared in all the Mystery books. “They were friends, she admired him and he admired the books and was tickled pink to be included,” Gillian said. As her mother wrote in The Mystery of the Missing Necklace:
Inspector Jenks was their very good friend. He was what Bets called “a very high-up policeman,” and he belonged to the next big town. In the four mysteries the children had solved before, Inspector Jenks had come in at the end, and been very pleased indeed at all the children had found out. Mr Goon, however, had not been so pleased, because it was most annoying to him to have those “interfering children messing about with the Law” – especially when they had actually found out things he hadn’t.
In the main, the Mystery books were a series of “who dunits?” Who burnt the cottage? Stole the Siamese cat? Hid the precious necklace? Sent the Strange Messages? The children also set out to get to the bottom of puzzling questions such as: What secrets are hidden in one barred upstairs room of the deserted Milton House in Chestnut Lane? Why did a tiny red boat in a valuable sea picture at Banshee Towers apparently disappear overnight – is it art fraud? Can the thief who leaves large footprints and gloveprints really be invisible? What was in the Strange Bundle? Are fraudsters hiding in Tally-Ho House or cottage? Such questions kept them and millions of readers occupied in school holidays for years.
Entering their world also meant laughing at tricks, jokes, ventriloquism and disguises. In different books, Fatty posed as a waxworks Napoleon to eavesdrop on a gang of thieves, dressed up as an old balloon woman, as a butcher’s boy with red hair, an old tramp, a mysterious foreigner, a French boy with a limp and as a palm reader who read PC Goon’s hand and extracted a shilling for a raffle ticket. As early as book three, The Mystery of the Secret Room, it was clear that Fatty, who was a born actor as well as a born detective, artist, mathematician, linguist, writer, leader, skier, tennis player and an all-round genius, had a good knowledge of London’s theatre land. He attended a show with his mother in that book for his 13th birthday, but conveniently slipped away to buy the props he needed for his first attempt at disguises, which later became a significant part of the series.
Among all of Blyton’s characters in her 700 books, Fatty, like George in the Famous Five (who was partly modelled on herself as a girl) stood out. Little has been known about who, if anyone, Fatty was based on and even Gillian Baverstock believed that he was totally “made up”. Enid Blyton Society president Tony Summerfield, however, produced a copy of a handwritten letter - (see copy on page 8) - from Enid Blyton, dated July 1962 and written in Dorset, where she holidayed and set some of her “Famous Five” books. The letter was provided to the society by Trevor Bolton. In it, Enid told a group of young fans: “Fatty is based on a rascal of a boy I knew.” Who and where remains a mystery, but further insights would be welcomed.
Stepping back into the Find-Outers’ world also means walking beside the Thames River path, catching the London train, boating, exploring a stately mansion such as Cliveden near Taplow or discovering the charms of nearby villages. Many places close to Bourne End open pathways to other writers who lived in the general vicinity. These include Milton, Thomas Gray, G.K. Chesterton, Kenneth Grahame and the Shelleys. Along the way, as the Find-Outers often did, take time to enjoy hot chocolate in winter or to guzzle lemonade and ices in the summer. Or perhaps visit one of the many country pubs full of atmosphere and history, such as The Red Lion or The Spade Oak which can be found right beside Old Thatch.
Enjoy the adventure.