Brambly Hedge is an English Arcadia suffused with the spirit of Beatrix Potter and Arthur Rackham. The Secret Staircase is the fifth story in the series, and the second to feature a winter setting.
Jill Barklem’s work is famously intricate and impressively well researched. She spent five years looking at the landscape around her home in the south Downs before beginning the stories, and wove local folk tales into her tales of hedge dwelling field mice.
A little like The Wind in the Willows, there is a complete social structure in Barklem’s creation. Here we’re in the big house, running up the back stairs of a rodent Downton, a vast labyrinth of impressive rooms carved out of a great oak.
Meanwhile above stairs, eccentric aristos Lord and Lady Woodmouse are hosting their annual midwinter celebrations for the local peasants. As everyone scurries about, over decorating the place, young Lady Primrose and her commoner pal Wilfred explore the upper rooms, in search of a suitably grand costume for the occasion.
The Woodmouse family are aristocratically dotty to the extent that they have somehow forgotten about the existence of an entire suite of lavish rooms in the Old Oak Palace. The Brambly Hedge books really comes into their own when Barklem opens her world out, revealing magnificent cross sections that show the detailed interiors of dozens of rooms.
We zoom out further still to see a wider cut away of the entire base of the tree, state rooms, vast kitchens and plenty of unvisited locations for the reader to imaginatively explore themselves.
Barklem is also very good at crowd scenes – populating the midwinter party with many more characterful inhabitants. And of course, being mouse Christmas, there are steaming bowls of punch and good cheer aplenty.
Best of all though, Primrose and Wilfred get to hold on to their secret discovery and end the story dozing off, dreaming of ‘All the lovely games they would play in their house at the top of the secret staircase.’
Brambly Hedge – The Secret Staircase is published by Harper Collins.
One thought on “Brambly Hedge: The Secret Staircase by Jill Barklem”
I had a Brambly Hedge book (A Winter Story, I think) and was thoroughly obsessed with those cutaways, and the sense of simultaneous abundance and hiddenness. You’re right about the crowd scenes, too. (In A Winter Story, it’s an ice ball. I can still summon up the pictures in my memory!)