Over the stream and across the field is the world of Brambly Hedge…
Are you a Brambly Hedge fan?
If so, then you probably know that Autumn 2020 marks 40 years since British author/illustrator Jill Barklem published the first four picture books in her charming series — Spring Story, Summer Story, Autumn Story, and Winter Story.
Released simultaneously by HarperCollins, they proved immensely popular among readers of all ages despite being written primarily for young children. To date they’ve been translated into 13 languages and have sold over 7 million copies.
I was drawn to Barklem’s incredibly detailed illustrations long before I actually read the stories. This is not surprising for a longtime Beatrix Potter fan who can’t resist anthropomorphized animals dressed in smart clothes. In fact, I probably first saw Barklem’s adorable mice on pieces of Royal Doulton china.
Once I familiarized myself with all the characters and spent ample time in their idyllic English countryside, I was totally hooked. Brambly Hedge continues to attract generations of new readers with its emphasis on traditional values and universal themes such as family, friendship, community, seasonal self-sufficiency, and sustainability.
A nature lover since childhood, Jill was inspired by the countryside where she grew up, especially the ancient woodland, Epping Forest. At age 13 she suffered a detached retina, which prevented her from participating in sports, so she spent her afternoons indoors, concentrating on art and botany. Her love of drawing flowers and twigs eventually prompted her to study illustration at St. Martin’s School of Art in London.
She did not look forward to the long commute from Epping to London on the underground every day — but eventually made good use of her time by escaping into her own richly imagined world of mice who lived in the trunks and roots of trees and hedgerows.
This is how Wilfred Toadflax, Primrose Woodmouse, Poppy Eyebright, Mr and Mrs Apple, and all the others were first conceived. After graduating from St. Martin’s, Jill briefly worked for Lion Publishing, penning a few picture books and illustrating Bibles, but she didn’t feel she was doing her best work.
It wasn’t until after she married antiques dealer David Barklem — who encouraged her to pursue her fantasy mice project — that she began to work in earnest on Brambly Hedge.
She researched intensively for five years to make her mouse community as authentic as possible. Since they were a self sufficient society, they not only grew, processed, and preserved their own food, they also produced the materials from which their clothing was made. Jill studied British agricultural methods to learn about harnessing wind and waterpower for the dairy and mill, even making miniature working models for the machinery in the stories.
She obsessed over every detail — each blossom, leaf, blade of grass — collecting a wide variety of flowers, seeds, nuts, shells and feathers to use as models. A good cook, she even tested all the recipes to make sure they could be made from foraged ingredients.
Equally important, she made her mice very “mouse-like” despite their human dress and behavior. There’s a lot of personality in those little whiskers and perky ears poking through straw bonnets trimmed with flowers and berries. The ideal world she created is a place safe, peaceful, and comforting, where young and old are taken care of, where people are caring and kind.
In true community spirit, they all work together for the common good and take the time to properly celebrate important milestones, joyfully observing the best of what each season has to offer.
In Spring Story, they plan a surprise birthday picnic for young Wilfred Toadflax; in Summer Story, everyone’s busy preparing for Poppy and Dusty’s wedding; in Autumn Story, they work diligently to bring in the harvest (though little Primrose gets lost), and in Winter Story, there’s the magnificent Snow Ball, held in a beautiful Ice Hall they construct themselves.
Much like the Potter books, Barklem’s work looks quintessentially British. Yes, I love the outdoor scenes (Jill’s early botanical studies held her in good stead), but I adore the interiors and the serious attention to FOOD (no surprise).
The books contain fabulous cross sections of the mice’s dwellings — they’re like dollhouses in trees, elaborate multi-level homes with rooms crammed full of books, furniture, and other personal effects. The Store Stump, run by Mr Apple, is where all the Brambly Hedge food is stored. There’s a central hall leading off to many passages, staircases and storerooms stocked with pickles, jams, honey, and nuts.
Lord and Lady Woodmouse live in the Old Oak Palace — the finest domicile in Brambly Hedge, where their cook, Mrs Crustybread (so veddy British!), holds reign in splendid kitchens boasting floor to ceiling pine dressers and work tables brimming with all manner of china, crockery, jars, and linen.
