Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Lone Pine Five

One of the advantages of a large cast is that there is always room for a change in perspective. In his List of Members before Lone Pine Five (so named because it is the fifth Lone Pine Book) gets under way, Malcolm Saville notes that Jenny Harman has had little opportunity to contribute to the childrens’ adventures, but that this book will see her come to the fore.
We’re once again in Shropshire, once again on the Stiperstones, but this time without the Warrenders, who cannot be easily carried halfway across the country a second time. Not that they are completely out of our thoughts…
Saville begins his story with Jenny, waking up and counting the roses on her bedroom wallpaper. It’s a red letter, or rather red postcard day for her as Tom has written to invite her to meet him and his Uncle at the Market in Bishop’s Castle and, despite her stepmother’s instinctive negativity, she has her father’s support in going. Which is where her adventure begins.
At an auction, Jenny takes a liking to an odd and old spoon in a lot of broken cutlery, which Tom buys for her. Almost immediately, she’s approached by an elderly, grey-haired man called Wilkins, who believes it to be a Roman relic, and who cannot understand what importance it could have to a young, and no doubt foolish girl.
That isn’t meant offensively, on Wilkins’ part, and it isn’t taken offensively by Jenny, who has an immediate sympathy for an obviously distracted gentleman, but Tom gave it her and she will wear it next to her heart forever. Literally, since she fashions a ribbon that enables her to wear it round her neck, after which it lives a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t existence, being fished out and replaced over and over.
Wilkins is obsessed by history, with the Roman history of Shropshire, and with the possibility of discovering a Treasure Trove on the Stiperstones similar to the then-recent Mildenhall Treasure (1942). Not because of the possibility of wealth by Treasure Trove, though we’ll soon see that selflessness doesn’t extend to the rest of his family, but because since his wife’s death, it has become his focus.
Indeed, he’s looking to stay at Barton Beach to explore, and not only does Jenny suggest her stepmother’s spare room but she volunteers the Lone Pine Club to help him search, proud that she, at last, is bringing them an adventure.
It’s interesting how the Club is disposed, or should that be dispersed, this time. Peter has been staying with the Mortons in London, whilst her father has been staying at Seven Gates, which Uncle Micah has now turned over to Charles Sterling, but they’ve had to ‘persuade’ the parents to come up to Witchend this time. And they can’t have Jon and Penny again, because they’re in France, learning French with a French family, and besides, Saville has them up his sleeve…
But really, they’d be in the way, because Saville has set out to capture Jenny Harman in these pages, and he’s done so beautifully. The excitable little girl whose loneliness has forced her to imagine her own life into being, with all the melodrama and exaggeration of the books she loves, is gaining the confidence not to be abashed among her friends. Jenny wants to prove her worth, even though she doesn’t need to, not to her friend Peter and especially not to Tom, who might not understand her but who already cherishes her.
The ‘adventure’ Wilkins offers might not seem much on the surface, but it brings more traditional elements in its wake. The children all receive permission to camp out, at first in HQ2 at Seven Gates when they arrive in rain (this is to be a very wet book) and then in a cave discovered by the Twins, who are at their demanding and scapegrace worst, constantly avoiding having to do any of the chores the others share faithfully, and arrogating leading roles to themselves.
Saville extends his fictional Shropshire geography by having the Twins slip off to explore Greystone Dingle, a parallel narrow valley to Black Dingle, though not as fearsome and further from the farm. It has a stream, of sorts, appearing and disappearing underground, in rocks that Saville admits are not suitable geologically for such things.
The camp, near the head of the Dingle, becomes HQ4, which is an interesting example of those points at which the revised editions cut down the original story, because I clearly recall a conversation in which the designation was proposed, and objected to, on the grounds that the Club couldn’t just keep establishing new HQs everywhere they went, so that only the Twins (it being Dickie’s idea) regarded it as HQ4. There’s a reference to that uncertain status in the next Shropshire book, The Neglected Mountain, which I shall look for with interest.
