Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Seven White Gates

Seven White Gates, the second Lone Pine Club book, faced the problem every successful series writer has to overcome: how to approach the sequel.
Blyton’s solution to the first Famous Five sequel was just to give the Kirrins more of the same, the main difference being that this was set at Xmas and the adventures had to be indoors, with secret passages. This was to be the pattern throughout that series, with the setting changing several times, but always in the seemingly safe, gentle countryside, but the Five and their adventures never going much beyond the template established in their first adventure.
To some extent, Saville would follow the same pattern with the Lone Piners, continually finding adventure and crooks and some form of danger for them to experience, time and again, though these disasters usually turned out to involve some kind of natural upheaval.
But like Ransome, who followed a sailing book with a shipwreck and an adventure on land, Saville did not want to adhere too closely to things that went before. For instance: Mystery at Witchend took place under the shadow of, and along the smooth, rolling flanks of the Long Mynd: for Seven White Gates, the action takes place under the shadow of, and along the broken, rugged flanks of the Stiperstones.
And whilst the first book was very much about the Mortons, with Peter, for all her prominence in the story, having only one sequence where she is seen without them (and Tom none!), Seven White Gates is her story, from beginning to end, and it centres upon her family.
And it is the only book in the series whose story does not involve crooks, mysterious strangers and threats by adults. Instead, it is a personal story, and a surprisingly adult one, about loneliness, loss and grief, and as the final chapter feast boldly pronounces, Reunion.
The story starts with Peter, at boarding school in Shrewsbury, nearing the end of term and looking forward to going back to Hatchholt, her father, her pony Sally and the Mortons, who are already up from the south. Though she’s evidently a popular girl, we see her as still a lonely one, a country girl through and through, whose interests lie at a very different angle to her classmates, even Margaret, who issues an impromptu but entirely genuine offer to come home with her for the holiday when Peter’s plans are so drastically disrupted.
Her father writes to tell her he has been summoned by the Water Company to Birmingham for several days, to report, and as Peter cannot live at Hatchholt alone, she must go to her Uncle at Seven Gates Farm, just outside the village of Barton Beach, under the shadow – literally – of the Stiperstones.
Though Peter is reluctant, this has to be: the Mortons’ offer to take her in at Witchend has been, politely, refused: Mr Sterling wants Peter to know the rest of her family. For one thing, which Peter has been unaware of all along, it is her Uncle who has paid her school fees throughout.
There is a story behind that: indeed, there are a lot of stories behind that branch of the family, details of which Peter learns slowly, and in bursts, including the poetic title of the book, but we can collect these together now.
Saville doesn’t specify whether Micah Sterling is older or younger than Peter’s father (here revealed to be named Jasper: Jasper, Micah: clearly Peter’s grandparents had thing for minerals!) and there are factors that suggest both possibilities. But Uncle Micah, both before we meet him and for most of the time he’s onstage, is painted as an eccentric. In his youth, he preached religion (and probably a very fundamentalist, Old Testament Christianity) and even now, with his great black beard, his solemnity, his black clothing, his staring eyes and his strange speech, he looks the part.
But he has made Seven Gates Farm work, by dint of hard labour, though in the process he’s made his neighbours in Barton Beach fear him, superstitiously, especially under the myth-haunted Stiperstones, with its crown known as the Devil’s Chair. He’s lost his wife, Aunt Martha, to an early death, and his son Charles, to a grief-fuelled quarrel, after which Charles left for America. He pays for his niece’s school fees because of Charles, though he has never seen her since she was a child. And he’s re-married Aunt Caroline (though everyone calls her Carol) who seems for much of the book to have undertaken him as a duty, a service, rather than love.
Uncle Micah is lonely, forbidding and all together off-putting. But he is at the heart of the book.
We start with Peter, at school, and the unwelcome disruption of her holiday plans. But she makes the best of it and we follow her as she sets off to cycle from school to Barton Beach. It’s a journey that takes her all day, from pre-breakfast until dark, and very exhausted, and it’s a journey with two encounters of great significance.