Summer Story contains interesting cross sections of the dairy and flour mill, both powered by waterwheels. Barklem’s structural/architectural details are just as exquisite as her botanical drawings; all invite eager eyes to look, look, and look again. So much to discover and smile over (a miller mouse called “Dusty” because he’s always covered in flour). 🙂
As for the food, well — there’s ample evidence of the Brits’ serious love of picnics in Spring Story (oh, those wonderful wicker hampers bursting with freshly baked buns, primrose puddings, cheeses, bramble brandy, honey, and pies).
If you’re attending the Midsummer’s Day wedding by the stream, expect a bevy of cool foods: cold watercress soup, fresh dandelion salad, honey creams, syllabubs, meringues and wild strawberries. Thirsty? Pick from white, meadowsweet or elderflower wine (cooled in the stream, of course). And don’t forget the gorgeous wedding cake!
Equally as appetizing are the simple foods: Mr Toadflax enjoying homemade bread and bramble jelly on his front doorstep is an endearing sight; perhaps you’d prefer Mrs Apple’s seed cake with hot acorn coffee, or you’d like to join the entire Toadflax family for hot chestnut soup to ward off the winter chill?
Brambly Hedge’s enduring appeal has much to do with a human longing for congenial fellowship, a slower pace, and a more innocent, accepting world. All through the year — spring, summer, autumn, winter — what a wonderful chance to live in harmony with nature and enjoy good times.
Windfall Apple Cake
As they do every autumn, the Brambly Hedge mice are busy harvesting the last of the berries, seeds and roots, then taking them to the Store Stump to be stowed for the coming winter. When Lord Woodmouse and his daughter Primrose are gathering blackberries early one morning, they are warned of coming rains, so LW sends Primrose home so he can make arrangements with Mr Apple.
Instead of going straight home, Primrose takes a little detour, first picking wild flowers, then lunching on blackberries before taking a short nap. Her parents become frantic, searching all over the house and the nearby fields. Soon everyone is out looking for Primrose, who has no idea she’s causing such alarm.
She soon spies a tiny house high in the cornstalks; she climbs up and peeks in a window, then is invited in for tea by a pair of elderly harvest mice. They’re happy to have a visitor, give Primrose some cake, and share their family album with her.
After she goes on her way, Primrose realizes she’s lost, and with darkness falling, tries her best to be brave. Luckily she encounters the search party, happily reunites with her family, and is finally tucked into her own comfy bed.
But back to that cake. Since that’s Mr Cornelius’s favorite part of the story, we decided to make the apple cake recipe we found at the Brambly Hedge website blog. After all, what is autumn without apples?
Our resident leprechaun (who now sports a dashing pandemic beard), peeled, cored and chopped the apples into bite size pieces. Then, with a little help from our trusty food processor, we blitzed the rest of the ingredients together before adding the apples and sultanas. Into the oven for about 35 minutes, and we were rewarded with a tasty autumn cake to go with our tea.
It was the perfect way to celebrate Brambly Hedge’s 40th Anniversary, reminding us how much we love the stories. Care for another piece?
Windfall Apple Cake
- Around 220g fairly tart apples (approx. 2 medium size)
- 220g/2 cups self-rising flour
- 110g/1 stick butter
- 110g/2/3 cup light brown sugar
- 100g/3/4 cup sultanas (golden raisins)
- 2 large eggs
- 100ml/1/2 cup milk
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Peel, core, and chop the apples into bite size pieces.
- Put the flour, cinnamon and butter into a food processor and blitz until you have a breadcrumb consistency.
- Add the sugar, egg and milk, and blitz again. The mixture should be thick but pourable.
- Pour the mixture into a bowl and stir in the apples and sultanas.
- Line an 8″ inch round cake tin and pour the mixture in. Sprinkle on a little Demerara sugar if you want a crunchy topping.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.
- Leave to cool or enjoy while still just warm with a large helping of clotted cream!
♥️ Check out the new 40th Anniversary edition of The Complete Brambly Hedge, released by HarperCollins in September 2020. It contains the four seasonal stories mentioned in this post, as well as the four stories that followed: The Secret Staircase, The High Hills, Sea Story, and Poppy’s Babies.
THE COMPLETE BRAMBLY HEDGE: 40th Anniversary Edition
written and illustrated by Jill Barklem
published by HarperCollins, September 2020
Picture Book Anthology for ages 3+, 248 pp.
♥️ In the late 90’s Brambly Hedge was made into a stop motion animation series for television (they expanded on the basic stories). Enjoy “Autumn Story”:
*Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.