‘The end of the Easter holidays was drawing very near, only two more days remained before that dark pedantic spectre, begowned and mortar boarded, would arise and beckon its five hundred odd victims from every corner of the Isles, just when the meadows and woods were most alluring and the year was in it’s prime.’
Thus begins the greatest and possibly most subversively enticing children’s book of all time. ‘Brendon Chase’, eponymously named after the vast stretch of oak woodland that the boys run away to, involves the exploits of three adventurous malcontents known as Robin, John and Harold, three boys who live with their Aunt in Cherry Walden and who, desperate to avoid the dreaded return to their boarding school Banchester, hatch a plan to run away and “live in the forest like Robin Hood and his merry men” .
The book was written in 1944 by Denys Watkins-Pitchford, under his soubriquet ‘BB’, who was a brilliant writer of both nature and children’s books, a keen amateur naturalist and observer of the countryside and a skilled artist whose wonderful wood engravings and paintings adorn many of his books.
Under a silvering moon the boys creep out and escape their fastidious Aunt making their way to the vast woodland of Brendon Chase where they find themselves a huge oak tree to live in. The book is rich in natural description and knowledge and BB cleverly entwines his love of nature into the rollicking and captivating plot lines.
The boys soon settle down to life in the forest learning to hunt, skin and cook their game and as the weeks go by they become adept at living off the fat of the land, discovering the woods and the water therein, all the while evading Sergeant Bunting whose keen detective mind leads him to suspect the chase as the boys destination.
The world BB evokes is truly magical, a world where vast untamed stretches of Oak forest still carpet southern England, where the summer’s are green and hot and full of butterflies and birds and where the only roads are the thin ribboning white chalk tracks dustily winding from village to village. It is a world where winter is always deep with white snow, and a world where one can escape the mundanity of adult life to live wild and free should you have the courage.
Such is BB’s skill in writing that it can be enjoyed by children and adults and never seeks to infantilise or coddle the reader. It is remarkably undated and the subject matter remains an alluring and powerful story ever more pertinent in today’s ever increasingly busy and modern world. There is real adventure to be had in Brendon Chase and is, in my view, simply the greatest children’s book ever written.