Though he had published a book about Amateur Dramatics under a pseudonym several years before, Mystery at Witchend was Malcolm Saville’s first book in a prolific writing career that lasted nearly forty years. Saville, who was aged 42, had been employed in publishing in various roles throughout his career, and stayed with the industry for another two decades, only retiring to become a full-time writer in 1966.
Mystery at Witchend grew obviously from its home circumstances. Saville, born in Hertfordshire, lived in that county with his wife and four children, though he had fallen in love with Shropshire on a first visit, in 1936, to the country bordered by the Long Mynd on one side and Caer Caradoc on the other.
In 1943, over the age for active service, Saville evacuated his wife and four children away from German air-strikes, to a rented farmhouse in Shropshire. This set-up is mirrored in Mystery at Witchend, though the absent Mr Morton, flying planes in the RAF, being a London Solicitor, buys the old cottage at Witchend, in a narrow, wooded valley in the eastern flank of the Long Mynd, and there are only three Morton children, not four.
Separated from his family, Saville then echoed Tolkien, combining the experiences of The Hobbit and the fourth book of The Lord of the Rings, by writing his story for his children, and sending it to them in completed chapters to read and enjoy. The book was taken up and published by his employers, George Newnes Ltd, who would publish the majority of his works.
The story begins at Shrewsbury station, with the Mortons changing trains, from the London train, bound for Chester and Birkenhead, for the local train that will take them to Onnybrook, the fictional village closest to Witchend, Ingles and Hatchholt, the places Saville would put on the otherwise entirely real, long and rolling Long Mynd.
There’s a clever bit of unobtrusive foreshadowing in a chapter otherwise devoted to establishing who, where, what and why: an excitable man on the platform speaking an odd but unremarked upon form of English, demanding a parcel that hasn’t arrived, bumps into David and disturbs the Morton luggage.
But it’s all about arrival and settling in and the characters and Witchend itself, up a track off the main road. There’s Mrs Morton, a quiet, calm woman who shows the same complaisant understanding towards her children’s urges to disappear in pursuit of adventures as Mrs Walker in the Swallows and Amazons books. There’s the large and loud Alf Ingles, local farmer and Home Guard, and his cheery wife Betty. There’s Agnes Braid, widow and live-in housekeeper at Witchend, given to doleful hymns.
Most of all there’s our first look at our first Lone Piners. David, the Captain, is a sturdy, steady boy already accepting responsibility on behalf of his absent father: to help his mother, to carry out chores, to look after the twins. He’s the Captain already, though there’s nothing yet but his recalcitrant siblings to lead. His age isn’t given, but it’s somewhere between fourteen and fifteen, ages that will actually be ascribed to his soon-to-be contemporaries in the unestablished Club, and there’s already the sense that he’s older than either of them.
The Twins, Dickie and Mary, Mary and Dickie, are given as being nine, identical and utterly loyal to one another. The first is an obvious factor that takes pretty much every adult they encounter by surprise, the latter a key factor in their deliberate childishness and constant urge to be in the limelight. If you suspect they’re going to be pains in the neck a lot of the time, you’re right. Their babble is constant, as is their suspicion that things are being planned to exclude them. But their tenacity is clear from the start, and like all such children in these books, they do know when to shut up and perform, when it’s essential to play it straight.
One of the great themes of Saville’s work, and an explicit element of the Oath the Club will swear, is loyalty to one another. It’s a fine theme, and it is carried out every time, from the Twins upwards.
Incidentally, unlike the Swallows, Saville’s children were not based on any real-life counterparts, but the Twins come closest, with some of their conversation, and their early propensity for speaking in secret languages, borrowed from Saville’s two youngest.
The next Club member to appear is Tom Ingles who, like the Mortons, is an evacuee, this time from London. His father is Betty Ingles’ brother, he’s kept hard at work on the farm but, still being very much a London boy, preferring the cinema to the countryside, he’s absolutely delighted to find another boy his own age (though he’s not quite as patient of the Twins as David).
But it’s the encounter with the Club’s other founder in Chapter 2 which is probably the most important in the entire series, and which goes closest to the values Saville wanted to instil in his characters. The meeting is entirely natural and unforced: the Mortons are allowed to explore freely. If this sounds improbable, in unfamiliar country, remember that this was a different era, with different attitudes to what we now call Health and Safety. Children were expecting to explore and to get into and out of scrapes by their own resources. The Long Mynd is a mountain (in Shropshire: with my Lake District hat on, we don’t recognise mountains until they reach 2,000 feet) and like all countryside, it’s not innocuous, but it’s long, smooth, rolling. The Mortons are warned of all the dangers: the narrow valleys (or ‘gutters’), the bogs, mist on the summit, but they are trusted.
As is the way of all children in all remotely worthwhile fiction, they forget all these warnings, straying from the path, climbing the narrow gutter known as Dark Hollow, getting stuck in a bog. This latter is Dickie, surprised, caught, not quite on the edge of panic. And that that fortuitous moment, enter Peter.
Peter, or Petronella as only her farther calls her, is out and about on her Welsh hill-pony, Sally. She’s a tall, brown-faced girl of about fourteen or fifteen, her blonde hair worn in two old-fashioned plaits (in which they will stay for nearly twenty years). She’s immediately competent, the girl who knows this hill, back to front, and she immediately organises a rescue where David, uncertain on unfamiliar turf, isn’t quite sure how to proceed.