The first, and most substantial, is oddly peripheral to this book. In the morning, Peter overtakes a gypsy caravan: brightly painted, jingling, a handsome woman and a silent nine year old girl at the reins, singing, brown-faced man at the back, quite the stereotype. Not long after, in one of the very few overt mentions of the War in the book, she’s overtaken by a tank, in whose wake follows the panicked gypsy pony, dragging with it the caravan, with the little girl on board.
Instinctively, Peter intervenes, swinging herself onto the pony, calming it, halting it before a bend that would have seen the caravan wrecked and the girl seriously injured, if not killed. She suffers cuts, bumps and bruises herself, and comes close to fainting in the aftermath of shock, but she has made the rescue, and she becomes friend to the Romany – Reuben and Miranda – who are ever in her debt. The little girl, Fenella, makes Peter a gypsy whistle that she keeps with her always: if she is in danger, she need only blow it, and the Romany will come to her aid.
The gypsies will become her postmen, soon, but their part in this book is limited: they will, however, reappear every time the Lone Piners have an adventure in Shropshire. And whilst their portrait is still a stereotype – fortunes, baskets, hedgehog roasts, bright clothes and a standard of cleanliness that mightn’t meet everyone’s highest expectations – Saville’s children make friends of them without hesitation, and the loyalty goes both ways, with the Lone Piners forever quick and determined to defend their friends against unfounded accusations based just on their being gypsies.
The other encounter, though equally long-lasting, is shorter and more mixed, but it helps determine the story and its outcome. In the late afternoon, hot, tired, thirsty, pushing a bike with one flat tyre and no puncture repair kit, Peter begs a lift off an odd twelve-year old girl: red-headed, talkative, volatile and terribly superstitious.
This is Jenny Harmon, and she’s the Lone Pine Club’s next member. Behind that talkative, and seemingly happy-go-lucky exterior, Jenny is deeply unhappy and lonely. She lives with her stepmother above the General Stores in Barton Beach (her father is in the Army). Mrs Harmon is a shrewish, unpleasant woman who acts tyrranically towards Jenny (who is forever running away, with no immediate seeming consequence). Add to this her compulsively romantic nature, her love of books and her masses of superstitions about the Stiperstones, Black Dingle, Seven Gates Farm and Micah Sterling, and it’s no wonder that she begins by being awkward and unreliable, and even irritating.

But Jenny is desperate for a friend, and Peter recognises this. She’s only in this last year become aware, through having met the Mortons, how lonely her own life has been, and she’s prepared to persist with Jenny, and persuade the Mortons, sight unseen, to induct her into the Club. Then, she and David will gently bully Jenny into recognising that she is braver than she can imagine.
Because Peter’s determined, even before she arrives at Seven Gates, to get her friends there, and in Aunt Carol, who is a complete stranger to her, she wins an immediate ally. Carol is very aware that her husband, and his farm, is not the ideal holiday environment for a bright, active fifteen year old girl, and she wants to introduce a more youthful atmosphere to the farm, to try to connect her husband more to the present day.
So, as soon as the disused and almost cathedral-like barn with the whitewashed doors that are the seventh ‘White Gate’ of the farm proves to be an ideal indoor camp, and she has talked Uncle Micah into agreeing its use, letters of invitation go with the gypsies to Witchend: Aunt Caroline to Mrs Morton, Peter to the Lone Piners, and we’re on our way.
Tom is, of course,invited as well, but whereas David and the Twins can leave immediately, he’s a working boy, and Alf Ingles can’t spare him until Saturday. So, ironically in view of what is to follow, Jenny will join the Lone Pine Club without reference to him: they won’t even properly meet until the big feast after all the action is over, and even then their interaction consists of Jenny hero-worshipping him!
So it’s time for the Mortons to travel to Seven Gates. This means David in nominal charge of the Twins as they first bike round the Long Mynd to an isolated country pub, the Hope Anchor (which appears solely to exist to have something fit halfway between the two mountains), and then on foot over the ridge, on a crumbling, lonely, dangerous path, on a hot day heading for torrential storms. I’m not saying this is unwise (though it is) but it is incredibly unwise with the Twins in the mood they show throughout this book. Which is Next to Impossible.
They’re rude, cheeky, boastful and unmanageable, unwavering in their conviction that the Lone Pine Club is essentially for their benefit, and even more paranoid that every single word spoken between any of the elder children without their being present is a plot to make plans without their being consulted and more than likely without their being included.
