Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – The Secret of Grey Walls

(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.)

The Secret of Grey Walls was the first Lone Pine Club book I re-read after probably three decades, and I had the advantage of a First Edition copy, loaned me by an internet friend, to whom I owe the inspiration for this series. It’s also the only book in the series to feature the entire Club (as it then was), with Jon and Penny Warrender meeting Tom and Jenny for the only time, and being formally inducted, in the Club’s third HQ. This brings the scene back to Shropshire, though once again Saville keeps things fresh, firstly by setting the story in winter, and secondly by transplanting everyone to the quiet town of Clun, in the southwest corner of the county.
By now, the series was so well established that Saville was in regular touch with readers, who wrote to him care of the publishers, and to whom he replied personally. The feedback from his audience gave him a clear understanding of their expectations, and The Secret of Grey Walls contains a direct address to their concerns.
Saville acknowledges that many of his readers (which we can take to be a majority) have asked him to keep the Lone Piners at their current age, and that he agrees to do so. Easters and summers and winters cycle over and over again, and the years get further and further away from the wartime meeting of the Mortons and Peter, but the Lone Piners’ ages remain steady.
Or do they? Saville incorporates a separate section in this and all the remaining books, briefly identifying the Lone Piners who appear in the current book, and those who don’t. David, Peter and Jon are all fixed at sixteen, with Tom fifteen-and-a-half, though he’s already been at Ingles’ farm for two years, and becoming quite the countryman. Jenny is ‘nearly fifteen’ and Penny a year younger than Jon. But Jenny was introduced as being about twelve in Seven White Gates, to Peter’s fifteen.
We’re just going to have to not take this quite seriously, because in future books, the Club members’ ages are in a near-permanent state of time-flux, with the various age relationships shifting more than somewhat!
The story starts at Witchend, between Xmas and New Year. The Mortons are up from London, Peter is riding over every day and everything is quite comfortable when Saville upsets the scene via two simultaneously delivered letters. The first is for the Morton parents: unspecified business in London requiring their urgent presence. Never mind, they can leave the children in the care of housekeeper Agnes.
But she’s also received a letter of summons, to Clun. Her sister, who runs a boarding house there, has to go into hospital for an operation and needs Agnes to look after her business for her. So there’s no option but to close Witchend, bringing the holiday to a disastrous conclusion. Until Dickie has the brilliant idea of sending all the children to Clun, to say at Keep View, with Agnes.
As an adult, I’m amused at the assumption that Mr Morton can just blithely pay for everybody to go to a boarding house, but then he is a London Solicitor, so that objection can be passed over smoothly. Besides, children’s books that concern themselves with such details would be strange and dull indeed! Though this is, in itself, a demonstration of those very middle-class matters that contributed to the 1969 decision to begin editing down the Lone Pine books for a modern day audience.
However, the holiday can be saved, Agnes’ sister’s business aided and Keep View is not only big enough to accommodate Tom and Jenny, but bring Jon and Penny up from the south!
The advantage of a large cast like this is that Saville can split them up into smaller groups and conduct parallel narratives. The first thing he does is to break down the Club into three sets to get to Clun by different ways and means, which enables him to give each group encounters that dovetail to set up their adventure. Jon and Penny, travelling by train, find themselves sharing both a compartment and a dining car with Alan Denton, a Clun-based sheepfarmer, taking his new sheepdog up from the south. The Mortons, Tom and Jenny, cycle to Clun, meeting the gypsies, Reuben and Miranda, en route, leaving the Clun area because sheep-stealing is going on, and they do not want to be accused, being Gypsies. And Peter rides cross country on Sally, encountering two unsavoury and vaguely threatening men with a furniture van from which she’s sure she can hear the bleating of sheep.
The Gay Dolphin Adventure introduced the Hidden Treasure motif. Now The Secret of Grey Walls brings in the other half of the formula. A gang is operating, in this book on sheep-rustling, and the Lone Piners expose them and get them arrested. Of such things will the rest of the series be made. And it’s always done so quickly, too: in Clun it takes no more than two days to solve a problem that’s been baffling the Police for over a week.

