|Bannermere and the places from
the mind of Geoffrey Trease.
page on the Collecting Books and Magazines web site based in Australia.
Jim Mackenzie writes of Geoffrey
Trease's Bannermere series of books.
The Books, the
Places and the People.
World of Bannermere
In the second volume
of his autobiography "Laughter at the
Door" Geoffrey Trease declares quite clearly
"Bannerdale, with its lake and forbidden
islet and its sombre mountain Black Banner
lowering over it, is one of those private fantasy
regions that authors, and especially children's
authors, love to create."
However, nowadays it is not at all easy to get
hold of "Laughter at the Door", and the
story of the creation of Bannermere is worth
telling again here so that everyone can share in
what emerges from his personal record of how he
created the place and the people who populated
As we shall see, Geoffrey Trease confirms his
own description of the author's need to have a
"magpie mind", the sort that garners
information from a multitude of sources. Each
detail gradually filters through the brain until
it emerges some time later when he finally needs
to use it. Some of the specific Bannermere
influences we can try to draw together here.
In 1940, whilst still waiting for his call-up into the
armed forces, Trease discovered that the meagre flow of
money he was earning from writing was starting to dry up.
He had a wife and a young daughter to support and so
economic necessity drove him to apply for a job as a
schoolmaster in a preparatory school on the seaward side
of the Lake District. It was at Gosforth, three miles
inland from Seascale which is on the coastal railway
route travelled so often by Bill and Penny in the
Bannermere stories. In fact Trease recalls how each
journey north afterwards gave him a "temporary
lifting of the heart" as he looked to the fells on
one side and across the Irish Sea on the other. He became
attuned to the rugged beauty of the place and, as he
walked the hillsides and explored lonely valleys, he
developed that feeling for its special inspiration which
never really left him.
However, it could never really be a permanent feeling
of happiness or content for the people that mattered most
to him, his wife and young daughter, were back in
Abingdon. The countryside was wonderful but the
loneliness was almost overpowering. There was also the
feeling of the world falling to pieces as Hitler's grip
on continental Europe began to turn into a stranglehold.
Then we must also consider the much more personal worry
about whether to send his daughter to Canada, the U.S.A.
or even Australia to be safe from the Luftwaffe's bombs.
"The tension in our lives derived not from
what WAS happening but from what MIGHT. The imagination
could function as actively amid the deceptive quiet of
the fells as anywhere else in the country."
When his call-up finally came it was to Carlisle that
he was required to report. He found himself in a hut with
ordinary men from all over Cumberland and Lancashire. He
conveys very piquantly the indignity of being stripped of
all his individuality and, as he watches his civilian
clothing being stuffed into a sandbag in order to be sent
home, he comments balefully :
"I felt halfway already to being a name on a war
Yet for a writer who is accustomed to soaking up
impressions like blotting paper does ink it gave him a
golden opportunity. He sums it up as an "enlarging
experience" and comments that
"Shakespeare could have drawn those camp-fire
groups on the eve of Agincourt from the men in my squad."
I have purposely included this brief early section of
his long wartime service because he declares that this
knowledge of the ordinary working countryman allowed him
twelve years later to create the character of "Willy
the Waller", whose troubles are the mainspring of
"Black Banner Abroad".
And yet it is not until 1947 that we come to the key
moment where all the distilled experiences of Cumberland
and Cumbrians finally produce the spur to write "No
Boats on Bannermere" and its four sequels.
It was while he was in west Cumberland on a long
lecture journey that he came to the small town of Millom.
At the end of his afternoon lecture two girls asked why
he didn't write school stories. They made it clear that
they didn't want "midnight feasts in the dorm,
secret passages and hooded figures".
Instead they required "true-to-life stories,
about real boys and girls, going to day-schools as nearly
everybody else did?"
That short conversation became a challenge and then a
year or so later turned into "No Boats on
And now for some of the facts that Trease reveals
about the Bannerdale places.
