The Lost World of North London

I don’t go north very often – north of the river, that is. My personal fiefdom these days doesn’t stretch far beyond the British Museum – but a couple of recent happenings have reminded me of my North London days, and I thought it was worth trying to capture those moments before they slip away altogether.

View from Parliament Hill Fields

My first proper job was in Camden. It was an odd place to work, as opposed to hang out, or shop, or drink. There was a whole other non-tourist Camden under the surface: the pub where we used to drink was a stones throw from the Worlds End, but it was down an alleyway a few steps away, and if you hadn’t been intending to go there, you’d have no reason to find it. This meant we mostly had the pub entirely to ourselves, and as the office had a lack of meeting rooms, we met in the pub.

I remember particularly the Friday after my first proper week at work (I’d been an intern for six weeks before that). We had, naturally, gone to the pub. I happened to glance out of the window, surrounded by my new colleagues, newly solvent and newly thrilled with myself, and saw an old-ish man walking past. He gave me a weary, dismissive glance – and it was, who else, Alan Bennett.

I wanted to run out after him and explain. I’m not really one of them, Mr Bennett. I went to Leeds. I know how the trams used to run past the Packhorse. I’ve been to Kirkstall Abbey. My mum and dad went to Beyond the Fringe. Don’t lump me in with them!

Anyway, this all came to mind when I read that Bennett’s former home on Gloucester Crescent is for sale. I never saw him again in Camden, and I never realised till years later that many other literary types lived on the same street (not that I would have recognised Michael Frayn or Claire Tomalin if I’d seen them).

I did wander the back streets when I got a chance, though – particularly in the second year when we moved to a bigger office in Primrose Hill, and some of those grand streets along by the canal became short cuts through to the new office.

Canal, east from Camden Lock

The book which taught me all about Camden’s literary hinterland, and brought back all its messy glory was of course Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. By genuine coincidence, the week I read about Alan Bennett’s house being on sale, I also went to see Stibbe reading from her new book, An Almost Perfect Christmas, and this brought on the sentimental urge to revisit my Camden days.

To be strictly honest, being a media executive in Camden in the Noughties is probably not very much like being a nanny there in the Eighties, but there were some things which rang true.

It felt a lot like the Camden I knew – Parkway with its shabby non-tourist shops including a pet shop that actually still sold pets, and always had a sad parrot in the window, and my first proper hairdresser where Darron cut my hair, Delancey Street with its posh bistro where I had to endure a terrifying lunch with my new boss and drank far too much, and the cafes on the High Street, (pre-Costa, pre-Starbucks and nicer than any of them) – Ruby in the Dust and Bean and Cup, you are still the benchmarks of my favourite cafes, all these years later.

Then there was yoga, which featured in Love, Nina, and for me, too. It was the year 2000, I was 23, and I was all about the yoga. I had been going to a class in South London, but the commute home wasn’t getting me there on time, so I looked for a class near to work. ‘Near’ turned out to be in a community hall on the stunning Maiden Lane Estate, which was a brisk walk from the office, and practically half way to Kings Cross – so I used to walk back along York Way to get to the tube, marvelling at how desolate and magnificent it all was.

I can barely remember if the yoga class itself was any good, it was the splendour of Maiden Lane’s terraces and alleyways, and those long walks through the wasteland of pre-gentrified Kings Cross that stay with me.

St Pancras, mid-regeneration (2008)

When we moved to the new office in Primrose Hill, I discovered we were close to the chi chi Triyoga, beloved of various Spice Girls – so I switched allegiance from poor old Maiden Lane and for a few months was able to claim I shared a yoga teacher with Sporty Spice, Simon Low. That was the peak of my Camden cool, as it came to a halt in autumn 2001 when I was made redundant, with a good chunk of my colleagues following at the same time or a month or so later.

There was a rather bleak period of unemployment – it was a cold winter, not a pleasant time to be in a flat with no central heating, or out pounding the pavements looking for temp work, but just like something out of a chick-lit novel, I got a week’s work just before Christmas, which meant I could afford to buy Christmas presents.

