The final book in the original quartet of stories from Brambly Hedge sees snowfall deep enough for the community of mice to organise a Snow Ball. Rather than dig in and rely on their own reserves to see them through, these rodents survive through sharing resources and community events. Jill Barklem’s world is a fascinating mixture of feudal hierarchies and socialist enterprise, which it turns out provide the perfect conditions for a grand winter party.
‘Socially, the mice live in harmony with their environment and with each other. There is a philosophy of loving kindness and mutual responsibility.’
The world of Brambly Hedge is an English Arcadia suffused with the spirit of Beatrix Potter and Arthur Rackham. There’s an undeniable cuteness about her creation, but it’s packed with enough detail to ward off the saccharine. Barklem spent years researching and producing each book, a process that went right back to childhood when she would lose herself in nature and an imaginary world of her own creation.
‘I used to crawl up the tunnels and examine all the treasures, each time finding something new and unexpected. The tunnels led up and up, finishing in a glass cupola. You could see for miles from there and it was always delightfully warm and cosy.’
As you would expect from stories about mice, food is always at the heart of these books. Gathering it from the communal store, cooking it over inviting open fires and best served in large family groups.
‘I am very interested in food. It is an ancient preoccupation – something we have in common with primitive man, and I’m fascinated by the way it has developed into an art. I collect cookery books and over the years have built up a great deal of reference on old cooking practices. I like to put old ways of doing things to the test.’
‘The social aspect of food is important to me too. Preparing food is an underestimated way of cherishing and showing love, a very simple yet very important domestic ritual.’
Jill Barklem’s other fascination as a child were works of non-fiction, including The Big Book of Engineering Feats, with sepia-toned drawings of great achievements. Then when she was at school she discovered Leonardo da Vinci and read everything she could about him. Combining with her love of nature it is no surprise that her mice are so keen on grand projects like the Snow Ball.
When asked about the practical feasibility of her fantastical world for the introduction to The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge she had this to say:
‘On a practical level, their clothes, food housing and utensils are all provided by the Hedge or the surrounding countryside. The dairy, the flour mill, the looms are all fully functional, and run on water power or are paw operated.’
Winter Story was the first of the Brambly Hedge stories to be televised. It was broadcast on Christmas Day 1996 on BBC One in the teatime slot owned by other children’s classics of the season, like Raymond Briggs’ the Snowman and Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Stick Man. At the time it was the most expensive model animation ever made, but it still retained the warmth and texture of Barklem’s original illustrations.
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