Top Tens… and Top Threes: Caves

January 28, 2011 at 12:03 am | Posted in Anne, Dick, George, Julian, Timmy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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John Mullan’s excellent and entertaining Guardian series picks out various literary ‘Ten of the Best’ categories  – villains, moustaches, fake deaths, towers, instances of invisibility etc. (Freud would probably find the selection of ‘best ofs’  I’ve highlighted here revealing but we’ll skip over that). Professor Mullan gets a big thumbs up for his learned, wide-ranging and completely unsnobbish selections. So alongside Homer, Shakespeare, the Brontes, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Proust and modern authors such as Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and Philip Roth, we also find children’s writers such as C S Lewis, Alan Garner and (hurrah!) Enid Blyton. The latter makes it into the categories of ‘Ten of the Best Swimming Scenes’ (Five Get Into Trouble), ‘Examples of Rowing’ (Five on a Treasure Island) and ‘Secret Societies’ (the Secret Seven). It’s rather jolly to see the ‘wild swimming’ antics of the Five positioned between Byron’s ‘Written after Swimming from Sestos to Abydos’ and The Swimmer by John Cheever, or the rowing from Five on a Treasure Island sitting alongside the rather darker example from The Talented Mr Ripley.

With some of these categories in mind, I am going to begin an occasional series of ‘Best ofs’ drawn from the Famous Five – by contributing a Blytonian example to categories where she doesn’t feature, or by drawing up a top three or five for categories in which there are numerous FF contenders (caves, breakfasts, beaches, horrid children). Sometimes I’ll just offer up my pick of other features of her books (animal characters, secret passages, farmers’ wives, hoards of treasure etc.). Is this extremely nerdy? Should I find a better use of my time? Probably. But please humour me and do feel free to nominate your own.

As caves have already been mentioned, I will start here. Mullan’s examples are all excellent, ranging from the cave of Mammon in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen to the Marabar Caves from E M Forster’s A Passage to India (read Mullan’s full selection here). As I do not have the whole history of world literature to draw upon I will not aim for ten and instead propose a modest three. So my offerings are:

The Kirrin Island Cave, Five Run Away Together

When the Five slope off to Kirrin Island to get away from the nasty Stick family they plan to sleep in Kirrin Castle. Unfortunately the roof has fallen in since the previous summer and they need to find an alternative place to stay. While scoping out the old wreck (too smelly, wood too rotten) Dick spots what looks like a cave in the cliffs. “There aren’t any caves on Kirrin,” asserts George, before the children make their way over the rocks to investigate further…

‘”It is a cave!” said Dick, in delight, stepping into it. “And my, what a fine one”.

It really was a beauty. Its floor was spread with fine white sand, as soft as powder and perfectly dry, for the cave was clearly higher than the tide reached, except possibly in a bad winter storm. Round one side of it ran a stone ledge.

“Exactly like a shelf made for us!” cried Anne in joy. “We can put all our things here. How lovely! Let’s come and live here and sleep here. And look Julian – we’ve even got a skylight in the roof!”‘

The skylight comes in handy as a quick exit onto the clifftop (Julian rigs up a rope) and it even helps them take a hostage in the form of the Sticks’ nasty son, Edgar, who takes an unfortunate tumble through the hole. The children make beds of heather and there is a very nice scene where they make a little fire to watch as they fall asleep. Once the children retrieve various household possessions from Kirrin Cottage, stolen by the Sticks and brought to the island (the Sticks are of course involved in Something Fishy), the cave becomes even more cosy. It’s so cosy in fact, that Jenny Armstrong, the little girl the children rescue from the Sticks’ clutches, isn’t that fussed about being returned to her parents and would rather stay on Kirrin Island with the Five.

The Billycock Caves, Five Go to Billycock Hill

‘Warning’, reads the sign at the entrance to Billycock Caves. ‘Keep only to the roped ways. Beware of losing your way in the unroped tunnels’. The caves constitute a veritable Labyrinth, and provide the perfect place for some bad men to hide kidnapped airmen Jeff and Ray. They are also cold, magnificent, and awe-inspiring. The children go exploring one rainy day, carefully staying to the roped ways. They soon come to a cave ‘full of what looked like gleaming icicles. Some hung down from the roof, others rose up from ground. In some places the one below had reached to the one hanging down, so that they had joined, making it look as if the cave was held up by great shining pillars.

“Oh!” said Anne, catching her breath. “What a wonderful sight! How they gleam and shine!”‘

The next cave they go through is smaller but full of rainbow-coloured ‘icicles’; the one after is ‘of a dazzling white, wall, roof, floor and pillars. So many stalactites and stalagmites had joined that they almost formed a snow-white screen through which the children peered’.

