Caught by the River

A Child Alone

Melissa Harrison | 6th October 2021

Melissa Harrison’s pair of nature novels for kids, ‘By Ash, Oak and Thorn’ and ‘By Rowan and Yew’ (the latter our second Book of the Month for October, and published tomorrow) were inspired by Denys Watkins-Pitchford’s classic ‘Little Grey Men’ books. Here she turns to his childhood memoir to better understand the author best known as ‘BB’.

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford for the cover of ‘A Child Alone’

You’d be forgiven for thinking that loneliness was a vital precursor to a childhood affinity with nature – or at the very least a comorbidity. Certainly it was a central factor in my own early attachment to the outdoors, and the more I look for it, the more I find the trope cropping up in memoirs and biographies: the solitary child finding solace in nature and developing acute observational and imaginative skills as a result. It’s enough to make you wonder whether happy children, overburdened with friendly companions, can ever hope to become nature writers, land artists or conservationists when they grow up. But then, perhaps all the well-adjusted kids end up working for Zuckerberg, or at Exxon Mobil.

In Denys Watkins-Pitchford’s autobiography, A Child AloneThe Memoirs of ‘BB’ (1978), it’s there from the title onwards, for the sportsman, naturalist, artist and Carnegie medal-winning author of The Little Grey Men, Brendon Chase, Wild Lone, The Countryman’s Bedside Book, The Pegasus Book of the Countryside and so many other classic books about the English countryside did grow up almost entirely alone. The detail and radiance of his evocations of Northamptonshire’s wild corners entranced me as a child, and still do – and although The Little Grey Men and its sequel, Down the Bright Stream, were full of companionship, I always knew their author was a kindred spirit somehow.

Denys was born in Lamport Rectory in 1905; a quarter of an hour later, to everyone’s surprise, his diminutive mother (she was 4’5”) was delivered of his twin brother. Roger was to prove the heathier twin by far: Denys was small, lacking in collarbones (he may have suffered from cleidocranial dysostosis), prone to attacks of tonsillitis and, apparently, ‘hideous’ (his childhood nickname of “Tuppeny” was bestowed by his father, the Revd. Watkins-Pitchford, who said he resembled a 2d rubber toy; he recalls his maternal grandmother exclaiming, when he was seven, “You are ugly!” – a wound which never healed). 

Serious and repeated bouts of appendicitis eventually resulted in a home appendectomy carried out at the rectory, on a scrubbed pine table; eventually his troublesome tonsils were removed in the same way. He takes pains, in his memoir, to say that he was not ‘sissy’ – somewhat over-proving the case with no fewer than three anecdotes demonstrating his physical bravery – but it’s hardly surprising he was considered too delicate to be sent away to boarding school in Scotland with Roger and their elder brother Engel; but it was Engel who was to die quite unexpectedly from a kidney condition, at only 13 years old – the same condition that would later lead to the death of Denys’s first child, Robin, when he was only seven.

And so, one brother dead, the other away during the long school terms (each ‘a barren time, stretching into eternity – loneliness, loneliness, without end!’) Denys grew up “a child alone”. One of his more poignant recollections is of getting into trouble for throwing snow at his father’s back, ‘for I had nobody to snowball with’. I well remember the odd mixture of hope and shame that accompanied my own, infrequent attempts to inveigle my parents into playing with me.

Denys’s education was patchy and piecemeal, leaving gaps both in knowledge and in experience that would affect his confidence later in life. It also left plenty of space for mystery, and he grew up a definite believer in the uncanny, from the ‘diminutive Being’ he glimpsed in his bedroom as a child – the inspiration for The Little Grey Men – to ghosts, strange phenomena and unexplained foreshadowings. In that he was a true product of the Edwardian era, for it was time when the world had not all yet been explained, and more importantly access to knowledge was far from instantaneous. It sometimes seems to me that to grow up (as most of us over 35 did) without on-tap explanations for all the phenomena that daily surrounds us was in many ways an unrecognised luxury – or at the least a key driver of the imagination. Alison Uttley’s lightly fictionalised account of her own early years, A Country Child, is similarly rich in fantasy and the supernatural, and it’s not hard to see how both authors married lived knowledge of the countryside with a sense of the world’s essential strangeness to brilliant effect.

