The Cuckoo Tree – a refuge for Joan, and an inspiration
This little tree, small enough for one or two people to sit in, and in Joan’s childhood, still with a wonderful view over the Downs to the village of Sutton where she grew up, has now thanks to the book she wrote about it become famous worldwide. The Cuckoo Tree in which Dido Twite finally returns to England after many adventures abroad, takes place in Sussex, Joan’s own county, and particularly in the Downs around the village of Sutton where she grew up, and whose hills and woods she had mapped as a child, until the names of these local landmarks were all utterly familiar to her, but also imbued with magic.
Dogkennel Cottages, Tegleaze Manor, even the Fighting Cocks Inn, an old name for the house where she lived years later in Petworth, were to become just as well known to readers all over the world, especially when this book was translated into Japanese, and they have since become places of pilgrimage for some very devoted fans.
Local villagers have even taken on the task of directing Japanese visitors or escorting them up on to Barlavington Down, and have written about it for their Parish news:
Only a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a Japanese Aiken fan, and feeling a need to go back there, especially at primrose and bluebell time, and visit it myself, I agreed to meet her in Petworth and take her and her sister up the Downs. They had done an impressive amount of research, and were armed with maps, and brought with them their own copy of the book in Japanese to read to the tree – a wonderful moment which I hope Joan was present to witness.
For children, including myself, there was always something especially magical about this tiny tree, and the idea that the Cuckoo, famous for leaving her eggs in everyone else’s nests, did in fact have a secret home of her own.
In Joan’s childhood it was a refuge, somewhere to hide and read or write, a private special place to go. In her book, The Cuckoo Tree written in the year of her beloved mother Jessie’s death, it becomes a refuge for a lost girl, like a comfort blanket or ‘transitional object’ as psychotherapists call this type of attachment, which Joan Aiken shows as taking the place of the usual mother-child bond.
In the US edition of the book, Susan Obrant captures the tree exactly from pictures sent by Joan, and shows Dido in her midshipman’s outfit discovering the secret hideaway of of the orphaned, kidnapped Cris, singing to her imaginary friend ‘Aswell’ who turns out in reality to be her long-lost twin.
At the end of the book, having helped everyone else to find their long-lost relatives, but having failed to find the friend she herself has been waiting to meet again for so many years, Dido returns sadly to the tree, and wonders about the forgotten ‘Aswell’.
The book was written in 1970, and in fact does suggest that the two friends Dido and Simon are about to meet again, as we learn that Simon is even now walking towards her over the Downs; but faithful followers were going to have to wait over fifteen years for the next book in the sequence, Dido and Pa when Joan Aiken would at last bring them together again…
To see the tree itself, and Joan sitting in it as she is in the photo at the top of the page go to the Website and see her in the film.