The children are chased out by eerie whistling sounds but luckily, Curly the Pigling is not deterred and his wanderings lead to the rescue of the two airmen. Phew. The Billycock Caves are probably based on Cheddar Caves in Somerset.

The Wreckers’ Caves, Five Go to Demon’s Rocks

Baddies Jacob and Ebeneezer supplement their dishonest earnings by showing trippers around the dark and smelly Wreckers’ Caves near the village of Demon’s Rocks. Luckily the Five, plus Tinker and his pet monkey, Mischief, have a better guide in the form of old Jeremiah Boogle, a salty seadog who spends his days sitting on the quayside smoking his pipe and telling tales of One-Ear Bill, an olden time wrecker. Curiously, the caves don’t lead back into the cliffs but instead descend steeply and wend their way under the sea (much like the undersea passage that leads from Kirrin Farm to Kirrin Island – it must be a feature of the coast in this part of the country). This makes the Wreckers’ Caves very unnerving as the sound of the sea ‘mumbling and grumbling’ overhead can be clearly heard. While many people, and not least Jacob and Ebby, have attempted to find One-Ear Bill’s hidden treasure it takes the Five, plus monkey, to finally track down the stolen hoard of gold coins.

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September 6, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Posted in Anne, Eating and Drinking, Joan the Cook, Timmy | 1 Comment
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‘”Does anyone know what happened to the sausages that were in the larder?” [asked Mother]

“Sausages – sausages, let me think!” said Julian, frowning. Anne gave a sudden giggle. She knew quite well what had happened.

Well, Mother – you said we could get our own meal last night, as you were out,” said Julian. “So we poked about and decided on sausages.”

“Yes, but Julian, two whole packets of sausages!” said his mother. “I know Georgina came over to spend the evening – but even so…!”

“She brought Timmy,” said Anne. “He rather likes sausages too, Mother.”‘

This weekend I visited a friend in Tunbridge Wells and we were invited to a barbeque. As I accompanied Julie to ‘The Sausage Shop’ to get provisions, I couldn’t help but recall the opening scene of Five Have a Mystery to Solve. Poor old Mother! The Five eat her out of house and home during the school holidays and without Joan the Cook to provide a constant stream of buns, biscuits and cakes, sausage supplies get seriously depleted. I worry about the stock at their local butchers too – despite having polished off a substantial quantity of sausages, when Mother asks the children what they’d like for dinner you can guess the reply: “SAUSAGES!”. There would be no problem if the Sausage Shop was on their doorstep. It has ample supplies of delicious sausages including ‘Kentish Village’ (pork, sage, mace and nutmeg), ‘Firecracker’ (with green and red chillis), ‘Somerset Pork Apple and Cider’ (sic), and Pork and Stilton. Just don’t tell Curly and Benny…

Whitsun Excursions

June 3, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Posted in Cycling, Travel | Leave a comment
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Ah, Whitsun week, a holiday that provides the backdrop for one of my favourite FF adventures, Five Go to Billycock Hill. At the start there is much excitement as the Kirrins set off on bicycles and make for the titular hill, so called because it is shaped like a Billycock (‘Billy Coke’, or bowler) hat. They plan to indulge in a spot of camping and meet up with Julian and Dick’s schoolfriend Toby who lives on Billycock Farm. Luckily for them, it is gloriously hot and a jolly time is had by all – well not quite all as Toby’s airman cousin Jeff is suspected of treachery when both he and an important aeroplane disappear one stormy night. As you can probably guess, everything comes right in the end. Jeff’s name is cleared, the boys are promised a trip in his aeroplane, and a massive celebratory feast is consumed.

The Five are not the only ones to venture away from home at this time of year. A number of London Transport posters from the 1920s and 30s extol the joys of out of town travel at Whitsuntide. This E McKnight Kauffer poster is one of my favourites and dates from 1933. ‘Whitsuntide Holiday Off to the countryside by Bus Coach Train Tram’. Indeed. If you travel from London to East Anglia at the weekends it is certainly quite possible that all four of these methods will be utilised in the course of one journey. Tomorrow I hope to catch a single train and take my bicycle to Colchester. From there it is a mere 10 miles or so to Mersea Island, a place renowned for its oysters, sandy beaches and tendency to get cut off from the mainland at hightide.

