Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 3 – Strangers at Snowfell

Malcolm Saville set his 63 novels all over England and, in his later years, expanded his reach to cross the Channel to various European countries. In all that time, he set only one book in what we now know as Cumbria, home to the Lake District but, much to my disappointment, he never got as far as the Lakes nor even old Cumberland. His only visit to the North-West was the third Jillies novel, Strangers at Snowfell, and those parts of the tale that aren’t a direct follow-on from Two Fair Plaits take place entirely within the long-obliterated county of Westmorland.
It’s after Xmas in London. Guy and Mark Standing are still staying with the Jillies, Mandy, Prue, Tim and J.D., in their untidy Chelsea flat. They’re due to join their Aunt Katharine in Scotland to enjoy Hogmanay (though not under that name), but a telegram arrives asking them to come up a day early, and bring the Jillies with them, to the party.
So despite some automatic resistance from Mandy, who’s conquered before she gets a day out with Guy, just the two of them, the five children travel from Euston by train, for a long journey ending in a jolly good time. At least, that’s the plan.
Once again, Saville builds his story around twin tracks, the Jillies on the one hand and the ‘victim’ on the other. This time, it is not a vulnerable little girl but, in his own way, a vulnerable man in his fifties. Dr Charles Thornton (who is nevertheless referred to throughout as The Professor) is a scientist who, at the start of the book, takes rooms in Snowfell, a farmhouse near Shap, for peace and quiet whilst he completes his work on an undefined scientific breakthrough that will be of immense value to his country.
What he doesn’t know is that he is being watched by a spy for another country, anxious to discover the secret. The first inkling of this follows his completion of his work. Some instinct leads him to write to his son, Nicholas, in London, asking him to travel up and join him. But that night, someone breaks into his room, after poisoning the farmer’s sheepdog.
From here, the story bounces back and forth between Thornton and the travelling party, who want to claim a carriage for themselves but find themselves sharing with a mysterious young man who’s anxious to avoid being seen by a rather florid, camel-hair coated man who enlists the Standings to hunt out his ‘young friend’.
The young man, who is, of course, Nick Thornton, is not very good at concealing himself. He’s shaven off his moustache, swapped coats but he’s not changed his tie, which enables Mark to identify him from the bookstall at Euston, a detail that panics Nick into running.
This isn’t a winter for mild weather. The fog that gripped the nation in Two Fair Plaits has turned to a snowstorm that grips the nation in Strangers at Snowfell. The train gets slower and slower until at last it is stopped dead just short of Shap.
Things start to get serious. Thornton, in search of a working telephone, has been decoyed to a sinister, broken-down house, Callow, whose housekeeper, and guardian to a frightened and maltreated eleven-year old girl, Mary, that the Professor is determined to rescue, locks him in and assists in drugging him for his enemy, Major Calloway. If Thornton hadn’t been cautious enough to conceal the vital papers behind a loose stone in Mary’s secret place, under the bridge, the villains would have all they want.
The halt sets up the adventure. Nick leaves the train to make for Snowfell. Despite Guy’s reservations – he has the David Morton role, the sensible person who doesn’t immediately take anything on trust – the gang decide to shield him. The two elders, Mandy and Guy, set off through the snow in pursuit, carrying the wallet Nick has dropped, leaving the younger trio, Prue, Mark and Tim, to run interference with Camel Coat. Tim sets off exploring up the line and gets to the nearby signal box where he makes friends with the signalman in a way that the coated man doesn’t!
Guy and Mandy get all the way to Snowfell, where Nick, seeing them appear, comes out to meet them but falls trying to climb a wall, badly-spraining his ankle and rendering him hors de combat for the rest of the book. Guy and Mandy have to take his place, floundering in deep snow to find the Police.
Instead, they find Mary and, through her, the whereabouts of the drugged, imprisoned and searched, but still defiant Professor. Meanwhile, Mark, Prue and Tim have also left the train, there being no point in staying once Camel Coat has gone and even less point in missing out on the fun. They trail him into Shap, observe him going into Major Calloway’s cottage and, in a move that could have come out of the Morton Twins’ scrapbook, stow away in the back of the Major’s shooting-brake (an old-fashioned type of car, built along station-wagon lines, i.e., like an estate car), which gets them transported to Callow.
So everybody’s back together again. They can communicate with Dr Thornton, who obligingly writes a note for the Police. Forces must be split. Prue and Tim are about exhausted, and Guy asks Mandy to get them back to the train whilst he and Mark remain to keep watch on the Professor until aid arrives.
Thus far through the book, Mandy has been her usual, independent, combative self, asserting her equality with Guy, and responding to his attempts to assist through the deep snow and elsewhere by whistling ‘I can do anything better than you.’ But now, when things are serious, and even without his impressing upon her that she’s got to take care of her sister and brother, Mandy accepts this as her job. It’s a long struggle, and both Prue and Tim reach the end of their strength before they’re back at the rescue-snowplough, but despite being close to collapse, Mandy forces herself to the end, and has enough determination left to both get her siblings brought in and get the Train Inspector in to hear her – and believe – her story.
So everything is handed over to the Police to set everything straight, though the Standing boys still have a part to play, having arranged with little Mary to have an unlocked access to Callow that they can guide the Police in by. Dr Thornton’s rescued, his secret is safe, he’s reunited with his son, little Mary is rescued from her unpleasant Aunt, who the Professor is prepared to pursue into gaol if she’s actually harmed the little girl, and everyone has nice words to say for all the Jillies and the Standings.
In fact, all’s well that ends well, except for the no-longer snowbound train steaming away in the distance, with all the travellers’ luggage on it!
Still, the Police will telephone J.D. and Aunt Katherine, and the luggage will be held for them at Glasgow until they can catch up on the next train, and it won’t spoil the party because they’ll only be arriving the day Guy and Mark were originally invited for.
I enjoyed Strangers at Snowfell, the more so for the bantering relationship between Mandy and Guy. It’s as plain as anything that she fancies him like mad and he isn’t wholly unappreciative of her dark good looks. In that sense, they’re already way ahead of David and Peter. Yes, Mandy is very determined to prove herself equal to Guy, and after three years of being mother to her family as well as sister, that’s hardly surprising, but her cheekiness to him is easy to see as her method of flirting, even if Guy isn’t quite quick enough for flirtation as yet.
That said, there are a couple of areas in which Saville’s plot-contrivances are a little irksome. The adult in me is quick to notice that there is not the least indication of what Dr Thornton is working on, or how it will prove to be of benefit to his country first, then the world (as opposed to the presumably Communist country Calloway represents). I’m sure the kid I was didn’t care, but the completeness with which Saville makes the whole thing a mystery does undercut the story for me. In that respect, Saucers over the Moor is a better book than this.
There’s also that bit about Guy and Mark coming early by a day. That’s never explained, and when you realise that that extra twenty-four hours is the exact compass of the adventure, it starts to look like filler, neither adding to nor detracting from the story, except by its contrivance.
But the biggest bit of contrivance is highlighted by a rather shamefaced Saville himself in his foreword, pointing out that rather than Nick Thornton buying a ticket to Penrith – further on than Shap, where the train doesn’t officially stop – he would have bought one for Preston and changed there to a local, but he had to do the very thing he wouldn’t have done in order for the story to exist. That’s definitely something I wouldn’t have picked up on as a kid (not being a train nut like Mark and Tim), and I really dislike stories where characters do things they wouldn’t do in order to make the story happen. It’s poor writing, always has been, always will be.
And in those days, Saville really could do better.

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