First of all he makes it clear that though there is a
real Banner Dale just east of Saddleback and there are
Bannerdale Crags ranged above it, they have nothing to do
with his Bannerdale. In fact he has never even seen that
place. His Bannerdale is a combination of both Wasdale
and Eskdale with other features drafted in from
elsewhere. The jaws of Borrowdale, for example, are the
inspiration for the Gates of Bannerdale. He declares that
Black Banner was suggested by the real mountain Black
Sail. Perhaps most importantly the town of Winthwaite was
based on Cockermouth "shifted southwards for
Thus the dedicated traveller has a few points of
reference to which he or she can make his or her
pilgrimage. But you will have to be very careful. There's
no station in Cockermouth at which you can arrive in the
rain. Perhaps it's still possible to search the streets
for Botley's in order to request the splendid cakes or
the ice-cream that makes Bill's eyes pop out (or was that
the first sight of Penny ?) It would be nice to find the
sports ground almost ringed by the hills but still
allowing a glimpse of the distant Isle of Man and imagine
again Bill's fruitless chase round the track after the
nauseating but talented Seymour, or the Kingsford devised
frantic cricket matches resembling the battle of Waterloo
or, best of all, Bill's final rugby encounter before he
too becomes one of the "old boys" of the
school. Is there a shop in Cockermouth which would do for
Mr. Morchard's booksellers and is the public library
still full of old fossils who would leap out of the
shadows to screech "Silence"?
But I am forgetting that this is an
"invented" world. In the town which produced
William Wordsworth there seems little danger that we can
ever establish a plausible "Geoffrey Trease"
trail ! I would much rather have the world of the books,
the world which has been made vivid and memorable not
just by the clarity and loving care of the author's prose
but also by the skilfully executed maps where every
detail of the adventures can be faithfully traced. I can
still remember arguing with a class of 11 year olds about
the exact place where Miss Florey meets Sir Alfred with a
spade and getting them to mark on their own neatly drawn
copies just precisely where they thought the skeletons of
the monks would lie. Just a glimpse of the Black Banner
range with its evocatively named lower peaks of Little
Man, Lost Maid and Shivery Knott is enough to send me
back to the pages where they find the almost lost valley
of Black Banner Tarn. Without being at all unreal it's
better than any reality, and you are forced very happily
to agree with the author as we give him here the last
word about Bannermere. As a one-time schoolboy reader,
one-time English teacher and now writer of rambling
articles about my favourite author, I know what he says
"Nowadays I can perhaps say, without blatant
immodesty, that it (Bannermere) does not 'exist merely in
my own mind' but exists also in the minds of a lot of
people who, in childhood or later, have read the stories
I laid there." (Geoffrey Trease
"Laughter at the Door")
Footnote:- The two volumes of Geoffrey Trease's
autobiography "A Whiff of Burnt Boats" and
"Laughter at the Door" whilst not being
commonly available are not impossible to obtain. The
information above merely scratches the surface of what we
learn about the life and work of this superb storyteller
in those two excellent volumes full of his usual
humorous, perceptive, honest and stimulating writing. I
hope the above makes you want to read them.
The World of Bannermere
The four central characters of the saga grow up during
the course of the five Bannermere/Bannerdale books. Thus
the observations here are confined to general
characteristics so that those who have not read all the
adventures will not have the stories spoiled. Similarly,
to avoid the disappointment of gaining information you
didn't really want to know, I strongly counsel against
reading the article I have entitled "A Fine
Romance", until knowledge of all the books makes you
William Derek Melbury (Bill)
Bill tells us each of the stories but the last
thing you would call him is an omniscient narrator.
Sometimes you realise that he doesn't really have much of
a clue about what is going on around him, nor a full
appreciation of other people's feelings. That is how
Geoffrey Trease conveys the very essence of what it is
like to grow up to be a major character in a story
where the reader has the benefit of hindsight and the
broader view long before Bill himself discovers these
things. What strikes you most about him is his decency
and his good humour. Whilst constantly deprecating his
own abilities, he is a talented and appreciative
classical scholar, a dependable friend and (almost
contradicting the previous comments about his lack of
perception) at times a shrewd observer of human nature.
He loves literature, especially plays, and comes to
develop a particular affection for the countryside around
Bannermere. Some of his efforts to become a writer draw
deeply upon Trease's own experiences of struggle and
failure and the need to find an individual artistic
inegrity. We share his setbacks and his triumphs, his
hopes and his fears, not just in his literary endeavours
but also when his other deepest feelings are involved.
