At the heart of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, just when we need it most after all the hair-raising dangers and disasters that have befallen our long suffering heroes, comes a golden idyll celebrating all the delights of childhood. Now we are given happiness and holidays, friends, freedom and lovely food, cooking and reading, painting and swimming, sleeping under the stars and travelling with animal friends along a country road towards a hopeful solution to all the earlier troubles.
The golden description begins with warmth, simple comfort, and peace:
“When Bonnie woke she lay wondering for a moment where she was. There was no clanging bell, no complaining voices, and instead of shivering under her one thin blanket she was deliciously comfortable and warm.
A cool breeze blew over her face, the cart jolted, and then she remembered what had been happening and said softly, ‘Simon?’
His voice came from somewhere in front.
‘Stop the cart a moment, I want to get out.’
‘Not worth it,’ he said. ‘We’re nearly there.’
Bonnie wriggled to a sitting position and looked about her. The sky was still mostly dark, but daylight was slowly growing in the east. Thin fronds of green and lemon-yellow were beginning to uncurl among masses of inky cloud. When Bonnie looked back she could see that they had come over a great ridge of hills, whose tops were still lost in the blackness of the sky to the north. Ahead of them was a little dale, and loops of the white road were visible leading down to it over rolling folds of moor. A tremendous hush lay over the whole countryside. Even the birds were not awake yet.
‘That’s where we’ll have our breakfast.’ Simon pointed ahead. ‘That’s Herondale. We’re way off the main road now. No one’s likely to come looking for us here.’
He began to whistle a soft tune as he walked, and Bonnie, curling up even more snugly, watched in great contentment as the lemon-yellow sky changed to orange and then to red, and presently the sun burst up in a blaze of gold.
‘What is it?’
‘There’s no snow here.’
‘Often it’s like that,’ he said nodding. ‘We’ve left snow t’other side of Whinside. Down in Herondale it’ll be warm.’
Presently they came to the last steep descent into the valley, and Simon then allowed Bonnie to get out of the cart while he adjusted the drag on the wheels to stop it running downhill too fast. All this time Sylvia slept. She stirred a little as they reached the foot of the hill and walked through a fringe of Rowan trees into a tiny village consisting of three or four cottages round a green, with a couple of outlying farms.”
Soon they reach safety and shelter with Mr Wilderness the old blacksmith in the village. Sylvia, her sore throat soothed with some cherry bark syrup is settled to sleep in the sun in a nest of hay, ‘amid the comfortable creaking of the geese and the baaing chorus of the sheep.’
Simon and Bonnie have one of the best breakfasts imaginable, beginning with bowls of porridge served with ‘brown sugar from a big blue bag, and with dollops of thick yellow cream from Mr Wilderness’s two red cows who stand ‘sociably outside the kitchen door.’
As their healing journey continues at goose-pace, they show their strength and resilience and all that they have learned from their recent troubles:
“At night they usually camped near a farm, sleeping in or under the cart in their warm goosefeather quilts. If it rained, farmers offered them shelter in barn or haymow. Often a kindly farmer’s wife invited them in for a plate of stew and sped them on their way with a baking of pasties and apple dumplings. In return, Sylvia did exquisite darning, Bonnie helped with housework, and Simon, who could turn his hand to anything, ploughed, or milked, or sawed wood, or mended broken tools.
Pattern had smuggled one or two books and Bonnie’s paintbox from the attic out to the cart with the food and clothes, and these were a great resource on rainy evenings in the hay. They read aloud to each other, and Simon, who had never bothered about reading before, learned how, and even pronounced it quite a handy accomplishment. He also took a keen pleasure in making use of Bonnie’s box of colours, and sometimes could hardly be torn away from some view of a crag or waterfall that he was busy sketching. The girls would wander slowly on with Caroline, the cart, and the geese, until Simon, finished at last, caught them up at a run with the colour-box under his arm and the painting held out at arm’s length to dry”
Joan Aiken understands the need to balance danger and delight; after the increasingly desperate series of events we and our heroes have passed through and survived, we all need a holiday, and a chance to recover our spirits and learn what we are really made of, to remember the best things in life, and how we can create them for ourselves.
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Pat Marriott captures the peace and optimism of the idyllic journey in her drawing above, we just have to add in the glorious colours of Joan Aiken’s golden dawn
Read how this story mirrors the trials and disappointments
of the writing of the book itself