It was the middle of winter. The sun had just set anti was very, very cold. An icy wind was blowing from the Last and the wind promised snow. Deep in the dark roots of Brambly Hedge tiny lights appeared as lamps were lit in the windows.– page 1, Winter Story (Brambly Hedge #4) by Jill Barklem
Jill Marklem’s Brambly Hedge books were, like those by Beatrix Potter and Shirley Hughes, part of the bedrock of my childhood. I cannot remember not knowing that the tree stumps and hedges of the local woods held a vast community of mice who lived wonderful lives right under our noses and that if I walked the paths quietly I might, if I was very lucky, see them going about their business. As a child I often told myself that the slightest shift of a leaf or other movement in the undergrowth was one of the mice but the closest I’ve come to any rodent denizens of the local woods occurred earlier this year; a pair of shrews were so intent on their dawn squabble – about what I am not sure, since my grasp of Shrewese is non-existent – that not only did they not hear me walking up to where they were fighting but they blithely carried their brawl right across my boots and into the leaf litter on the opposite side of the path. It was a surreal and magical moment and I wish I had been able to capture it on camera but I was so taken aback that I didn’t even think about it until afterwards.
I suspect that the injunction to be as quiet as possible when we were out walking was more so that Gran and Mum could have a few minutes peace from my insatiable need to know the why’s and wherefore’s of the world than anything else. Yet being taught to look quietly and carefully at the world around me, not to mention learning the names of plants and animals that called the woods home and quite a lot of exciting folklore to go with it, was a gift that has not yet stopped giving. A huge amount of the stories I now write feature something of the folklore told to me back then, plus they are often set in the world of my Gran’s youth, on the borders of Wales, which she described so vividly it remains painted in my mind despite her not having been around to remind me of it for the past eighteen years. Her love of walking – the insistence that getting out in the air and putting one foot in front of the other on a regular basis was important, no matter whether you’re in the middle of a city or deep in the country – which she also passed on to me, has saved my sanity more times that I care to count. I need the connection to the land that walking brings; without it both my mind and body stagnate at an alarming rate.
Yet the most precious thing that Gran gave me was the ability to recall her. Like Proust’s eponymous madeleine moment the scent of the leaf mould and the fresh air conjures her to my side more surely than any spell or prayer and every time I see a tree stump like the one in todays picture I’m transported back to the safety of her arms as we sat together, reading about Wilfred and Teasel and Primrose, and losing ourselves in the magic of make-believe. That she is still present in her absence is the greatest gift of all.