After an unsatisfactory 9 months commuting to Chiswick, (not recommended) and it was (too good to be true, another chick-lit plot point, but genuinely true) almost exactly 12 months to the day I was made redundant, that I started a new job back in the borough of Camden.

This time, though, it was Fitzrovia, and though the work was less fun and I missed the golden days of schlepping round Camden and afternoons lounging on Primrose Hill when we should have been working (no wonder we were all made redundant, really), it felt like the start of proper grown-up life.

And it opened up a whole new bit of London, which became far more special even than Camden had been, and led eventually to the year I spent in my tiny but very much loved Bloomsbury flat.

My fireplace in Bloomsbury

Finally, when browsing through my old photos from days wandering round north London, I found a favourite which captures the essence of Camden for me – the plaque commemorating the house where Rimbaud and Verlaine stayed (it’s probably nearer to Kings Cross than it is to Camden, but the same neck of the woods).

When I took this photo, the terrace was in a state so shabby, it seemed very appropriate, given their reputation for being dishevelled and generally disreputable, but it looked like it was heading towards being done up. And I am still amused that someone put a plaque up to commemorate that they stayed there for just 3 months – so fleeting, so pointless, but somebody out there bothered to record it.

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Further West Country Rambling

It was quite a thrilling moment, crossing the Tamar to get to Cornwall. I hadn’t gone to Cornwall via that route since my first trip there, and that was only to have breakfast at a Little Chef after getting off a Brittany ferry in Plymouth.

Yes, my parents were trolling me – I had begged for years to go to Cornwall, inspired by Over Sea, Under Stone, naturally – so what did they do? They took me there for breakfast. And then drove home to Essex. I held that grudge against them for years.

I’d been to Cornwall a couple of times as an adult – one brief trip over the border from Devon during a weekend break, and a proper holiday there circa 2002, but neither trip had taken us over the Tamar bridge, so I commemorated it with this rather poor photo.

and found myself remembering a favourite line from ‘Over Sea, Under Stone’ – ‘What’s he mean, Logres?’ demanded Jane. ‘He means the land of the West,’ Barney said … ‘It’s the old name for Cornwall. King Arthur’s name.’

I have loyalties and affections in many corners of the UK – raised in East Anglia, family roots in Wales, very drawn to the wildest furthest bits of Scotland and islands in general – but nothing quite matches Cornwall for me for magic, and it was probably the influence of Susan Cooper which put the germ of it there.

I did also have a great fondness for Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning, which covers the most famous Arthurian and Cornish legends with a light touch, though it didn’t shy away from the more down-beat elements of Arthur (spoiler: there’s a big battle and it doesn’t go well for him).

I hadn’t thought of it for years, but as luck would have it, the holiday barn we stayed in had a copy, and the 5 year old was enchanted by it. (She’ll come to Susan Cooper in time, I hope).

View near our holiday barn, Tregear

I seem to have veered off the original topic, which was meant to be a holiday round-up – but there was a point in there somewhere.

My daydream version of Cornwall as a child was all tied up in magic and mystery and legend, all of my favourite things – the reality I learned from this holiday is that Cornwall has buckets and spades and holiday parks and heaving beaches and cafes of questionable quality, just like any other British seaside district.

It isn’t all mists and stone circles and empty cliff tops, which was much more the experience I had staying there in 2002 – of course, that was pre-children, and a very different kind of holiday. I hoped to find more of what I had loved about it back then, but searching for wild and lonely places whilst also trying to have a family-friendly holiday is a bit of a challenge.

Holywell Beach, nr Newquay

We certainly saw areas which looked like they’d seen better days, and plenty of inferior boxy housing going up – plus some very nasty mock-Georgian stuff on the edges of Truro, which has a new Waitrose, presumably put there for the horrid grockles like us (and of course we did use it.

I suppose what troubles me is that in Cornwall, the place which felt like home to me before I’d even been there, I know I am truly an outsider. In Wales, I feel at home because I can pronounce Machynlleth without fear and know to say diolch instead of thank you.