It’s almost comic for most of this book, though that impression is somewhat leavened by the other role they play, but I don’t think I’m misjudging myself in expecting that it’s not going to be all that many more outings before it becomes entirely irritating, and crossing the Stiperstones in the conditions Saville has created, it’s downright foolhardy and bloody dangerous.
Needless to say, perhaps, the Twins will repeat their feat of last time out by getting lost both on the mountain and in the mountain, requiring another mass mobilisation in search of them and Macbeth.
What shades it for the Twins is their extraordinary reaction to Uncle Micah. It’s primarily due to Mary, who with a sensitivity that would normally be beyond her years, sees through the grim, offputting exterior to the very lonely, grieving man within. He, in turn, falls prey to the Twins’ twinness (‘like as two peas…’), though in fairness the only pair of identical twins I ever saw threw me, even though I could tell that the one I didn’t work with was the twin because, despite being identical, she looked like a stranger.
I digress. In the night, when Uncle Micah goes out walking on the mountain, unable to sleep, the Twins slip out and follow him up the lonely, forbidding Black Dingle. They get lost. They wind up inside the mountain, in the disused caves, slipping past a rocking stone and, being the Twins, test how much it rocks, cause it to fall over after hundreds of years, and trap themselves inside.
Thus another hunt begins. David, Peter and a reluctant Jenny comb Black Dingle, find Macbeth, and work out where the Twins are. Peter remains on the mountain whilst the others go to summon a rescue party. She follows a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Tom, released a day early. He diverts her along another ridge, to an engine house, that powers a cable car across the valley to the mines: when the rescuers return, finding Peter not at her post, Tom takes it into his head to take them across in the cable-car, only the brakes don’t work and they wind up in the mines too.
Meanwhile, inside the mines, the Twins have discovered the source of all the mysterious goings on in the mist that have been terrifying poor Jenny, not to mention disturbing the usually rational Peter: American soldiers on manoeuvres. They’re under the command of a captain with an inexplicably deep knowledge of an area he’s only seeing for the first time, a captain who winds up trapped, with a busted ankle, after a cave-fall.
But he is the key to everything. Mary intuits it, and she is right, and when everybody is safely rescued by the party organised by a suddenly efficient and aware Uncle Micah, she gets the old man to trust her long enough to blindfold his eyes whilst she brings the two together, for she is right to realise that the ‘American’ captain is Micah’s son, Charles Sterling, Peter’s cousin. And the rift can be repaired, and Uncle Micah’s heartbreak ended.
Hence the book closes out with a Reunion feast. Uncle Micah shaves off his beard, looking much younger, and Jenny forgets her fear of him and Seven Gates (though not the Stiperstones!). And it’s reunion all round, as Peter’s father is back from Birmingham and, wonder of convenient wonder, Mr Morton (in RAF uniform) is home on leave for ten days, gathering his brood. All’s well that ends well. And Jenny Harmon has met Tom Ingles…
I doubted last time round whether the foreshadowing reference to the farm belonging to Peter’s Uncle at the end of Witchend was in the original text, or whether this was introduced in the 1969 revision carried out for Armada paperbacks, about which Saville was so unhappy. This too is the revised edition, but I was wrong to doubt, as Peter’s letter to the Mortons, telling them how she has been vanished, has a harking back to that story integral to it.
One thing remains. This was the second and last Lone Pine Club book to be written during the War. Tom Ingles would not appear in the next story, and when the Lone Piners return to Shropshire, the War is behind and no longer mentioned, but he is still at Ingles, and still working for his living.
According to The Complete Lone Pine Club by Mark O’Hanlon, co-founder of the Malcolm Saville Society, Tom’s father served in the Army, but was killed in a German air-raid, with his wife and Tom’s baby brother, in Somerset. I don’t ever remember seeing that in any of the books (it is certainly not mentioned in the next Shropshire book, by which time it is a matter of fact), though if it ever appears, I will certainly reference it. It is difficult to reconcile that terrible tragedy with the normal, cheerful, even excitable Tom of this book, and we have to assume that at this time, in 1944, he is only separated from his parents by geography.
That is one of the problems of writing for children, when what you write becomes too serious for what was once believed to be their capacity.


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