In place of schoolfriends Denys developed a deep, rich connection to place and to wildlife – largely through pursuits such as egg- and butterfly-collecting, fishing and, from what seems now a startlingly young age – hunting and wildfowling. Here, again, he was a product of his time, for a century ago, when wildlife was still believed to be abundant and endlessly renewable, there was little contradiction between custodianship and killing – in fact, there was a close connection. Many of the last century’s most powerful advocates for conservation came from a hunting background.

And it was sport that drove the desire to seek, to learn, to pursue and to catalogue – vital skills for a young nature-lover. Allowed to range around the Northamptonshire countryside either alone, with his dog or on a borrowed pony, the young egg collector and ornithologist came to know it intimately, in all weathers and seasons. ‘The great outdoors drew me with a powerful magnetism as great as the laws of gravitation,’ he recalls. ‘I knew each hedgerow tree intimately – some had ivy on them, other attracted the carrion crows in spring…I knew every field, spring, spinney and tree in the neighbourhood of Lamport, every rabbit run almost.’ My own childhood world was smaller and less rich in wildlife – our rambling, 1970s garden, a Surrey commuter village, its woods and the local common – but at ten years old I would have sworn to you I knew it just as well.

Sadly, in the 40-odd years since I first fell in love with The Little Grey Men, our wildlife has now dwindled even more. A Child Alone makes painful reading for anyone attuned to ecological loss: in his pre-war childhood there were corncrakes ‘in all the Midland grass fields’, shrikes, hawfinches, eels, cuckoos, red grouse on Dartmoor, a wryneck in Buckinghamshire (although this he knew to be ‘an uncommon bird’ even then). And mostly there just more of everything than when he came to write the book, in the 1970s: more wildflowers, more insects, more stars at night, more birdsong, more quietness, not to mention more time, it seemed, to sit and watch, to idle the day away. This is not a campaigning book, but like The Peregrine it was written in the era of DDT and more than once he takes aim at ‘the accursed toxic sprays…so deadly and destroying’ which he believed had wiped out ‘untold millions of wild creatures, flowers, insects and trees’ – and possibly his wife Cecily, who died in 1974 of unexplained causes shortly after coming into contact with agricultural chemicals being used in a nearby field. 

Although there’s only one, brief mention of the death of his wife, and the loss of his brother is also passed over very quickly, A Child Alone is suffused with an awareness of mortality – and it’s that, I think, that lends Watkins-Pitchford’s descriptions their luminosity. Some of it must surely relate to the Great War: his younger years were peopled both by survivors of the trenches and by the gaps left by those who didn’t come back. He knows he was fortunate to have been born when he was, as he admits in the Foreword: ‘Had I arrived on the scene a matter of five or ten years earlier I would not be writing this’. 

Of course, he was 73 when his memoirs were published, so the valedictory note in his memoir is perhaps unsurprising; but as a small boy the concept of death was, I think, more real to him than it is to most children – especially given that he drew directly on his childhood diaries to write the book. He writes of realising that ‘birds, plants, trees, insects, every living thing however large or small had been burning, like my own life flame, since time began, and all around me these existences were being snuffed out completely, every second, every hour, as time went by…this perhaps was the most painful thing – the knowledge that all this wonderful world, with its light, colour, sounds, feelings, smells, would remain after I had gone, and I should have no further part in it.’ First editions of all his books carry an epigraph found on a country gravestone, a six-line Memento Mori that instructs his young readers to ‘Look ye also while life lasts’.

As a little boy, Denys was sometimes taken by his father to afternoon prayers in Faxton – nowadays a long-abandoned settlement – where he recalls the villagers arriving for church dressed in their Sunday blacks. The manor house was gone even then, but as the years passed more and more of the houses fell into ruin, and eventually the little church of St Denis was abandoned and pulled down until only the alter stone remained, half-hidden by nettles. ‘How strange it was to stand there and think that I used to sit in that gaunt old church listening to the squeaking of the harmonium and the chacking of the jackdaws in the old elms,’ he writes. ‘And now, as if by some strange legerdemain, not a thing remained, only the pipe of the wind in the weeds and grass, and the peewits crying.’


‘The Little Grey Men’ and ‘Down the Bright Stream’ are both available as Slightly Foxed editions, both featuring BB’s original illustrations. 

Melissa Harrison’s ‘By Ash, Oak and Thorn‘ and its sequel, ‘By Rowan and Yew‘ (out tomorrow) are both published by Chicken House Books, and are available in the Caught by the River shop (£7.99).