My childhood was one filled with books. In my spare time, I was usually found doing one of two things: drawing, or reading. My parents don’t remember teaching me to read; I just did it. And from an early age, my world, my life, and my head were all filled with stories.
I had various favourites over the years, but there was one series in particular that especially captured my imagination, and whose appeal outlasted many others: the Brambly Hedge books by Jill Barklem.
This was, a series of gently-evocative stories centred on a close-knit, rural community of mice. One story each for every season of the year, with a handful of additional tales; the Hedge’s customs, traditions, feast days, and way of life documented in a descriptive style that was both reassuring and exciting to me.
Part of the appeal, for me, was the rural setting. I grew up in a village, and – when not reading or drawing – was often out paddling in streams, climbing trees, or picking blackberries, just like many of the inhabitants of Brambly Hedge. I loved the outdoors, and the countryside, and felt an affinity with this world.
And the illustrations. Oh, the illustrations. Delicious Victorian-esque period detail. Tantalising depictions of cakes, pies, puddings and other delicacies. Perfect capture of the flora of the Hedge; each plant, flower, or fruit instantly recognisable. The essence of both the grand and the everyday. An entire world captured visually on a scale that was at the same time both immense and minute. Brambly Hedge was presented to me in such glorious, beautiful intricacy that I felt fully immersed in this world-in-miniature. Captivating artwork, at the same time both full of detail and full of heart and soul.
My parents thought highly of this series, and kept hold of our volumes – all hardback, some a little tatty with their dust-jackets missing, but otherwise cherished and taken good care of; far more so than many of our other books. These stories were well-loved, but they were also precious to my brother and me. And it was such a joy to me when my mum brought them out for me to begin reading to my daughter. And they have captured her imagination too.
Yesterday evening, my hyperlexic four-year-old (she was reading fluently at two-and-a-half) had chosen The Secret Staircase as her bedtime story. She has chosen it many times before. As always, she repeatedly interjected and interrupted my narration, journeying off on her own verbal flights of fancy inspired by the words, or eager to stop and examine an illustration close-up, for a little while longer, before turning the page. And though it was bedtime, and my daughter needs time to become calm and settle herself before sleep, such was my love of this story that I was bloody well encouraging her.
I’ve always been preoccupied with patterns, networks, and connections. I have, at various points in my life, created my own imaginary worlds as a way to entertain myself. And the layout – the topography, the landscape, the floor plans of buildings – have always been a hugely important aspect of this visualisation. I always have to make the physics, geometry, and geography of an imagined place “work in my head”. This can become quite an obsession at times.
It’s hard to convey the wonder of Barklem’s illustrations, and I don’t want to reproduce the images here without permission (but take a look round Pinterest, and you can find thousands – these books are clearly a passion for many). But one of the most magical, wonderful features of the Brambly Hedge books is the use of “cross-sections” through the trees, hills, and burrows that the mice use for their homes. A slice through Dusty Dogwood‘s flour mill, the Store Stump, or Crabapple Cottage, depicting the layout of the rooms, staircases, stores, entrances and exits – rather like a woodland doll’s house opened up for play, only ever more intricate.
And one of the things I loved to do as a young girl was to “cross-reference” the images – examining a particular room in a large cross-section image from one book, and then going to off to try and find a larger, close-up depiction of the same room in another volume. I never had one, but I would have loved to have seen a map of the entire Brambly Hedge landscape; nevertheless, the interconnectedness of the images allowed me to damn near conjure this up for myself, in my own mind’s eye. In this way, Brambly Hedge appealed to my holistic-yet-drilled-down, helicopter/magnifying-glass, “pattern” way of looking at the world.
And this evening I found myself doing it again – ignoring the need to calm things down and bring my daughter back to earth in time for bed, because on seeing one glorious cross-section of Old Oak Palace yet again, the need to go hunting for close-up images of its rooms in the other books was too exciting for me to ignore.
And my daughter gets carried away with it all too. At weekends, when we’re out in one of our favourite parks (which we have to do at least once every weekend – familiarity is important to my little girl), the beautiful mature deciduous trees become the homes of her own community of mice. We pretend to shrink down to mouse-size so we can join them for acorn coffee and a slice of cake. We make-believe our attendance at mouse birthday parties and mouse afternoon teas.
These stories – both words and pictures – fulfil a need for my daughter and me to think simultaneously big and small.
Other books similarly quench this thirst.
For my daughter, Sadie the Airmail Pilot, by Kellie Strøm – though vastly different in its illustration style from the homeliness of Brambly Hedge – is similarly evocative in its highly intricate, complex and detailed illustrations of transport hubs, cityscapes, and diverse weather systems and habitats around the world.
For me, the written descriptions of structures, buildings and landscapes in megascale in the science fiction novels of Iain (M) Banks serve a similar purpose; as do any fantasy or SF novels in which worlds are mapped out (I have to say, however, that I probably like the idea of Middle-Earth more than I actually like Tolkien‘s writing).
But Brambly Hedge was my first love.
I’ve realised there are a couple of books in the series that we don’t yet own. And I must seek them out, for my own enjoyment as much as that of my daughter. Revisiting these stories after so many years feels like coming home. And being able to share these stories with my little girl, and to see how they fill her with such enthusiasm, excitement, and inspiration, is, to me, the most comforting and yet utterly magical thing.