She’s natural, outgoing, voluble and straightforward, all of which, we quickly learn, comes from being an only child, who never really knew her mother, and who, when not at boarding school, has spent her life alone, but for her elderly father, her pony and her beloved hill. The Mortons are going to be her first real friends: she’s unused enough to strangers to first laugh at Dickie over his muddy, smelly extraction, but solid enough to immediately apologise when she’s furiously attacked by Mary for this infelicity.
Saville, in later books, makes explicit that not until this encounter has Peter known how lonely she’s been, but her friends are friends from the start. She takes them into her heart immediately, and she into theirs: Mrs Morton will claim to add her as a second daughter. And the evident acceptance each side has for the other isn’t just the writer saying so: the children slip into easy confidence with each other, and there’s an early sign that David isn’t going to be quite one of these stolid, impervious boys: having annoyed Peter by paying more attention to the Hatchholt reservoir works than to the swimming with her he’s come to do, he senses both her feelings and the cause of them and, despite being the better swimmer, lets her win their race.
This is something we’re going to have to return to throughout the series, and I’ll be more explicit about it in later books, but contrast this for now with how the mixed groups of children behave in the Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons books behave towards each other. And bear in mind this is 1943.
Though it’s Peter’s almost-immediate idea that the four should form a Secret Club, it’s not until the perfect HQ is found that this is formalised under the name suggested by Dickie. Exploring the Witchend valley, Peter and Mary discover, and Mary first accesses, a perfect clearing on the hillside, defended on three sides by gorse and the fourth by bracken, around a lone Pine tree, above a forest of larch.
So the Lone Pine Club is formed, by the Mortons and Peter, and though it is her idea, Peter cedes the Captaincy to David. If that’s a chauvinist notion that we now would challenge, sobeit. Once again, this was being written seventy four years ago, when attitudes were different. Saville is a product of his time and its attitudes, but the decision to give the big boy the lead comes from more than mere convention. It’s in Peter’s nature to recognise David’s qualities, even so soon, and she is entirely without ego: responsible, self-sufficient, but ever so glad to find others that she sees as equals.
The Club established, David immediately proposes Tom for membership, and Tom is only too pleased to join in: like Peter, but for different reasons, he is lonely, though he is a more introverted character emotionally. Having a group of which to call himself part is manna for him.
So that’s the Club, and its members in their first instance. They have their rules, and their purpose: to explore, watch birds and animals, and track strangers, the last of which will be followed far more often and far more assiduously than any other than their Oath: ‘to be true to each other whatever happens always’. They sign to these in blood, and whilst they are silly things and childish, underneath everything, that Oath is one of the things that is worth signing to in blood.
I’ve spent so much time on the establishment of things that there is almost none for the story itself. Having already read one of the other (early) books before getting hold of Mystery at Witchend, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the book was.
I don’t mean that in any patronising manner, but please remember that I’m writing as an adult here. I found Saville’s writing calm, collected and very natural, whereas in the other book, a lot of the time the children’s excitement seemed a little forced, almost self-wished. There’ll be more of that then.
It helps that in Mystery at Witchend, Saville came up with his best and most serious plot, with the highest of stakes that could not, afterwards, be equalled. The plot can be summarised in a few lines. Appledore, a house on the far side of the Long Mynd occupied by a Mrs Thurston, is the base for German saboteurs, planning to destroy reservoirs that provide drinking water to the great Midlands cities (i.e., Birmingham, etc.), crippling morale, health and production of munitions. The children exploring the mountain, encounter too many strangers, supposed walkers, RAF pilots home on leave etc. and get too close to Appledore for comfort. Their involvement exposes the nest of spies, who are captured by the authorities, though Hatchholt is destroyed by a bomb.
It’s a well-conceived idea, simple enough for its intended audience to understand it fully without necessarily getting to its conclusion too soon, but not so simplistic that the adult finds it improbable (the only part of it I have a problem with is how easy it is for planes to get so far into inland airspace and drop so many parachutists without being detected).
Saville supplements this believability by rigorously keeping every aspect at the level of the children’s understanding and observation, and by adding that Appledore was already under suspicion, so that the Lone Piners’ intervention was more a case of precipitating action rather than discovering a nest of spies all by themselves. But the children, though kept away from all the rough stuff as was completely realistic, are not wholly excluded from the drama: the climax comes with everyone heading towards Hatchholt, aware something is going on but unaware that a bomb is suspected, when the dam is destroyed and everybody has to get out of the way of the cascade of water, rushing down and destroying the previously streamless valley.
Peter even gets to thwart the escape of the saboteur with a whistled command to her pony.
All the details are cleared up in a picnic at the Lone Pine, to which most of the major adult characters are invited, as honorary members of the Lone Pine Club (Rules and Oath signed in pencil, not blood). Whilst many characters would recur throughout the series, it’s a little surprising that one seemingly major adult character – the home on leave sailor, Bill Ward, who pops up in the first chapter to introduce Shropshire and the Mynd country, and who is the subject of a major crush from Mary – never appears again.
I was pleased to find that I remembered much of the book from my previous readings of it. My renewed copy is an Armada paperback, and is the 1969 revised edition, which is controversial among Saville fans, and the author himself. The books were edited down to fit Amazon’s standard length, and the most ‘out-dated’ material (frequently in dialogue) was removed. Originally, I had the unrevised text. I don’t remember anything major as missing: indeed the only omissions that come to mind are two of Peter’s disquisition: from the summit of the Long Mynd, on the view, especially the Welsh mountains, and about her favourite book, Richard Jeffries’ Bevis: the story of a Boy.
And I certainly don’t remember the original edition having the blatantly foreshadowing closing paragraphs that reference the first Lone Pine Club sequel…