In East Anglia and the Kent/Sussex coast and the Lake District I’m in the places I spent my childhood holidays, so I feel very at ease. In Cornwall, though, I’ll always be a grockle. The question is how to do it without feeling too guilty about it.

Staying well away from the tourist hotspots and the coast was a big advantage – we were beautifully isolated in our holiday barn at Tregear, with the most complicated network of tiny lanes crisscrossing the fields to get us there (I was reminded of what Britain must have been like in wartime, with all the signposts gone – how do you navigate when every field and junction looks interchangeable?)

View from Tregear Barns

The location, despite its peace and quiet, was actually very well placed for driving to either the north or south coasts, (once we’d escaped the jumble of lanes) and convenient for Truro and that damn Waitrose. I had assumed we’d mainly stick to the south coast, but we ended up exploring both, and I had a proper sense for the first time of how different their characters are.

Perranporth Beach

The huge stretches of sand at Perranporth and Holywell in the north reminded me of Brittany, and diving into the waves at the Baie des Trépassés, aged about 15.

This time, I was practically the only person swimming (ok, jumping in the waves and paddling a bit) there rather than surfing, and it did make me wish I’d signed up for a body boarding lesson. Perhaps signs of a mid-life crisis but when I saw everyone but me doing it, I wanted to give it a go!

The south coast, on the other hand, was more like bits of Devon I’d been to years ago, and we found some pleasingly wild places alongside the more manicured and tourist-friendly. I was pleasantly surprised by Falmouth, which was much more upmarket and yachty than I’d realised – the place to go if you want to shop at Joules or Fat Face – but was still somehow a proper place, not all full of Hooray Henries, and the maritime museum is brilliant.

Falmouth Harbour

And I did, eventually find – or rediscover – the place that really owns my heart in Cornwall, Porthcurno, but that deserves a blog all on its own. Plenty more to follow!

A walk around…Hever Castle

I thought I’d written about Hever Castle before – I thought I remembered the blog quite clearly, but when I went back to search for it, no such blog existed. 

Then it came back to me – we went in early March 2015, when the toddler would only have been a month old (looking back, I’m amazed we did such an ambitious trip so early on) and I was at the height of my Wolf Hall obsession, just after the TV adaptation had aired. Baby brain being what it was, I had never got round to writing about it.

I had read Bring Up the Bodies on holiday the previous summer, in the first trimester of pregnancy. I spent a LOT of time in a hammock in the garden of a French gite, reading and sleeping. The heart-wrenching climax, sharpening towards the fate of Anne Boleyn had, in my hormone-addled state, preyed on my mind, and when the same grim scene was replicated on TV I was right back there in that hammock feeling emotionally drained all over again.

So, (despite the emotional trauma) new baby in tow, we went off to see the Boleyn childhood home, (for purposes of admiring spring flowers, as well as the pursuit of history) and almost exactly 2 years later, we came back to do it all over again.


It was a little past the best of the snowdrop season, but there were still plenty of them, plus banks of crocuses and primroses – no surprises, but lovely nevertheless.


The site has good woodland paths to explore – possible with a lightweight buggy, though there are steps;  we barely did any of this last time, so I was evidently still at the stage of shuffling round at that point and the heavy-duty buggy would have held us back a bit. What a difference two years makes!


The part of the gardens we had explored the last time were perhaps not at their best – the formal Italian-style gardens were fairly bare, but I loved this sculptural heavily pruned tree with a splash of purple crocuses beneath.


Closer to the castle, inevitably the gardens get more Elizabethan – the most OTT topiary I’ve ever seen….


And of course there is a maze – thankfully an easy one, I went in with the big girl, let her take the lead and we were in the middle within minutes. Waaay too easy!


And another thing I’d missed on the first trip, an entire chess set in topiary.


What we didn’t do this time was go inside the castle – first time round I was lapping up all the Wolf Hall connections, and there was some fairly interesting history of the house itself alongside all the copies of the familiar Tudor portraits. 

Would be nice to see it all again without the baby brain-fog and take a little more in, but it was cheaper to just go into the gardens and it was a nice enough day to stay outside in any case. By the time we’d taken in the adventure playground, lunch and first ice creams of the year, we certainly felt we’d done it justice.


