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

The Secret of Grey Walls was the fourth Lone Pine Club book, and the first to feature the Club’s entire membership, all eight members (Jon and Penny Warrender’s formal induction takes place in this book, as the Lone Piners’ establish a third HQ). It’s a return to Shropshire, though once again Saville changes the immediate scene, bringing all his characters together for a winter escapade in and around the quiet town of Clun, in the southwest corner of the county.
Grey Walls was the first of the Lone Pine books that I devoured in this re-read, courtesy of an internet friend who, similarly inspired to investigate her memories, acquired a hardback copy and lent it to me. So it’s the first in this series of blogs where I’m working from the original, and full-length text, and with the benefit of the original Bertram Prance illustrations.
From the first, Saville had invited his readers to write to him, and many did, each of whom received a handwritten reply. Saville referred directly to this in a short foreword to the book, stating that his readers have asked him to keep the Lone Piners at their current age, and that he will do so. It would be nearly twenty years before he would go against those wishes, and that too would be at the prompting of the Lone Pine fans.
After three summer adventures, Saville sets Grey Walls in winter, between Xmas and New Year, at first in familiar country. The Mortons are at Witchend, Peter at Hatchholt, and planning to spend most of her days riding over there, but Saville is not interested in going over old geography, and quickly shifts the scene to another part of Shropshire.
The catalyst, or MacGuffin, is a letter, two letters in fact, delivered to Witchend and causing complete disruption. The first is for the Morton parents: unspecified business in London requiring their urgent presence, Mrs Morton’s signature as well. Ordinarily, they’d be happy to leave the children under the care of Agnes, despite the evidence that this might not be the best thing for discipline, especially so far as the Twins are concerned.
But Agnes has a letter too, this from her sister, who keeps a boarding house, Keep View, in Clun. Sister is going into hospital for an operation and, with not much notice, wants Agnes to look after her business for her. So there’s nothing for it but to close Witchend, no matter how that affects everyone’s holiday plans.
That is, until Dickie has one of his brilliant ideas, which is that, instead of sending everyone away, send them to Clun. They can be guests at Keep View, help Agnes’s sister’s business, keep everyone together for the holiday, and the guest house should be big enough to not only invite Jenny Harman across from Barton Beach, but Jon and Penny Warrender as well! The whole Lone Pine Club together for the first time (taking Jon and Penny’s induction as read) and enabling them to meet Peter, Tom and Jenny, and the latter to meet the Warrenders.
There comes a point in each of the Lone Pine books where the members are scattered into groups facing different aspects of the problem at the same time, and Grey Walls is no different in that respect, but Saville also splits the Club into three groups just to get to Clun, by different ways and means, and arranges for each of his groups to have encounters that dovetail to set up the crime of the story.
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 and Tom, plus Jenny from the Barton Beach road, are cycling (Tom goes to meet Jenny on her route, suggesting that he’s got to know her much better in the interim since Seven White Gates). En route, they meet the gypsies, Reuben and Miranda, who are leaving the Clun area because sheep-stealing is going on, and they do not want to be accused, being Gypsies.
And Peter travels alone, across country, on Sally. Part way, she finds her way being blocked by a parked furniture van, driven by two unsavoury and vaguely threatening men: she’s sure she can hear the bleating of sheep…
The actual story is over quickly: within two days of the Club arriving in Clun, the sheep stealers have been arrested by the Police, thanks in part to the Lone Piners, though not necessarily as much as they think.
The gang trek out to Bury Fields to meet Alan Denton and his mother, by which time he’s been a victim of sheep-stealing, sixty ewes or so. 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, which seems deserted but rather 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 (whose real name will not be revealed for many books and years) 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 in true Lone Pine fashion. 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. And that’s really all the Club do, as the others, when you look closely, get deeply involved without having any effect.
The boys go off to look at Grey Walls, to try to get in. They have various encounters, and stay far too long, end up getting inside the walls, David and Jonathon in the back of the furniture van the crooks are using to transport the sheep, Tom, acting on his own initiative for once, through the sheep tunnel under the walls, but 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 too 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 along 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 as I said, none of this would mean anything in practical terms but for the vanload of coppers summoned up by Cantor. Saville does a very good job of distracting his younger audience from this, but I’m too old not to see that a certain amount of wool is being pulled over certain eyes in the denouement.
Before I go on to the things that interest me most about this volume, I’d like to say that I think Saville is guilty of a colossal mistake when it comes to setting up his dramatic ending. Peter’s dream, which sees her running downhill, ahead of fire, with a red-headed girl that she doesn’t recognise but whom we all know is Penny Warrender, is not so much foreshadowing as a straight recitation of what is to come. All that’s missing from the dream is Peter’s self-recognition when she comes to live it out.
On neither occasion do we know how or why the fire has started, through Saville sets up the dry conditions half a dozen times over as the story progresses, but when all is revealed, I for one was horrified to learn that it was deliberate, and what’s more, it was the Police who set it!
Naturally, it was Dickie Morton’s idea, 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 entirely credible, as being a real 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.
Be that as it may, what interests me about this book is the dynamics of the expanded Club, and especially Peter’s reactions to all of this. Her letter at the end of the previous book enthusiastically welcomes the idea of the Warrenders making the numbers up to eight, but when it comes to actually getting them to Shropshire, and formally inducting them, she has some pretty clear reservations.
Most of these are about Penny, with Jon getting tagged in, and it’s interesting to see that Peter’s reservations stem from the green-eyed monster. Please do remember that this is the fourth in a series of childrens’ adventure stories and that Saville is already painting a picture of the loyal, steadfast, calm and clear-headed Peter as being jealous of how David Morton praises Penny. 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.
I’d mentioned before that Tom and Jenny have already set up their own little bond, despite having had really no time together in Seven White Gates, and the friendship is clearly mutual. As is the feelings between Jon and Penny, as we already knew. There’s is less overt than the others, despite Penny being the most overt of the Club, the twins aside. Saville has made a bit of a rod for his own back here in making them 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 it’s plain that the bickering between the Warrenders, which is the product of the long years they’ve already spent under the same roof, doesn’t hide a deep commitment to one another. Since they’ve grown up as virtual siblings, this is quite deep waters.
One final note, upon ages. Saville introduces the Lone Piners to us at the beginning of the book, and gives everybody’s ages. David, Peter and Jon are all now 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, which makes Jenny no more than about eighteen months younger than Peter rather than the four years or so she was when she was introduced.
We are going to have to learn not to take this side of things seriously. The Lone Piners will stay ‘the same ages forever and ever’ only not quite. Or for a good long while at least.


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