Wind in the Berkshire Willows, BerkshireIt is one of literature's ironies that perhaps the most English of children's books, celebrating the Thames that most English of rivers, was written by a Scot. Kenneth Grahame , however, was moved from Edinburgh to Berkshire when just five, his mother recently dead and his father retreating into the bottle.
It was thus a profoundly unsettled child who moved to Cookham Dean , a quiet village at the north eastern edge of Berkshire, where the Thames curves round gently from Burnham to Marlow . His maternal grandmother's house, The Mount (now Herries School ), was young Kenneth's new home. It was a large residence, with extensive gardens and its own bits of wild wood. Here the youngster and his siblings were allowed to roam as they wished, wandering down to the nearby river if the fancy took them. As with Mole, the river captured Keneth Grahame's heart, as it captures those of visitors still. Though Herries School has been extended, the Dutch gables and white pebble-dashing among other features still remain as they were in Grahame's childhood. His own schooling did not begin until Kenneth was nine, allowing the child plenty of time to build a world of infant adventures and quiet fantasy put to great use later in his life. It was at this early stage too that Grahame learned to love "messing about in boats" as Ratty and eventually Mole do too.
Sadly the poor state of repair of The Mount (a chimney collapsed rather dramatically just a couple of years after the Grahame children went to live there) meant that they went to live in Winkfield , in the humbler setting of a rented house, Fernhill Cottage. The privileged and settled world of the Victorian middle classes was completed for Kenneth with visits to his uncle, curate at St Peter's in Cranbourne, a pretty and simple country church with the weight of centuries carried lightly on its roof. The future author is said to have first recited his own poetry in this dramatic yet comforting setting.
Lack of funds meant rather than Oxford Grahame went to work at the Bank of England , composing his first published works in London when bored with his clerical duties. These earlier pieces, though, still leant heavily on his childhood in Berkshire, eulogising the joys of country walks, a pint of beer in an old inn, and the beautiful river. Ill-health saw Grahame take early retirement, back to his beloved Berkshire. He, wife Elspeth, and son Alistair, moved to Bohuns, a suitably solid old farmhouse in Blewbury, now in Oxfordshire but historically part of Berkshire. The stories he had told to Alastair, and had written in letters to him while away from home, were now worked up into the children's classic Wind in the Willows. Grahame enjoyed country walks, partly for the beauty of the Thames Valley, partly to escape his somewhat unstable wife Elspeth. Wind in the Willows was published in 1908, to critical disdain, but public success.
After the death of Alastair while studying at Oxford, Kenneth and Elspeth moved to Pangbourne , much closer to his beloved river Thames than Blewbury. The bereaved couple, after four years spent in Italy attempting to escape their grief and memories, lived quietly in Church Cottage until Grahame died in 1932, never having written the eagerly demanded sequel to his greatest work. Pangbourne though did contribute to its success, as the illustrator of the best-loved edition, E.H. Shepard of Winnie the Pooh fame, strolled the river paths and wandered in the woods around the town, drinking in inspiration for his line drawings of Ratty, Toad, and Mole, and of course the river itself, the real central character of the book: "He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before ˆ this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh...".
If you like this, Share it
More Cultural Britain?