Now if Hilary Mantel would just hurry up and finish the last part of her trilogy, I will be able to get Wolf Hall fever all over again. (One other place I MUST go is Penshurst Place – very near Hever – which was used  as a filming location for the TV drama).

The Twelve(ish) Books of Christmas

This blog is rather unapologetically taken over by Christmas at this time of year, and I realise the posts have got rather repetitive (though rest assured I am not missing out on my annual wreath round-up, no siree). 

And then I remembered I had not done a post about my favourite Christmas books. Hurrah! Problem solved. And then in a piece of perfect serendipity, I was reunited with a favourite Christmas book I’d loved and lost years ago: 

 

The Lion Christmas book was a book I poured over for hours, all year round – if I ever wanted to evoke the spirit of Christmas, I simply picked it up and dipped in.

It is the perfect Christmas anthology in that it has a balance of stories, crafts and baking ideas, poems and non-fiction (‘Christmas traditions around the world’, etc).

There is a lot of religious content, but much of it used to explain Christmas traditions – the origins of St Nicholas, the legend of a frosty spiders web inspiring tinsel – and it tells the Christmas story beginning to end, including Herod and the flight to Egypt, so it pulls no punches there.

It is sentimental, terribly naff and much too godly for my tastes now, but I still love it. I was thrilled to find a copy on a charity bookstall and after years of wondering if I’d ever see it again, am delighted to own my own copy once more.

The first Christmas book I remember, though, I have never parted with (and no intention of ever doing so). I was surprised to discover that my copy from 1981 is a first edition, I assumed it was much earlier than that, as the feel of it is more 1950s-60s.

Nevertheless, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas is very reminiscent of my 1980s childhood in lots of ways, but with an added bit of Shirley Hughes magic – look at those lush borders around the edge of the page, hung with gingerbread men and all sorts of other goodies. 

In Shirley Hughes’ world, there are always roaring fires to come home to, snow at Christmas, real candles on the tree, (who ever does that, nobody in 1981 that I knew of) and Salvation Army bands playing in the town centre. 

None of that was really part of my childhood, but the book still takes me back there in other ways, as there is much that reminds me of the Christmas build-up – the home-made cards, the nativity scene, the waking up early on Christmas morning. 

It’s the tiny details that make this book lovely – the cotton wool snow and gold paper star on the Nativity is a particular favourite picture of mine, but it is also famous for acknowledging the times when Christmas isn’t so much fun.

Tom has a meltdown and goes out for a walk with Grandpa. As the book says ‘Just the two of them. The sun is very big and red’.

Simple, beautiful, and instantly brings back the memories of Christmas tantrums or cooking disasters or sickness (and she never ate blackcurrant Fruitella again), but also pitches you into a moment of pure sentiment if you, like me, wish you could have had just one more Christmas with your grandad or granny there.


Moving on from the slightly melancholic to cheerier things, I bring you Mog’s Christmas. This is much more Christmas as I knew it in the 70s/80s – more garish and kitsch, with streamers, balloons, tinsel and paper pom-poms, but rendered in Judith Kerr’s trademark soft pastel shades, it feels very homely and familiar. 

There is still snow, of course, and the story is so slight you could blow it away like a snowflake, but who cares, it’s Mog, and I love her.

That covers the top 3 books from my junior Christmas reading era, and to take it to 12 will mean either a very long blog, or several. 

I’m not sure I can even get to 12 books without more research and digging back into the memory banks, but I can do a quick run-down which hopefully may prompt me to return to this topic next year.

4. The Box of Delights: I loved the celebrated TV series as a child, but the book I’ve read countless times, one of my default comfort reads.

5. The Dark is Rising: such a well-loved fantasy book that it now has a Christmas readathon associated with it. I could write essays about this book, let alone one blog!

6. A Child’s Christmas in Wales: a staple of our family Christmas, especially the lovely edition we had illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. 

