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

Reading the Lone Pine books in the Sixties and the Seventies, I would often struggle to locate books in the series. Like so many similar series, the libraries tended to have the early books and the more recent ones, but the mid-series books would have been and gone, and bookshops would not have them.
The Secret of the Gorge, and it’s successor, Mystery Mine, were the two books out of this series that had gone out of print and which never seemed to have been picked up by Armada. My reading was a mixture of library copies, second hand hardbacks and Armada paperbacks, and as Saville was not the only author I read voraciously, and my parents did not give me free reign to buy anything I wanted, I had to ration my purchases.
At a late stage, I got hold of a second hand non-Armada paperback edition of one of these two books. I never did manage to read the other. Which of the two it is I can’t remember. I don’t remember a thing about The Secret of the Gorge when I look at summaries, but then again, Mystery Mine was another of the off-locations, and I don’t remember reading a Lone Pine story set on the North Yorkshire Moors.
So this book was going to be either a secret revealed or a mystery exposed: which was it?
When I first started to read this book, I was certain that I had never read it before. Nothing was in the least familiar: indeed, for much of the first half of the book, it felt odd, like a regression to earlier stories when the feelings between the various pairs in the Club were being completely ignored.
I was looking forward to the interesting sensation of reading a Lone Pine Club adventure without the slightest taint of nostalgia to influence my response.
For the vast majority of the book, that’s more or less what I had. But about a quarter of the way through, there was a full-page illustration that I immediately recognised. Further on, in musing on what might follow their incomplete clue, David Morton speculates with a line I had read before. And a little further on, he appears to cave in to the bullying bad guy, agree to strike camp and run away, which I also recalled.
So I have, after all, read The Secret of the Gorge, and in this edition too (which I now remember buying from Morton’s Books, round the back of Didsbury Village), but apart from these three elements, I retained absolutely nothing of it.
The story concerns a treasure hunt. Forty years ago, a young housemaid was incited by the Butler to steal a necklace belonging to the Whiteflower family, of Bringewood Manor. After concealing it, she drowned in the nearby dark, sullen and seemingly haunted gorge, down near the Shropshire-Herefordshire border.
Forty years later, the Whiteflower family fortunes have declined. Twelve-year old Nicholas, lonely, shy, awkward, with near-white hair, lost his father during the war and his mother has died recently, leaving him to the care of his spinster Aunt, Margaret. The family has no money, even after the sale of the Manor for demolition and conversion into a small housing estate, and they are living in the cheapest possible accommodation in Barton Beach, where the red-headed girl at the Post Office General Store, who is now wearing her hair in a pony-tail, and who is still horribly lonely when the other Lone Piners aren’t around, is curious about him in a way that the self-conscious Nicholas deeply resents. The discovery of the Whiteflower Diamonds will make a massive financial difference to Nicholas and his Aunt Margaret.
Unusually, Saville starts the book with the bad guys. Harry Sentence returns to Shropshire after forty years in Australia, under an assumed name, to search for the Diamonds. He seeks rooms in the dilapidated Two Bells pub, run by the thuggish, bullying Blandishes, who when they learn his real identity, force themselves on him as partners.
The Lone Piners enter the picture when Jenny and Tom accompany Mr Harman to a Bishops’ Castle auction where he buys a hideous sofa from the former housemaid’s room, for his wife. He outbids Aunt Margaret and Nicholas, but it’s Blandish and Sentence’s late arrival that keeps them from outbidding him. When cleaning the sofa later, Jenny discovers an old unsent letter from Harriet Brown to her partner in crime, which clearly dates from the night of her death, and which ends halfway through a clue as to where she was going to hide the Diamonds.
Nicholas is initially rude about strangers poking into family business but quickly bonds with the Twins over Macbeth attacking his landlady’s copious cats: another embarrassing performance by the Twins, since Mackie is the unprovoked aggressor, Mrs Quickseed is rightly defending her pets on her land, and they’re going so far as to flat out lie about who attacked who: still, it gets Nicholas turning over a new leaf and determining to live up to his new friends.
The upshot is that the six Lone Piners and Nicholas are driven down to Bringeford to establish a camp and look for the Diamonds.
The problem is that, although Saville is at pains to establish that the gorge itself is real, and is as he describes it in the book, the setting never feels real. Some of this is perhaps the absence (in my edition) of David’s traditional map, and some is that the whereabouts of Bringeford in Shropshire, especially in relation to those points we already know, is never given, other than that it is on/near the Herefordshire border, in sight of the Welsh mountains and on the River Teme.
And for more than half the book, the story reads and feels like a regression, back to the earliest stories, existing in a kind of emotional limbo, without any special recognition between the Lone Pine couples that there is anything more than kid gang friendship between them.
It doesn’t help that the Lone Piners act a little bit irresponsibly once they’re in place. They have various members of the Blandish familiy coming around threateningly, claiming that the camp-site is trespassing, they’re going to get in trouble and ordering them to clear out. David and Peter stand up for their camp, refusing to budge until someone with genuine rights comes to them, but also insisting that they’re not causing anyone any harm. Unfortunately, they also insist on keep going into the Manor to explore, over the attempts of the Foreman to keep them out. Yes, he’s been bribed by Blandish to do so, but he is also completely right: the Manor is private property, it’s undergoing demolition, the Lone Piners have no right there and are putting themselves at risk of injury for which the demolition company/new owners would be liable. That this used to be Nicholas’s home, and the same ‘not harming anyone’ argument is used are of no legal or even practical basis. They shouldn’t be there, and their insistence on their right to do that comes over as insolent, smug and a bad case of middle-class privilege.