A Famous Five High Tea

May 3, 2010 at 10:34 pm | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Joan the Cook | 1 Comment
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A chilly Bank Holiday Monday (too cold, wet and windy for a picnic) offers up the perfect opportunity to make a Famous Five High Tea. I don’t think you can be too prescriptive about what constitutes high tea, as opposed to afternoon tea, but I would say that it is more substantial as it can double up for dinner as well, and is therefore served slightly later (between 5-6 o’clock, rather than the 3-5 o’clock for afternoon tea). The Tea Council of Great Britain (yes, there really is a Tea Council of Great Britain) suggests that high tea generally consists of bread, meat and cakes, served with hot tea.

The Tea Council offers a historical overview of the practice of taking tea in this country, tracing the ritual of afternoon tea back to Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford (left) who is said to have originated it in the early 1800s. As tea became more and more popular (often as a substitute for gin and other alcoholic beverages), working and farming communities began to have high tea, ‘a cross between the delicate afternoon meal enjoyed in the ladies’ drawing rooms and the dinner enjoyed in houses of the gentry at seven or eight in the evening.’

There are high teas aplenty in the Famous Five books (to say nothing of the extreme high teas of the Willow and Cherry Tree Farm books), although these are not always accompanied by cups of tea. After their hard day’s cycle to Billycock Farm, Mrs Thomas (mother of Julian and Dick’s friend Toby) prepares the children a substantial tea:

‘The four visitors wished they had not had such a big lunch! A large ham sat on the table, and there were crusty loaves of new bread. Crisp lettuces, dewy and cool, and red radishes were side by side in a big glass dish. On the sideboard was an enormous cake, and beside it a dish of scones. Great slabs of butter and jugs of creamy milk were there, too, with honey and home-made jam.’

It’s a hot day and the children all plump for milk rather than tea, feeling that ‘nothing could be nicer than icy-cold, creamy farm milk from the dairy on a hot day like this’ (conversely, the Tea Council’s FAQs highlight the scientifically-proven refreshing qualities of a cup of tea when it is warm outside). Mrs Thomas serves up another tea at the end of Billycock Hill, after an adventure which has involved stolen airplanes, an intrepid ‘pigling’ and a pair of ‘queer’ butterfly men. In the words of her son Toby this is so good it ‘isn’t a meal – it’s a BANQUET!’

As Samuel Pepys observed in his famous diaries, it is ‘strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everyone’ (9 November 1665), and the concept of the post-adventure feast crops up frequently in the FF books. I have referenced the memorable breakfast in Five on a Hike Together and Joan the Cook’s well-appreciated Secret Trail dinner in previous posts; both of these repasts give the children the opportunity to replenish themselves after various excitement and hardships, and debrief each other and/or their parents on what has gone before. Today has actually been relatively adventure-free but as I’ve been out of town for a day or two it’s nice to catch up with friends while making them eat retro and slightly kitsch foodstuffs. So, here is my suggestion for:

A Famous Five High Tea

First up, Joan the Cook’s stuffed tomatoes from Five on a Secret Trail. The recipe for this comes from Lucy H Yates’ The Country Housewife’s Book, first published in 1934 [my variations in brackets].

‘Take half a dozen ripe, but not over-ripe tomatoes [or one giant ‘Jack Hawkins’ (yes!) or similar tomato per person]. Cut in halves and remove the seeds. Prepare a forcemeat of a breakfastcupful of breadcrumbs and one tablespoonful each of grated cheese, chopped onions [or spring onions] and kitchen herbs (parsley, with basil or lemon thyme) [plus some of the flesh of the tomatoes, but no seeds]; moisten with one egg. Stuff the tomatoes; breadcrumb them and crown each with a nut of butter, or a few drops of olive oil. Fry or place in a baking dish or a quick oven.’ [220°c for about 20 mins]

Serve with new bread and butter, and salad. Technically this should be the Secret Trail salad but quite frankly, I think this is just too much, the Secret Trail salad being a small meal in itself. We ate our tomatoes with spinach, rocket, watercress and avocado with ricotta, a squeeze of lemon, a splash of white balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil. Incidentally, and perhaps ironically, I wouldn’t recommend tea with this and would instead opt for a glass of wine.

For afters, Carnation Milk Strawberry Jelly. Nestlé’s milk (in this context please pronounce ‘nessels’ rather than ‘neslay’) is a staple foodstuff for many of Blyton’s adventuring children, so even though I’ve not yet come across the Kirrins eating this particular dish, I think it has a place in a Famous Five High Tea.

Dissolve one packet of strawberry jelly (other flavours – lime for instance – would work well too) in 150ml of very hot water. When it has cooled down, slowly add one tin of evaporated milk, whisking gently as you do so. Pour the mixture into small dishes and leave to set for 2 hours. Garnish with fruit and gratings of chocolate [NB if you avoid Nestlé’s milk for moral reasons, many supermarkets sell own brand evaporated milk].

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