7. The ‘Little House’ books: all of them have a Christmas chapter, but my favourite is By the Shores of Silver Lake, where the Ingalls family are left behind in South Dakota when nearly all the other prospective settlers go back East.

8. The Armourer’s House: one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s less well-known books, set during the reign of Henry VIII, but it reaches its climax at Christmas and delivers a supremely happy festive ending.

9. What Katy did at School: for the marvellous scene where Katy and Clover unpack their Christmas boxes and find all kinds of goodies inside. Actually the Christmas chapter in What Katy Did where she plans all kinds of surprises for her siblings is rather sweet.

10, 11 and 12 still remain unclaimed. Not even considered A Christmas Carol yet, as I suspect I’ve read it far less than the number of times I’ve watched A Muppet Christmas Carol. Another 12 months to see if I can think of something to fill in those gaps!

A visit to…Ashdown Forest

The recent mayoral elections in London may have been a messy and unpleasant affair, but there was an added benefit for us: preschool closed to become a polling station, followed by a bonus inset day, suddenly a glorious four-day weekend beckoned. We won’t get many opportunities like this left once school starts, so we have to grab ’em while we can.

I had been longing to visit Ashdown Forest, the real location which inspired Winnie-the-Pooh, and it being very conveniently a short hop away on the Sussex downs, it was a nice easy long weekend option. 

As it turned out, roadworks in Tonbridge made the ‘nice easy drive’ a nightmare, but we reached our holiday cabin (found via Airbnb, the first time we’d used it since we stayed in in Hastings in 2013) and discovered we were on the edge of a smallholding with views like this: 

– and then we realised it was probably going to all be OK. Going out to see the sheep and chickens in the morning and at bedtime became a fixture, and I felt quite sure I too could easily keep sheep and chickens and live on the side of a valley in Sussex miles from anywhere – well, maybe. There was good 3G reception there and that does count for a lot.

We spent the first afternoon exploring our local patch and only venturing into the nearby town (Heathfield) to pick up food for dinner. The next day, we set out to explore the forest.

My first destination was the legendary, real Poohsticks bridge. We have our own personal favourite Poohsticks places, at Morden Hall Park and in Wales near my parents’, but I’d always dreamed of visiting the real thing.

The bridge is deliberately hard to find – I imagine they don’t want to encourage coach parties – but having missed a turning the first time, we doubled back and found the discreetly signposted car park. 

There were several paths leading into the woods, and again the one leading directly to the bridge only had a very subtle sign indicating that this was the right route. The big girl was keen to have a proper explore, so we took a different path winding in the opposite direction, only to find that it looped back, crossed a field and took us down towards the bridge anyway. 

So we rounded a corner and there it was – 


The stream itself was pretty lazy so playing actual Poohsticks was a rather gentle affair compared to a rushing Welsh stream, but we had a good go at it. Lots of sticks had got stuck, I do wonder if the huge drifts of washed-up sticks get cleared out every so often to avoid a dam building up! 


From there, we drove to the nearby Gill’s Lap, which in the AA Milne books becomes ‘Galleon’s Lap’, Christopher Robin’s Enchanted Place. 

From the signboard at the car park, we could see that there was a circular walk taking in some of the other well-known locations – Roo’s Sandy Pit, Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, etc, but not all these were necessarily accurate to the places Milne had in mind; it was more the case of retro-fitting the key locations from the stories to make a nice child-friendly circular walk.


Unfortunately, we didn’t have the leaflet for the circular walk, and yet again the signposting wasn’t great – plus it was, by then, a very hot day with little shade, so we didn’t go further than the clump of trees on the horizon (above) – the high point of Gill’s Lap.


However even just going this short distance was very satisfying – the atmosphere of Ashdown Forest feels exactly like an EH Shephard illustration come to life. 

It may come as a surprise that so much of the ‘forest’ is actually heathland, but the landscape of gorse, heather, clumps of pine trees and sand beneath the feet is certainly a favourite habitat of mine – nice gentle walking conditions under foot, lovely views, sweet smelling gorse – give me that over a trudge through Forestry Commission plantations any day! 