All it takes is for the Club to walk out to Bury Fields, Alan Denton’s farm. By now, he’s also lost sheep. On the way back, they get lost and discover a mysterious house, surrounded by Grey Walls, tucked into a fold of land by Offa’s Dyke. It seems deserted, but actually the inhabitants are refusing to acknowledge there is anyone there. There are also mysterious strangers in the woods, one of whom appears to be the elderly Mr Cantor, the rather suspicious guest who drops into the middle of the Lone Pine party by taking a room at Keep View.
Cantor – balding, bespectacled, fussy, given to an absurd tweed suit and plus fours (for our younger readers, an even-then archaic form of trousers, beloved of golfers, which were baggy down to the calf where they ended, tightly) – is a seemingly sinister stranger who causes mixed reactions among the Lone Piners. The vivacious Penny, ever willing to talk to anyone, likes him, the twins put on their show for him, Peter dislikes him intensely, even before he patronises her over the van she has seen race through Clun in the middle of the night.
But Cantor is the Police, a detective investigating what is now only just being realised to be organised sheep stealing, in different parts of the country.
Before this is revealed, the Club splits its forces again. The Twins divert Cantor all over the place, but discover the hidden sheep pens that he was looking for, at which point he drops his disguise as an elderly archaeologist, and calls in the Police.
The boys go off for another look at Grey Walls, hoping to find a way in. They have various encounters, and stay out far too long, but up getting inside the walls. David and Jon stow away in the back of the furniture van being used to transport the sheep, whilst Tom, acting on his own initiative for once, finds the sheep tunnel under the walls. Nevertheless, all three are captured after a bit of an offstage fight.
As for the girls, they initially get the passive role of heading back to Bury Fields to try to persuade Alan Denton – anyone – that their encounters are real. But when the boys don’t return, they sneak off on their own, in the dark, to rescue their… well, let’s say it, early though it is in the series and a long way from being fulfilled, but it’s obvious enough that it is boyfriends they are seeking to protect: Jenny is concerned for Tom, Penny for Jon and Peter for David, and whilst the overall loyalty of the Club to each other matters, each girl has one boy in mind.
Jenny goes alone to Bury Fields, despite her fears and melodramas, while the two older girls head for Grey Walls, and into the direct fulfilment of Peter’s prophetic dream with which Saville opens the book, and about which I’ll have more to say shortly. That dream ended with them outrunning fire, sweeping down from the tinder-dry winter woods, and fire they have to outrun, as do the farmers on horses brought in the nick of time by Jenny.
And the girls get inside the walls, and Peter calms the savage alsatian inside, but none of this would mean anything in practical terms if not for the vanload of coppers summoned up by Cantor. Saville does a very good job of distracting his younger audience into thinking that the Lone Piners are solely responsible for bringing down the gang, but I’m too old not to see that a certain amount of wool is being pulled over certain eyes in the denouement.
That dramatic ending, with Peter and Penny outrunning the fire, and riders on horseback leaping through the flames, makes for a spectacular piece of imagery when Peter dreams it at the beginning of the book. Her dream, of running downhill, ahead of fire, with a red-headed girl that she doesn’t recognise but whom we all know is Penny Warrender, is less foreshadowing than a foreseeing of what is to come. All that’s missing from the dream is Peter’s self-recognition when she comes to live it out.
But I am horrified at how Saville sets the event up in real life. In neither the dream nor the event is it revealed how the fire starts, though Saville prepares us for the eventuality by mentioning the dry conditions half a dozen times over. When it is explained, the fire setting is deliberate, and it’s done by the Police!
Of course, the idea came from Dickie Morton, and from the perspective of an excitable ten year old boy, it’s a perfectly feasible means of scaring out the bad guys, but for heaven’s sake, for an adult to think it’s a good idea, and a Policeman as well, is impossible to swallow. Hell’s bells, this is the English countryside, and they’re going to burn a wood? They haven’t got a clue who might be about: I mean, Peter and Penny have to run for it, and it bloody near traps half a dozen local farmers and their horses!
The burst banking at Winchelsea in Gay Dolphin was a credible natural disaster and a danger that the Lone Piners were plunged into at the responsibility of the bad guys, from whom you expect it, but giving kids the idea that starting fires was perfectly ok, even the cops do it, was stupid at best and lunatic at the worst. From a basically conservative writer, it comes as a massive surprise.
Anyway, what I found most interesting about Grey Walls was the dynamics of the expanded Club, and especially Peter’s reactions. It was she who enthusiastically welcomed the idea of inviting the Warrenders into membership, but when their presence in Shropshire becomes a reality, she rapidly develops some doubts. Mostly about Penny, though Jon is tagged in, and it’s interesting to see that Peter’s reservations stem from the green-eyed monster.
It’s very interesting that this is 1947, and the fourth in a series of childrens’ adventure stories specifically requested to be childrens’ adventure stories, yet Saville is already painting a picture of the loyal, steadfast, calm and clear-headed Peter as being jealous of how David Morton praises another girl. And despite the fact that Penny is adorably excited to be there and instantly eager to be friends, Peter still finds it difficult to settle to her.
The two never quite clash, but it’s not until they go off into the night together, that they really start to bond properly. Though Saville doesn’t say it, what allays Peter’s concerns about Penny’s volatility is that she is evidently as much concerned for her cousin as Peter is for her ‘special friend’. Peter’s insecurity about whether David might actually like another girl disappears, and she accepts Penny fully at last.
It’s also interesting that, despite having had virtually no time together in Seven White Gates, Tom and Jenny already have a kind of mutual bond when Grey Walls starts. And we already know that Jon and Penny are a pair, though the thoughtless, unkind and often unpleasant way he talks to her goes beyond the bantering that Penny shares. They are an argumentative pair, and the idea that something more might lie beneath it is much less overt, despite Penny being the most overt member of the Club, the Twins excepted.
Saville, as we shall eventually see, has made a bit of a rod for his own back in making the Warrenders cousins: it was still thought in those days that cousinship was a bit too close for marriage, and that the genetic closeness was a contra-indication to having children. Yes, I know we’re a very long way off from such ideas, and especially so in the mind of the audience! But the bickering between the Warrenders, the product of the long years they’ve already spent under the same roof, doesn’t conceal a rooted commitment to one another. Since they’ve grown up as virtual siblings, this is quite deep waters. Saville would, in years to come, have deep doubts about that relationship.

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