I owe lots of thankyous to a few people who, in various ways, inspired this tale. First, to my Gran who lived on the edge of Delamere Forest and who introduced me many years ago to the wonders of that magical place. Gran it was who took me and my big sister gathering wimberries down in that secluded hollow which I now know as Blakemere. We didn’t know then that Blakemere was at one time a peat bog and a lake.
And a thank you, I suppose, to the shadowy band of workers – French PoWs according to legend – who were put to work draining the ancient wetland at the end of the Napoleonic wars. If I had known as a child about the legend, I would have fancied I had seen them at work in my imagination. A big thank you to the folk of the Delamere Meres and Mosses Project who set about restoring that rich ecological heritage – and stopped me in my tracks when, a dozen or more years ago, I tried to retrace the steps I took with Gran looking for wimberries down in the wood.
A thank you as well to my son, Ben Crompton, whose MA dissertation on the letters of Samuel Crompton gave me a good insight into how an early nineteenth century working man like Solomon Whitaker might have written the story which Judy, his great- great- great-granddaughter, must now disentangle.
Go carefully into the forest,
Leave the track carefully, warily, scarily,
Storybook people live in the wood.
Go silently into the forest,
Feel the breeze silently, whispering, whispering,
Trees telling tales, singing songs of the wood.
Go moonlit into the forest,
Wait in the moonlight when shuffling, snuffling,
Badgers are scuffling deep in the wood.
Go skipping into the forest,
Down the bank skipping, hopping and stopping,
Looking for mushrooms down in the wood.
Go slowly into the forest,
Round the bend sadly, wistfully wondering
How did it happen? Such a vast clearing, flooded.
And the path to my childhood ends at the water’s edge where trees have fallen.
And, finally, a special thank you to Maggie who when she read this poem inspired by my long overdue return to Delamere Forest, asked, “What are the tales of the wood, then?” and set in motion the process of imagining which led to Solomon’s Magpie.
Here’s a snippet:
The last thing she would do before helping herself to a second cake, almost every time she ever visited, would be to go up the stairs and look out from the landing window. Auntie Vinnie’s cottage was high up and you could see out over the chimney stacks down by the canal. On a Friday afternoon she would open the window because the bell ringers at Weaverham would often be practising for a wedding and the magical sound carried for miles around. A little to the side of the tiny speck of a bell tower the brown and grey rooftops of the distant village gave way to the dark green of the more distant forest. That was Delamere. Wonderful, story-full Delamere Forest. It wasn’t really, but that is what Judy thought when she was little so it was what she still thought when she brought the forest to life at the top of the stairs as she looked at the very special painting which hung there.
A girl in a greenish white dress with a full skirt blowing in the wind looked out from the canvas to the view through the window and to the forest where she had lived. A brown shawl hung around her shoulders and she clutched a large bundle of sticks to her breast almost like nursing a baby. Her dark brown hair fell unruly upon her shoulders and across her face. Really she was shabby and yet she stood out gaily against the faded background. From a few steps away Judy thought the girl appeared young and hardly any more than a child but close up you could see that she was a grown-up. Judy always felt as if she knew her. And once, when she was small, she had been looking at it for ages when her mum came to find her. “That girl knows something,” she told her mum once when they were all round there for afternoon tea. “She has a secret and I want to find out what it is.”
“Don’t be silly, dear,” her mum had replied. “Now come downstairs for your tea.”
But she wasn’t being silly and her mum shouldn’t have said that and she remembered it every time she looked at the painting.
“Ah now, that painting,” said Auntie Vinnie as she handed the sandwiches round, “there’s a story to that…”
You can get it here: Solomon’s Magpie