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

(This is a revised version of the original essay, based on the full, First edition text, not the edited Second edition produced in 1969 for Armada, and upon second thoughts.)

First books in series are about set-up, second books are about how to follow up.
Enid Blyton’s solution for the first Famous Five sequel was to give the Kirrins more of the same, only Xmas, putting the adventures 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 never going much beyond the template established in their first adventure.
Arthur Ransome stranded the Swallows ashore for most of Swallowdale, and was constantly looking out for new angles and subjects.
Malcolm Saville would, so far as his stories went, adhere more closely to Blyton’s template, contriving adventures over and over again, either by finding hidden treasures or exposing criminals to the Police. But like Ransome, he was not content to settle in one place so, whereas Mystery at Witchend took place under the shadow of, and along the smooth, rolling flanks of the Long Mynd, Seven White Gates takes place under the shadow of, and along the broken, rugged flanks of the Stiperstones.
And whilst David Morton is perhaps the signature character of the first book, the sequel belongs to Peter, and centres upon her family. And the treasures and the crooks are still some way off, for this is a personal story, and a surprisingly adult one, about loneliness, loss and grief, and as the final chapter feast boldly pronounces, Reunion.
We begin with Peter, nearing the end of term at boarding school in Shrewsbury, an evidently popular, but still isolated girl, even though her classmate Margaret issues an impromptu but entirely genuine offer to come home with her for the holiday when Peter’s plans are so drastically disrupted.
There’s to be no Hatchholt, Sally and the Mortons, for Peter’s father has been summoned to the Water Company in Birmingham for several days, so she must go to family: her unknown and mysterious Uncle Micah at Seven Gates Farm, just outside Barton Beach, under the shadow – literally – of the Stiperstones.
It’s not very tempting for a fifteen year old girl, and the reality is even worse, for though Aunt Carol is as friendly and welcoming as can be, Micah Sterling, with his dark clothes, his long black beard, his intense silences and air of being an Old Testament fundamentalist, is not just off-putting but frightening.
What’s clearly needed, and not just for Peter’s sake, is the Mortons: the Twins are to be let loose on Uncle Micah, with a mission to cheer him up!
Incidentally, we also learn that Peter’s father’s name is Jasper. Saville never makes it clear which brother is the elder, but with the names it’s clear Peter’s grandparents must have been mineralogists!
Despite her disappointment over her holidays, Peter is determined to make the best of it, and be a dutiful and good daughter and niece. She cycles from School to Seven Gates, a long day’s ride made longer by two significant encounters. The first is dangerous: an Army tank disturbs a horse which bolts. It’s dragging a bright, cheerful Gypsy caravan, with only a little girl hauling on the reins. Peter instinctively, and at some risk to herself, stops the horse before there’s a potentially fatal crash, thus earning the lifelong gratitude of little Fenella’s parents, Reuben and Miranda. The Gypsies will reappear in almost all the Shropshire books. 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.
Less important, but more significant, 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 Harman, and she’s to be the Lone Pine Club’s next member.
In the meantime, she helps fuel the story. 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, albeit with no apparent 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 now become aware how lonely her own life has been, and she’s prepared to persist with Jenny. Peter has earned the Mortons’ trust, enough to secure their agreement, sight unseen, to inducting Jenny into the Club. Then she and David will gently bully Jenny into recognising that she is braver than she can imagine.
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 Micah’s second wife, who seems for much of the book to have undertaken him as a duty, a service, rather than for love. But she’s 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.
For though Uncle Micah has made Seven Gates work, by dint of hard labour, 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. Peter is shocked to learn that Uncle Micah pays her school fees because of Charles, though he has never seen her since she was a child.
With Aunt Carol as an ally, Peter identifies the disused and almost cathedral-like barn with the whitewashed doors that are the seventh ‘White Gate’ as an ideal indoor camp. Aunt Carol talks 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 the Mortons are on their way.
Tom Ingles is included in the invitations, but he’s a working boy, and can’t be spared until the weekend. So, ironically, Tom isn’t present for Jenny’s induction: they don’t even properly meet until the big feast at the end, and even that is limited to some brief hero-worshipping from Jenny!
The Mortons travel by bike, with David in nominal charge of the Twins, as far as the Hope Anchor, an isolated country pub that appears solely to exist to have something halfway between the two mountains. Then it’s 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 demonstrate, 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. Crossing the Stiperstones in the conditions Saville has created, it’s downright foolhardy and bloody dangerous.
Still, everybody survives, soaking wet, and everyone loves the barn, which immediately becomes HQ2. Peter’s delighted to have them, Jenny fascinated, and then there’s Uncle Micah.
His reaction is the standard fascination with their identical appearance, but their response is extraordinary, and quite moving. 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. Then, 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, Dickie being Dickie, unable to resist testing just how much it rocks, causes it to fall over after hundreds of years, and traps them both inside.
Thus another hunt begins. David, Peter and a reluctant Jenny comb Black Dingle, find Macbeth, and work out where the Twins have gotten to. Peter is left as a sentinel whilst the others go to summon a rescue party. She follows a mysterious stranger, who turns out to be Tom, 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, with Peter not at her post, Tom takes it into his head to get 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.
This brings us to the great Reunion feast, with a suddenly cheerful – and clean-shaven – Uncle Micah killing the fatted calf, not to mention Jenny’s fear of him. And there’s something for everyone, nearly, with Peter’s father back from Birmingham, and an unexpected RAF pilot home on leave, eager to see his wife and children.
Only Tom and Jenny are left out. Jenny’s father would get back from the War, offscreen and unscathed. But for Tom things would be different. This was the second and last Lone Pine book be written during the War. Tom 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.
It will be a long time before this appears in the pages of a Lone Pine story, but Tom’s entire family are apparently killed in an air-raid. 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. By the time it is brought up, it has become a thing of the past, buried in Tom’s emotions.
Overall, Seven White Gates was a worthy sequel, and survived the 1969 edit surprisingly well, though the detail lost makes the full book more satisfying. The introduction of the Gypsies was, and mostly remained local colour. Their portrait is a stereotype – fortunes, baskets, hedgehog roasts, bright clothes and a standard of cleanliness that mightn’t meet everyone’s highest expectations – but 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.
And despite the evidence of Bertram Prance’s illustrations suggesting that Peter is only as tall as a ten year old when set against her Uncle, she and David act and talk considerably more mature in this book. I don’t know how much of that was deliberate, and how much a subconscious recognition that if David and Peter were to share a certain accord, they had to be old enough to deserve it.
But they are more typical of the characters we will meet over and again, as, unfortunately, are the Twins. Let’s leave that behind for now, and prepare ourselves for the third Lone Pine book. Because three is when it gets to be a series…


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