The Lone Piners are suspicious of the bad guys, and with good reason, since Blandish is thuggish enough to put threats of violence into practice as others have never really done before. The children separate to increase their areas of search. Needless to say, the Twins are the ones who sneak back into the Manor, with the aid of deliberate rudeness on Nicholas’ part, and climb the Tower, where they see strangers attacking their unguarded camp. Unfortunately, they also lock themselves in (makes a change from someone else doing it, but not that much).
It’s not until David divides the remaining pairs along gender lines rather than couples that we see the Lone Piners we have grown accustomed to. David is thinking practically: he and Tom are to explore the Gorge itself so he is pairing the most able climbers/scramblers, but the girls exchange a look that indicates just how clearly they dislike being separated.
I’ve not specifically referred to this before now, but it’s a regular feature of the Lone Pine books that the children are separated and have adventures that fit together. Saville’s very skilled at presenting this kind of mosaic picture, so after the Twins see the camp being attacked, Peter and Jenny encounter a slovenly couple, consisting of one eighteen year old lout (Blandish’s son, Syd) and his girlfriend Marilyn, whose unreliability is confirmed by her covering her natural prettiness with far too much make-up and wearing scarlet jeans every day. This pair comment on the adventures the boys have been having, and inveigle the girls into a ruined cottage, where they are imprisoned.
Then we revert to the boys for details of these adventures in and around the Gorge, where it’s now starting to rain, until they return to camp to interrupt the wreckers.
And it’s at this point that the girls reappear, Peter limping from a badly cut knee, sustained breaking out of the cottage. This sends David into a cold fury: despite a sizeable disadvantage in age, size and weight, he fights Syd and decks him. And for the remainder of the book, he’s practically inseparable from Peter, only leaving her when she goes into the village to the Doctor, for stitches.
His defence of her does not go unrecognised: Peter unexpectedly kisses him, in the forest, when they are alone. Saville gives no details, so we don’t know whether this is a real kiss, or merely to the cheek, and it’s a response to circumstances and not a sign of commitment. After all, the fans still don’t want the Lone Piners growing up.
Peter’s trip to the Village is accompanied by the eager Nicholas who, like the Twins, has been rescued from the Tower. Unfortunately, he is captured there and taken to the Two Bells from which a determined Lone Pine contingent rescues him, though not before Jenny has admonished Tom, telling him he ought to take her out on her own more often (this is a kid’s story?).
But this is in the aftermath of David’s act, designed to mislead Blandish into thinking they’ve finally gotten out of the way, when instead they are merely shifting to a new camp, secret, in a cave in the gorge itself.
Which sets up the dramatic climax. Blandish and Sentence are fixated on the old well as the hiding place for the Diamonds, and are trying to empty it, at first bucket by bucket, and then with a pump that will never work. The cave the Lone Piners have found for their new camp is where the well water is draining away through: with Tom and Jenny alone, Blandish turns up, crowbars away a rock that is interfering with the flow, and suddenly the water is rushing through, as the rain from the Welsh mountains catches up with the Gorge.
Sentence is swept away. As usual, it is Peter who is first to react, diving in with no thought for her own safety to rescue him. She lacks the physical strength to do so, but of course David is right behind her, as he always is, and between the two of them, they drag him to shore. Sentence is taken off to hospital by Blandish and Syd, whilst Mr Morton, concerned about the rain and angry that they’ve gotten muddled up with crooks again, turns up fortuitously to whisk off the soaking wet Peter and David to the Gypsy camp, for Reuben and Miranda to dry them down, warm them up and dress them.
So it is Tom and Jenny, with Nicholas, who return to the cave to retrieve what possessions have not been washed away, and who find the Whiteflower Diamonds, washed into the light. Despite Nicholas’s efforts to have the Club share in his fortune, Jenny speaks for all when she refuses. They have helped him and his Aunt secure themselves, secure Nicholas’ future, and had another adventure: that is the only reward they ever seek.
It’s an interesting book, and I can only attribute my near total lack of memory of it to such things as that curious, regressive introduction, and the air of unreality that pervades it. The Club is operating throughout on territory that never achieves solidity, and I think these two factors render it so much more elusive.
On another level, time is once again in flux in the world of the Lone Piners. Jenny has slid back to being ‘only just fifteen’, whilst there is a moment of dislocation early on when Tom finally brings up, for the readers’ benefit, that his parents were killed in an air-raid.
If the Lone Piners were occupying some kind of time limbo, in which it could be argued that their adventures are taking place still only a year or two after the War, it might be possible to reconcile this statement with the presence of Syd and Marilyn. But the Lone Piners describe Syd as a ‘teddy boy’, and Marilyn’s not only garish but no doubt tight-fitting pants pin them to the year of publication, 1958. Was Tom only three when he was evacuated to Shropshire, without his mother? I doubt it.
Jenny’s pony-tail is another sign of the times, and it’s interesting to note that, for the first time in over a dozen years, Peter has changed her hair-style, having made her plaits up into coils, though this is mentioned only twice, and very early on, and David certainly doesn’t comment on any change in her appearance, even after she kisses him in the wood.
But don’t get too excited about that development. We have yet to come to the moment when the series changed irrevocably. Next up is the one I definitely have never read before. We’re off to Yorkshire.


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