The lack of shade did deter us from going any further, though, so we beat a retreat to have lunch and in the afternoon went to the Ashdown Forest visitor centre

Here we found the leaflets for guided trails which would have been useful earlier on – and did a circular walk starting from the centre which proved to be a bit of a struggle with the buggy up a steep slope and a big girl increasingly unwilling to walk any further in the heat. As much as I loved it there, I do think Ashdown Forest is somewhere we’d go back to once we’re out of the buggy years – far fewer buggy-friendly trails than we found in the New Forest last year.

The next day was spent in a more leisurely fashion travelling on the beautiful Bluebell Railway – another place of childhood dreams, with dinky little private compartments making you feel you’re on your way to Hogwarts, and if you peer out the window (not too far, boys and girls!) the sight of real steam puffing out of the engine. 


Not to mention all the glorious retro and vintage signs which adorn the stations along the way – 


The line ends (or begins, depending on which way you go), at Sheffield Park, a National Trust garden near Uckfield. We had a few hours to kill after our lunch before the return train, so we explored the grounds laid out by Capability Brown.


To be honest, masses of carefully tended rhododendrons and artfully arranged vistas of trees are not really my thing, although there was a proper wild area with bluebells that had just finished flowering, but there were some undeniably lovely views.


We finished the weekend in the best possible way, by the seaside at dear old Birling Gap which never fails to impress:


The slog of a drive back to London was the only really unpleasant prospect, not to mention returning to a stuffy house which had sweltered for 4 days with the windows shut, but we counted ourselves lucky; based on what’s come since, those 4 days appear to be the main summer we are getting this year! At least we can say, we made the most of them.

Building a library for children, part 3

I am going into dangerous territory with this blog: I am entering the world of Twee. It’s not fashionable these days, and it’s not encouraged, and I have my reservations about it as much as any other feminist, but I do like a bit of twee, of things that are fancy, sweet and tiny and pretty and dainty.

I don’t know what started it off, but I suspect an early fascination for all things miniature went hand in hand with a love of flowers – I was very keen on making miniature gardens as a child, the sort where you put moss in a plastic tray and a mirror for a pond.

As we were growing up in the countryside with parents keen on wildlife, learning the names of wild plants was a given – and my mum encouraged this by giving me my first Flower Fairy books when I was about 7. (I remember the occasion as they were a present after I’d had a very minor operation in hospital, along with what became another much loved book, Little House in the Big Woods).

I think my mum – not otherwise a fan of fairy related stuff – liked the Flower Fairies because the floral illustrations were accurate, and didn’t just focus on pretty flowers.

She pointedly *didn’t* buy me Flower Fairies of the Garden, thinking garden plants are not nearly as interesting as wild ones – and the Flower Fairies of the Wayside includes some of the most despised weeds, including groundsel and goose-grass.

The Flower Fairies of the Autumn also taught me the difference between white and black bryony, and was my first introduction to poisonous plants and berries.

This came in useful when I was able to reassure other parents at the toddler’s nursery that the plant we’d found in its  garden was in fact not deadly nightshade but the less likely to be fatal (but still nasty) woody nightshade. Phew.

Of course it helped that when I was growing up, many of these plants were commonly found in the hedgerows so I was able to learn them and recognise them – I saw them all the time.

It won’t be quite so easy for a city dwelling child, but we have woods nearby which we visit quite often, and plenty of flowers in our garden have been inspired by my childhood love of the Flower Fairies, so I hope she’ll pick up some knowledge on the way. And knowing which berries not to eat is basic common sense information all children should learn.

The poems which accompany the Flower Fairy pictures are probably verging too much on the twee even for me, but some of them are lovely – and the fairies themselves, whilst some of them have frilly dresses (see Guelder Rose, above) are pleasingly lacking in glitter and wands and so forth. Look at the Blackthorn fairy, for instance –

There’s a hairdo that hasn’t seen a brush in a while!

I throughly approve of these wild and slightly mischievous fairies – they belong to the world of fairies Shakespeare knew, of Robin Goodfellow, of the fairy folklore in Edward Thomas’ Lob (one of my favourite favourite poems) and of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.