Long before we reach the cave with the Twins, the villains of the piece have been introduced, though they’re not much cop as villains, not like the Ballinger and her gang, or even the rather more anonymous sheep-stealing bunch. These are the Smithsons, husband, wife and son, an unpleasant, self-centred lot who never rise above the level of nuisances.
Mr Smithson is Wilkins’ nephew, and the old man lives with this family, we are led to believe, though it’s clear its not out of the goodness of any Smithson heart. Mr S is a greasy, selfish and above all vulgar specimen, quite obviously what, in the War, would have been a spiv, Mrs Smithson is a painted and powdered woman utterly out of place in the country, and as ignorant as her husband, and their son Percy is a sorry specimen, spoilt, pimply, with all the makings of a bully except the remotest atom of the force required to assert himself.
They arrive in a flashy car, towing a caravan, in a hurry to overtake Mr Morton as he tows a trailer along narrow country lanes, and eventually all but forcing him off the road at a bend. When they catch up with the Smithsons, Mr Morton goes to give the driver a piece of his mind – Smithson immediately denies any involvement – but instead he allows the Lone Piners, and especially the Twins, to take over, after Percy throws a stone at Mackie and hits him.

This is one of those points where Saville drops his standards of credibility. The Twins are furious and put on one of their most intense performances, all of which is in front of their father, who not only makes not a move to check them but, despite the fact he’s facing a dangerous driver who’s nearly caused an accident that could have seriously hurt several people, seems to regard his younger children’s performance as just punishment.
Then lets them go off alone, at the age of ten, to explore an unfamiliar corner of a dangerous mountain, miles away from Seven Gates, when their declared purpose is to further torment the unpleasant Percy. It’s not quite setting the forest alight, but it’s giving in to the fantasy of the children’s adventure story without enough consideration for the reality that has to go along with real landscapes and places.
But back to Jenny. These Smithsons are out to get her Mr Wilkins, suggesting to her indignation that he’s not quite right in the head, when actually all they want is the treasure they think he knows how to find. That their presence upsets him, that they are threatening him, that the Smithsons are nasty pieces of work, all these things are obvious to Jenny, and she is determined to protect Wilkins, even if it gets her on the wrong side of her friends.
The Smithsons are small-time, lacking the imagination to rise to cruelty. They park their car and caravan at the foot of Greystone Dingle where it blocks the tracks – blocking the gypsies, Reuben and Miranda, the Lone Pine trailer (until, David and Tom clear the way with axes) and later Henry Ringway’s car – with no thought for others, and when challenged act as if they own the place and can order other people off.
On the other hand, they can initially frighten Mr Wilkins away from Barton Beach, so that his friends aren’t subjected to unpleasantness, and they lock him in their caravan overnight.
The Lone Piners sleep in the cave but are still undecided what to do. Not so the Twins, who wake up in the early hours still determined to wreak revenge on Percy. What are they going to do? They’re going to kidnap him. And when I say kidnap, I mean kidnap. As in genuinely abduct and imprison.
This isn’t actually very funny. I mean, you can see that Percy deserves it, and the Twins only want him for an exchange of hostages for Mr Wilkins., and when they reveal this brilliant idea, and their tie-bound and sock-gagged prisoner to the older members, all they do is remove the sock. No-one seems to think that this is in any way going a bit too far.
Meanwhile, it’s raining. It’s been raining for much of the book, with only enough dry weather to get the Lone Piners out of HQ2 and into the putative HQ4. And it’s getting worse.
The Smithsons come up the valley, looking for Percy, he all bluster and threat, she weepy and doting. To their immense surprise, Percy refuses to leave his captors: in part, it’s because he is hungry and smells the stew Peter is cooking, but in part it’s also because he feels the contempt the others have for him and is trying to prove himself better than that, though the Percies of this world always undermine themselves: his sneer at his retreating, defeated parents is met with the single, devastating line that “None of the Lone Piners ever forgave him for that.”
That doesn’t include Jenny. She and Tom have slipped downvalley to look for Wilkins, and find him breaking out of the caravan. They pursue him to the village, and Jenny even further, on the bus to Shrewsbury. Wilkins has found a source of strength in himself, a determination to rid himself of the obnoxious Smithsons, and he takes Jenny to meet a real Roman expert, Henry Kingway, who agrees with Wilkins’ theories, then back to Seven Gates, to collect Charles Sterling, who knows the land.