At one point Bill declares that Susan is a much
nicer person than he is. Though one year younger than her
brother, Susan comes to terms much earlier with what she
wants from the world and the people who are going to be
most important to her. The life of the countryside has an
overwhelming appeal for her and this comes out not just
in her interest in farming but in her knowledge of
wildlife and the local people. Her friendship with Penny
is a deep one and the two of them clearly share many
secrets about their relationships. A part of the fun of
the books is the good-natured bickering and bantering
that takes place between Bill and Susan as they settle in
to Beckfoot Cottage, their life in Bannerdale and their
respective schools in Winthwaite.
Many critics have made much of the point that Trease
appeared to be breaking new ground when he introduced the
subject of divorce into this series of stories. Bill and
Susan's father is not absent through any of the
traditional stand-by devices of children's literature
an expedition up the Amazon, managing a farm
somewhere in Africa or killed whilst on active service.
Mrs. Melbury had a husband who deserted her and who went
to Canada. In his narrative Bill is careful to point out
that there are many other children like him and Susan.
However, it is better to remember Mrs. Melbury as an
eminently sensible woman who talks through each decision
that she makes with both of her children. In particular
the episode where she offers to write a letter for Bill
to the mother of an officer who was killed in the war
(Black Banner Abroad) brings out all her best qualities.
Both Tim and Penny soon turn to her as an unofficial
auntie. Susan attributes some of Penny's more foolish
errors to not having a mother like hers. The theme of
loneliness and isolation is also often explored by the
idea of Mrs. Melbury left alone at Beckfoot whilst the
children are at school or involved in some adventure.
Penny's physical appearance is mentioned many times
during the course of each of the novels. Three things are
bound to remain in our memories her dark hair, the
smooth perfection of her skin and the look of mischief in
her dark eyes. Of course we should also mention her limp,
the result of a childhood accident that has apparently
blighted her life. There are no miracle cures in Trease's
books, at least not ones for physical disabilities.
Penny's route to maturity is the hardest of all the four
children that we meet in "No Boats on
Bannermere". Her talent for acting, her natural
vivacity and her passionate nature cannot always dispel
the feeling of gloom that overwhelms her when she
considers how she might have been a success on the stage.
In some ways her access to all the books in her father's
shop and the lively discussions she has with her
affectionate parent have made her older than her years.
In other ways she is a prey to her sudden enthusiasms
that lead her into foolishness that teaches her the harsh
lessons of this world. Each member of the Melbury family
eventually brings her something she has never had before
in her life but to tell more would spoil the story of the
Tim's ambition to be a detective is at the core
of his character. He is always sensible and patient in
his approach to all the problems and mysteries that they
encounter. The combination of his deliberate procedural
methods and the sudden insights of Bill and Penny allows
the reader to enjoy every aspect of their adventures. He
represents solid Cumbrian common sense in
particular we remember the advice he gives Bill and the
others about safe behaviour whilst out on the fells.
Inevitably his slowness and "plodding"
occasionally lays him open to the ridicule of the others.
However, he laughs at himself and confesses that the
police in the district treat him warily because of
previous examples of his misplaced zeal. His future is
mapped out in a plausible and satisfactory manner
making another contrast with the insecurity that lies
ahead for both Bill and Penny.
The new headmistress of the local girls' high
school has swept through Winthwaite like a breath of
fresh air. She represents knowledge without
"stuffiness" and is ready to try new methods of
developing the limited opportunities of girls in a remote
Lakeland market town. A formidable scholar herself, she
expects and receives high standards in others. Though
clearly a generation away in age from Penny and Sue, she
understands that the world has changed and that
relationships between boys and girls as they grow up are
not only inevitable but healthy. During each of the books
she shows a great deal of determination and ingenuity in
ensuring that joint activities between the boys' grammar
school and her own establishment should foster the right
kind of social interaction. Very soon she moves from
being merely a headmistress to being a friend of the
family. In particular she wins the undying loyalty of
Penny whom she steers through various scrapes with
patience, firmness and good humour.