Moving on from fairies, though, there are also animal books which enthralled me as a child and still do – Beatrix Potter was a stalwart of my childhood, meeting parental approval again because the animals were drawn accurately from life (though as has often been pointed out, how poor Potter is at drawing people!), and the Lake District was one of our favourite family holiday destinations (my copy of Mrs Tittlemouse proudly has a label inside saying it was bought at Hill Top).

So we have already got a confirmed junior Potter fan in our household, with her own Peter Rabbit money box (alongside my original set of PR china which has somehow survived childhood intact – mug, plate, bowl and eggcup!)

The other animal books which I don’t think my mum would endorse (or at least, I never owned myself as a child, but always coveted) are the Brambly Hedge series.

This is an unashamedly twee world – a place of tiny mice, of pretty flowers and lace and frills and all things dainty.   But again, the animals and plants are all drawn accurately, and it’s the level of detail I love most of all.

I think it’s the cross section drawings of the mouses’ homes which captured my imagination as a child – the winding stairs and larders and corridors disappearing around corners were fascinating, and they appealed to my love of miniature things.

The Flower Fairy pictures never showed their homes, but Brambly Hedge imagined a whole world entire, with weavers and bakers and birthday parties and weddings. It was so complete, and so perfect.

I can’t remember when I first encountered Brambly Hedge, but what I do know is that any book showing cross-sections inside houses fascinated me – and ultimately it led to another enduring passion, my own much-loved dolls house. That’s probably a blog in its own right, for another day, though.

I have made up for the lack of Brambly Hedge in my own childhood by buying the books for the toddler – but I have resisted reading them to her too much – I love them, but are they too twee and girly to merit approval these days?

I also picked up Angelina Ballerina in a charity shop, but that I think is a step too far into the world of tweeness even for me and it has remained hidden away, so far. I love ballet, but I’d far rather the toddler’s first experience of ballet (when she’s a bit older) was the Ladybird book of Ballet which I treasured as a child (and how I wish I still owned it!), and of course, Ballet Shoes. But it’s a few years until she’s ready for either of those, so I’m not sure I can keep hiding Angelina Ballerina for too long.

I am aware that there is an awful lot of projecting my own interests onto my children here: fairies, dolls houses, ballet and flowers – so I should add that we are also encouraging trains and dinosaurs too, but we don’t have so many books about these. Perhaps I should be getting some recommendations….

Building a library for children, part 2

I have no shame in admitting that if there is a kind of childhood book I love above all others, that I could never part with no matter how many I own, it is fairy tales. It may have become fashionable to knock them – or at least the Disney Princess variety of fairy tales with all the stereotyping and traditional gender roles they bring – but I came to fairy tales from a rather different direction.

I wasn’t really raised on Disney (bar the classics like Dumbo and Bambi), and the thought of ever going to Disneyworld is enough to bring me out in hives. Rather, my first exposure to fairy tales was via Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book and Hans Christian Andersen. So the versions I read included the chopping off of heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper, and the terrifying fate of the Little Mermaid to feel like she was walking on knives when she replaced her tail with legs (though how relieved I was that she had a happy ending of sorts, even if it didn’t involve a prince).

Luckily, alongside the more disturbing versions of these tales were the picture books I loved most of all, Cinderella and Thorn Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty) illustrated by Errol le Cain, published by Puffin. I’ve since also bought (possibly my favourite of the lot) the Twelve Dancing Princesses, which I borrowed from the library as a child but never actually owned.

It’s the gorgeous, detailed, jewel-like illustrations which make these books so precious to me. Here, for instance, is Cinders dressing one of her ugly sisters for the ball…

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And here is the Sleeping Beauty asleep in her bed:

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Here, finally, are the twelve princesses in their magical underground palace, dancing…

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(Incidentally, how weird and mysterious that story is. Who *are* the princes trapped underground in the castle? Do they ever get out or do they wait forever in vain for the princesses to come back? The book doesn’t answer those questions and it’s always haunted me…)

Those pictures don’t even show the best of the books, but it’s hard to capture the tiny details in a photo – mice transforming into horses for Cinderella’s coach, the different costumes of the twelve fairies invited to the Sleeping Beauty’s christening, and above all the frames and borders of each page which are decorated in the most lush, delicate repeating patterns.