And the rain comes down, endlessly, steady, draining, and on the way up Greystone Dingle Jenny finds Peter racing down. But this is not the calm, steady Peter we know, but a panicky, desperate version that frightens us: inside the mountain, the Lone Piners have discovered an underground pool, fed by a waterfall, whose level is steadily rising as the incessant rain feeds it. And the Twins and Percy have fallen in.
It’s a replay of Seven White Gates that, at the very moment the Twins get into a danger that requires adult rescue, a party is already hastening on the way, and this time the rescue party are only there through coincidence, which is not impressive plotting. That said, Saville handles the situation quickly and well: between Charles and (of course) David, the soaked victims are saved, but the water is rising at a frightening level, and when everybody gets out, there is the astonishing sight of the ground upheaving and the underground river bursting its banks, flowing down Greystone Dingle in an unstoppable, dirty flood.
That, too, is a repeat, of the ending of Mystery at Witchend, the blowing of Hatchholt Dam, but Saville has different thoughts in mind. Peter, recovered from her funk, is first to react, running full-tilt down the valley, to try to beat the water to warn the Smithsons. David automatically follows her, but neither can hope to beat the flood, which overtakes both and sweeps away the caravan, though thankfully without hurt to people.
And it is David, whose steadfastness comes to the fore, who calmly and convincingly approaches Smithson to suggest a truce, and his car to ferry people to Seven Gates, for food, dry clothing, hot baths. Give Smithson credit for that: after all, he and his miserable family are not real villains, unlike the Ballinger.
But Lone Pine Five is Jenny Harman’s book. She has been at the centre of things, her passion for excitement, her immediate emotionalism, her determination to do things for people has driven everything, and we like her all the better for it and of course she must have her reward: first thing the next morning, with only Tom for company, she returns to Greystone Dingle, fresh in its devastation from the water tearing up the valley. Together, they find the exposed mosaic of the flooring of a Roman villa, and together they find the blackened, dirty relics that Jenny presents to Wilkins at the breakfast they return to interrupt: what will become known as the Greystone Treasure.
All thanks to a spoon.
Now it must be said, as I’ve pointed out above, that Lone Pine Five has flaws. It repeats plotting, it re-uses a climactic water threat (the third time in only five books), the Twins are actually starting to get out of hand and their behaviour is not just delinquent but applauded, and given Saville’s passion for setting his stories in real places that he’s meticulously researched, the underground river where geologically it’s unrealistic is an unwelcome contrivance.
Yet I enjoyed this much more than The Secret of Grey Walls, in part perhaps because this was one of the ones I owned and read relatively early on, rather than borrowed or acquired when I was already growing out of such entertainments. But mostly because Saville so successfully animates the story with the girl who so far has been a semi-comic background figure. Yes, Jenny is still childish in many ways, more so than the other ‘seniors’ with whom she is bracketed, and you might not want to spend too much time with her in real life, but in this story, where we see the mind that drives the chatter and unrealism that she strives to bring into her life, we can’t help but warm to her. Saville shows us the girl who needs her friends, who sees them only too rarely, and who has to cram a month of their company into a few days at a time.
Amusingly, for adults who think about such things, Jenny has been accelerating in time: after being ‘nearly fifteen’ to Tom’s fifteen-and-a-half last time round, she has moved to ‘two months younger’ than him. In lapidary inscription, and popular children’s fiction of the last century or so, no man is on oath.
There is an unexpected coda to the book that is unique to Lone Pine Five, which is the natural point on which to end. The feast is interrupted by the arrival of Mr Morton who, in view of all this rain, has come to break up this camping lark and take everyone back to Witchend. But he’s also carrying a telegram, addressed to David. Telegrams in fiction were as important as they tended to be in real life: it comes from Rye.
‘We may want Lone Piners soon have just seen Ballinger again up to no good we wouldn’t be surprised Jon and Penny’
Three guesses about the next book…


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