DENYS WATKINS-PITCHFORD was four when he came face to face with a gnome. It was a summer’s evening, and he was lying in bed in Lamport Rectory in Northamptonshire, listening to the sounds of a game of croquet on the lawn below. In his memoir A Child Alone, published in 1978, he wrote that the encounter led to mutual astonishment.
In 1942, Watkins-Pitchford, now using his pseudonym BB, introduced thousands of children to the last gnomes in England, in his tale The Little Grey Men, which won the Carnegie Medal. I first came across the story at my Church of England primary school in the mid-1960s when it was added to the curriculum — no doubt to keep The Hobbit company — as another adventure tale that had very small people playing a starring part.
Even back then, I noticed a significant difference between the two books: Bilbo Baggins ventures into a fairytale land of trolls, dragons, and Misty Mountains; Sneezewort, Dodder, and Baldmoney set out by boat to search for their lost brother, Cloudberry, up the Folly Brook in the south Midlands. The Little Grey Men was a quest set in my own backyard: an undramatic landscape of streams, copses, and farms.
Last year, the Landlines Project ran a national competition to find the country’s favourite book of nature writing. The winner, announced on BBC TV’s Winterwatch, was Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, picked from a shortlist of familiar classics, including The Wind in the Willows, The Natural History of Selborne, and Tarka the Otter. My nomination, The Little Grey Men, did not make the final ten, but the longlist did draw my attention to the extent of BB’s output.
I quickly discovered that the writer I admired for one children’s novel had written many others, which had captivated thousands of children and instilled, or reinforced, in them the same fascination with nature. I also learned that BB had named himself after a type of lead shot, and had a propensity to shoot the things that he loved: most of his non-fiction was originally published in the magazine The Shooting Times.
BB WAS formed by his upbringing in Lamport, Northamptonshire. He was born there in 1905, and was home-schooled by a series of governesses, a teacher, and his brilliant father, the Revd Walter Watkins-Pitchford, the Rector of Lamport with Faxton, who wrote operas that were broadcast by the BBC.
But it was what he discovered out of doors that meant the most to him; he was given licence to roam, often in the company of the rectory gardener, Job Perkins, who accompanied him on fishing trips, the highlight of which was to battle pike.
During these years, the young Denys was immersed in the natural world, and began to make the sort of close observations that became the hallmark of all that he wrote later. At 15, he started attending Northampton Art College, and continued his studies at the Royal College of Art, before joining the staff of Rugby School as an art master. It was there that he began to write in earnest.
One aspect of his books which has misled some of his readers is that he liked to illustrate his own work using his real name, while reserving his alias for the text. Never boastful about his ability, he wrote: “I had two gifts — an ability to write after a fashion and to paint and draw with a modest degree of skill.”
Those who admire his work disagree. For illustrating, he usually used scraperboard: a technique in which a picture is created by scratching off a coat of India ink which has been laid on top of layer of china clay. His pictures have the same contemplative air as his writing. It is hard not to stop and stare at a fox glancing anxiously back at you in the snow, or at an alert perching heron. His attitude was one of loving observation and admiration.
From the sequel to The Little Grey Men, Down the Bright Stream, he conjures a March day: “The sun was shining brightly, the water and meadows were such a vivid green and a gentle breeze was slivering the slender yellow thickets. Overhead white clouds, like soft pillows, were drifting slowly before the west wind, blackbirds and thrushes were singing, and away over Collinson Church, a kestrel hovered just like a small paper kite.”
This quality is present in all his writing: The Little Grey Men begins with the emergence of spring, and ends with the first snow of winter. On the way, the reader experiences, sees, and hears the natural world unfold as the seasons pass.
BB is not coy about the danger and brutality in nature: the gnomes have narrow escapes from stoats and foxes. But the Grendel of the piece, Giant Grum, is human: a brutal gamekeeper who takes murderous steps to protect his precious pheasants.
The Jeanie Deanes nears her journey’s end, from The Little Grey Men
THE depredations of humans is a persistent theme in BB’s writings; the heroes of The Little Grey Men are the last gnomes in England because of pollution from sheep dip. In its sequel, there is a poignant reference to how badgers have largely escaped harm from humans because they have rarely come into conflict with them and their interests.
His hostility to the use of agrochemicals pre-dated Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and was given personal impetus in 1974 when his beloved wife, Cecily, became unwell immediately after being doused by crop spray from the farm next door. She died within weeks.
He was an active conservationist, and according to Matthew Oates, the author of His Imperial Majesty: A natural history of the Purple Emperor butterfly (to be published by Bloomsbury), he played a significant part in rescuing the Purple Emperor from local extinction by nurturing its larvae in his garden and fighting the Forestry Commission who kept removing its food source, the sallow.
Oates credits BB with inspiring his lifelong devotion to that particular butterfly by writing captivatingly about it in Brendon Chase, a children’s novel published in 1944 and made into a TV series in the 1980s. Since researching BB, I have come across many people, from amateur fishermen to gamekeepers and naturalists, who speak of the effect his writing has had.
They freely use words such as “love” and “contemplative”. Oates has suggested that he was imbued with a Franciscan spirit.
Robin and the wild pig, from Brendon Chase
BB WAS reluctant to tell of his inmost thoughts, but we do know that he was influenced by an earlier generation of writers on the outdoors — including Henry David Thoreau and Richard Jefferies, but, above all, W. H. Hudson — all of whom had mystical tendencies.
Roger Scruton has rightly observed that many of the writers, here and in the United States, who shaped the modern environmental movement had a concern with “the sacred”. In a rejection of the metrics of the Enlightenment, they were, he wrote in Green Philosophy, “painters who made hymns in word and pigment”. They were people who knew and loved specific places — as BB knew and loved his corner of Northamptonshire — and yearned to preserve them.
The response of BB’s gnomes to the drying up of their stream is a perfect expression of the oikophilia — love of home — described by Scruton.
The brook “had been their beloved companion for generations, it had provided them with fish, it had sung them to sleep, it had borne them safely back from the perils of Poplar Island and sinister Crow Wood. It was quite unthinkable that this bright and happy stream should ever go.”
Today, the whole of humanity is in the same predicament. As we have thrived the rest of nature has suffered, and we have entered what E. O. Wilson has called “The Age of Loneliness”.
When studying The Lindisfarne Gospels recently, in the British Library, I noticed that they were full of eagles. Those eagles are surely not merely theological symbols, but reflections of the wild world in which the scribes lived and prayed — the beauty of the craftsmanship proclaiming the glory of God in creation.
I have before me, as I write, Mary Colwell’s Curlew Moon (Back-page interview, 27 May 2016; Books, 30 November 2018). Its cover is one of glorious turquoise and gold, and I don’t believe that the beauty of the design of this or so many other contemporary nature books is purely about marketability. Wonder and love, whether religious or not, is meant.
BB’s writing, with its sense of the sacred and the deep connection between us and the rest of nature and our kinship with other animals — a group in which he insisted on including humans — speaks to our contemporary situation. One in which, as the theologian David Clough puts it in On Animals, we urgently need to recall “the basic solidarity between all things made by God: stars and galaxies, rocks and seas, as well as other living things”.
The Revd Ian Tattum is Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields, Priest-in-Charge of St John the Divine, Earlsfield, and Area Dean of Wandsworth, in south London. This week, he spoke at Land Lines: British Nature Writing, 1789-2014.
With thanks to the BB Society for their help with this article (www.bbsociety.co.uk).