As a child, it was hard not to believe in fairies when presented with such fantastical, magical pictures, and if you can track these books down on second hand sites anywhere, I highly recommend them to anyone you think needs an antidote to Disney. (And for the record, I did have a ‘princess dress’ as a little girl, but also had a ‘Cinderella dress’ made of shabby brown stuff covered in patches, and a toy broom to go with it, so I could play at being Cinderella when she was sitting in the ashes).

As I grew up, my early love of fairy tales opened doors to more stories – British folklore like the Mabinogion and the tales of King Arthur, and the mythology of Greece, Rome and the Norsemen, as told for children by Roger Lancelyn Green (again, if these are still in print I recommend them – Lancelyn Green’s novel for older children about the fall of Troy, The Luck of Troy, is particularly worth a read).

Even devouring these books aged 9, 10, 11 or so, I never would have imagined what would follow – the fascination with fairy tales and mythology led me to what was possibly my favourite ever module of my English degree, Romance, Ballad and Fairy Tale. This course introduced me to the idea of fairy tales as symbolic narratives which help shape children’s understanding of the world and the journey to adolescence and adulthood (See: Bruno Bettelheim, Angela Carter, Marina Warner).

Then, my fascination with Norse mythology drew me to study the Viking sagas, which in turn gave me a yearning to go and see all the places for real one day – and thanks to that, I got to visit Iceland for a memorable weekend in 2009, followed by Newfoundland in 2011 to see L’Anse aux Meadows, the place the Vikings (it is believed) knew as ‘Vinland‘ in the saga of Erik the Red.

Who would have believed a childhood love of fairy tales could lead to such adventures and experiences?

So, for anyone who worries about whether their children should be reading fairy tales or not, or anyone who has neglected to read fairy tales themselves, I have plenty more weird, wonderful and inspiring books to share.

Angela Carter’s collection of updated fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, is most definitely for adults not children, but I read and enjoyed her Virago collection of fairy tales from around the world in my late teens.

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Worth owning for the cover alone is Alan Garner’s amazing collection of folk tales. Some very odd and fascinating tales here you won’t find anywhere else. I’ve also just been given a lovely collection of tales as retold by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Faber.

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For younger children, I’d also recommend the glorious, sunny tales of Joan Aiken’s A Necklace of Raindrops collection – no dark or troubling corners to be found here, only the magical illustrations of Jan Pienkowski and a world of fantastical and imaginative stories. (I also had a couple of other collections by her aimed at slightly older readers, The Kingdom under the Sea and Tales of a One-Way Street).

Finally, no house should be without Grimms Tales (as per the current trend, you can buy a Penguin Classics edition retold by Philip Pullman) and Hans Andersen – and it’s worth remembering that although many of the tales are psychologically quite disturbing and even more are downright bleak and depressing (see The Red Shoes, for instance, or The Story of a Mother if you want to feel really miserable), there are plenty of positive role models too – heroines who rescue the men rather than the other way round – East o’the Sun and West o’the Moon is a favourite of mine, and of course the best heroine of them all, brave, resourceful, loyal Gerda in the Snow Queen.

We’ve now become converts to Anna and Elsa in our house – despite the lack of Disney in my childhood, I have no problem allowing The Mouse into our house, provided it’s *good* Disney. The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians and The Lion King are all welcome, and Toy Story OF COURSE, (mainly parts 1 & 3 – 2 was a big disappointment). So far, Frozen wins on all counts – great songs, some very impressive set pieces of animation and a heroine as brave as the Hans Andersen character who inspired her. But I won’t be neglecting to tell the toddler the real stories too – when I look at where it led me, how can I resist?

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Me at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, 2011

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The day before, we’d been on a boat trip to see ICEBERGS! See what I mean about where a love of fairy tales can lead you? Icebergs, that’s where! I rest my case.