Though the books concentrate on the fortunes of
the four main teenage characters, it is fascinating to
note that the oldest character of all is also subject to
a process of change. In the opening chapters of "No
Boats on Bannermere" he is presented as a
"benighted old fogy". In particular he appears
ruthlessly determined to stamp out any possibility of
friendships between the boys of his school and the young
ladies of Miss Florey's establishment. As the books
proceed we see many other sides to his character, though
what stands out are his courage, his honesty and his care
for the boys in his charge. He is not ashamed to admit
when he has been wrong and he undergoes a complete
"volte-face" with regard to Miss Florey by the
end of the first book. Perhaps the best way of catching
the essence of the man is the chapter in "Under
Black Banner" where he steps in to take a lesson for
a teacher who is absent. His teaching is exciting and
compelling whilst it lasts, and clearly makes a deep
impression on Bill after it is over, for it inspires him
to take on the world of bureaucracy in the cause of the
farm at Black Banner Tarn. The subject matter of the
lesson includes a description of how Kingsford's own aunt
had behaved when fighting for votes as a suffragette. At
the time he had been ashamed of her but now he knows she
was right and he has nothing but admiration. That he
should become reconciled to Miss Florey's changes is thus
Bill's admiration and liking for Johnny, a
senior boy at his school, shows that he is becoming a far
more rounded person himself, appreciating the different
qualities that go towards making a worthwhile person. For
Johnny possesses no physical graces and in both
appearance and behaviour reminds Bill of a friendly young
horse. Susan's feelings about Johnny are rather
different. Outstanding at sport and not without ability
in his studies, Johnny is both reserved and shy when it
comes to talking. Even though he was young when he left
there, Johnny's feelings are deeply bound up with Black
Banner Farm and the possibility of life there as a farmer
if only it can be got back from the War Department.
Mr. and Mrs. Tyler
Mr. Tyler is a tenant farmer who has little
liking for his landlord, Sir Alfred Askew. He and his
wife are kind good neighbours to the Melbury family when
they move into Beckfoot. During his time as a soldier Mr.
Tyler saw much of the world but retains his deep abiding
conviction that there is nowhere like Bannerdale.
Mr. and Mrs. Drake
These two retired actors of the "old
school" live in Gowder End, one of the smaller
villages at the end of a long valley. Their cottage,
which contains a special secret, was inherited from one
of Mrs. Drake's ancestors. They are both appreciative of
Bill and Penny's efforts with the "Black Banner
Players" and regale the young actors with their own
stories of life on the professional stage. Mr. Drake had
his health broken by their special tours during the
second World War and they now live in "genteel"
poverty that arouses both the compassion and the passion
of young Penny
Sir Alfred Askew
Successful in business in India, Sir Alfred
returns to England and purchases a large estate in
Bannerdale. He is both a snob and a petty tyrant. He
attempts to play at being the local squire but does
nothing but build up resentment amongst his tenants and
the other Bannerdale people. Bill and the others have
more than one good reason for disliking this man who
clearly has a large streak of unscrupulousness.
Penny's father is another true lover of the Lake
District and of learning. He is passionate about books
and about preserving the character of the town of
Winthwaite. Bill often wonders how he makes a living in
his old-fashioned but comfortable book-shop. His concern
for his daughter never overcomes his trust in her basic
common sense. For many years she has read books upon his
recommendation and the penetrating accuracy of his
observations and questions have helped to develop her
fine mind and eliminated any sloppy thinking. Mr.
Morchard's own intelligence and his love for Penny are
often masked by an apparent absent-mindedness that
doesn't deceive Bill for very long.
There are many other characters to meet but
describing their part in the stories would actually
betray too much of the different plots for those who have
not read all the books. So you must find for yourself
"The Infernal Triangle", Gigi, Carolyn, Paul,
Cracker Crawford and the rather odd Gloria Minworth.
In "Laughter at the Door" Geoffrey Trease
makes this observation:
"Characters I have never taken entire from life,
and, if I have used any particularly recognisable
mannerism, I have felt safer if the story was set in some
Perhaps the nearest I came to
it was in Kingsford, the headmaster in the Bannermere
stories, modelled on the craggy, alarming but lovable
history-master, R.S. Bridge, who had loomed so large in
my own schooldays."
In their love of the theatre, of literature and of the
Lakeland countryside it has often struck me that there is
a good deal of Geoffrey Trease in both Bill and Penny. #
(C) Jim Mackenzie 2002
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