Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

A World of Magical Stories

This weekend I’ve been reading to my 8-year-old granddaughter from Joseph Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales. My grandfather bought the book when it first came out in 1890 and it was a favourite of my mother’s. She read it to me when I was a child, and I read it to my children. Now it’s the grandchildren’s turn.

English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs: note the knocker and other door-furniture!

Jacobs’s book is full of wonderful, mysterious, visceral folktales collected from the times when oral tradition still flourished in the British Isles (I think ‘English’ here actually includes a fair bit of Scottish material too!)


The tales are by turns highly moral and totally amoral – and often spine-chilling too. There’s Childe Roland, whose sister Burd Ellen is snatched away by the Demon King for running around a church widdershins: Roland has to go to the underworld to rescue her and all the other people the Demon King has turned to stone. There’s Molly Whuppie, who with her two sisters takes refuge in a house that turns out to belong to an ogre: she ends up stealing the ogre’s sword, purse, and ring, and tricking the ogre into beating his wife to death whilst she’s tied up in a bag from which Molly Whuppie has herself just escaped.

And best of all there’s the tale of Mr Fox – the dashing suitor with a big castle who turns out to have a room full of the bloody corpses of dead women. His fiancée, Lady Mary, pays a clandestine visit and from her hiding place sees him cutting off the hand of a dead woman to get her diamond ring. The hand falls behind the barrel where Lady Anne is hiding and Mr Fox doesn’t finds it, so next day at the betrothal feast Lady Anne pulls out the hand to prove her story, and her brothers ‘out with their swords and cut Mr Fox to pieces’ – an ending which my granddaughter particularly liked and kept quoting back to me!


Lady Anne pulls out the severed hand and ring to incriminate Mr Fox!

There are dozens of other fantastic, dreamlike tales. And these wonderful stories, as you can see, are closer to Angela Carter than to J.K.Rowling. I love them as much now as I did when I was a child myself. They are a passport to an archetypal world of imagination, of magic and dreamlike mythical depths which fascinates and enchants children. Girls are at least as active as boys in tricking the baddies, living on their wits and playing sharp courageous tricks. Many of the tales probably go back in essence to Neolithic times; they touch on the things in us that don’t change.

The physical format of the book is as marvellous as anything. As you can see from the picture above, the cover is designed like a door. Inside there is a message:

“Knock at the Knocker on the Door, Pull the Bell at the side, Then, if you are very quiet, you will hear a teeny tiny voice say through the grating ‘Take down the Key.’ This you will find at the back: you cannot mistake it, for it has J. J. in the wards. Put the Key in the Keyhole, which it fits exactly, unlock the door and walk in.”

The bell, with a string, is pictured on the book’s spine; the key is on the back cover. We have to go through this procedure every time the book is opened: my granddaughter insists.

Jacobs’s book is highly recommended, and new editions are available: I’ll put one of them below in case you’re interested in getting a copy!

A Visit to Green Knowe

The Manor and one corner of the gardens

The Manor and one corner of the gardens

One of the things I love most is the connection between places and writing, so it was a treat yesterday to visit The Manor at Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon, which is the setting for Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe series of children’s books.

The weather was awful – it rained and rained – and it was a 162-mile drive each way, but it was worth it. The occasion was a family party held at occasional, irregular intervals every few years: my grandfather was the brother of Lucy Boston’s mother (to put it another way, my mother’s Aunt Polly was Lucy Boston’s mother), which I think makes us second cousins, though I’m not sure. So there we were with a crowd of other relatives, close and distant, to explore the house, and talk, and just be in a magical place.

The Knight's Room: built about 1130 and alive with atmosphere (picture from the Green Knowe website)

The Manor was Lucy Boston’s home, and it figures in her beautiful series of books beginning with The Children of Green Knowe. All of the stories have magical ingredients, in particular the group of children who used to live in the house centuries ago and still make their presence felt (it seems too heavy-handed to call them ghosts); but they also involve time travel, animals, patchwork, music and above all the magic of place.

Tolly's Bedroom, complete with rocking horse (picture from the Green Knowe website)

The central point about the books is the sense they give of people living in a place over the centuries, layering it deeper and deeper with the richness of their experience. Certainly standing in the Knight’s Room at Hemingford Grey, in the part of the house which is almost a thousand years old, you can feel the vibration of time and life resonating like music from the warm, metre-thick stone walls. The Manor is said to be perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited house in Britain.

The rain stopped long enough for us to explore the beautiful gardens with their old scented roses, mock-orange and wonderful topiary, and to wander by the river that flows past with its swans floating calmly on the green current.

St Christopher - the statue is at the side of the house

The rooms are just as depicted in the books, with the toys, the rocking horse, the witch-ball, the quilts and a galaxy of drawings and paintings and other art works, including the beautiful original illustrations and cover-paintings for the books, which were done by the late Peter Boston, son of Lucy Boston and husband of Diana Boston who lives there now.

The house and gardens are open to the public quite often: for details and other information about the house, the books and their story, you can go to