Willoughby Chase is a place

The fictional town of Blastburn features in these two novels

“The past fortnight I have been to Willoughby again,” as Daphne du Maurier did not write. With a number of other enthusiastic Joan Aiken fans on Twitter I have been discussing this author’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase chapter by chapter. Our genial and generous host Ben Harris got us to consider literary points, to be creative with words and materials, and to ponder related matters.

The last month or so has also seen me blogging about Aiken’s Midnight is a Place, a novel set in the same or a similar universe and, as it happens, also featuring the fictional town of Blastburn. Both these distractions have proved immensely enjoyable and — as one of my parting shots — I pray your indulgence as I share a few thoughts and conclusions.

And if anyone who’s on Twitter is interested in the full range of tweets just search the hashtag #WilloughbyReads to see what the fuss is about.

The road from Willoughby Chase to Blastburn and beyond

One of the tasks was to imagine the stately pile that is Willoughby Chase, but you may like to know where in the paracosm or alternative world Joan Aiken had conjured up I thought it was situated. To fit in with clues in the text of the novel — 50 miles to the sea, for one — I discounted Willerby Manor (now an hotel) just to the west of Hull in East Yorkshire and Willerby Wold in North Yorkshire (where a Neolithic long barrow once stood, now mostly levelled). Instead I sited it further west, at Thorpe Willoughby in North Yorkshire. There is no mansion here, but this is fiction after all.

My map shows Willoughby Park with the river flowing through which, the action being set in winter, Bonnie and Silvia skate down, are chased by wolves and take refuge with goose boy Simon in a cave in the woods. (This could conceivably be a stone-lined passage tomb in a long barrow.)

Blastburn, as I’ve suggested in the case of Midnight is a Place, could be conveniently overlaid on Kingston upon Hull. When the young fugitives cross over the river they head towards Great Whinside — which I assume could be Wold Top by Normanby Le Wold in Lincolnshire, the highest point in that county. Rivermouth is where Sir Willoughby and Lady Green embark on the Thessaly, and I’ve accordingly placed this port where Grimsby is sited.

A detail from Pat Marriott’s cover illustration

We were also invited to do our own impression of Willoughby Chase based on indications in the text. I went for a frontage partly inspired by Elizabethan houses like Hardwick Hall but with a curving stone staircase leading up to the entrance, brickwork in a herringbone pattern and other descriptions from the novel.

Willoughby Chase House frontage

At another point we were asked to come up with a plan of the house: tricky, as Joan Aiken gives us lots of information but it’s not always possible to marry it all up. In particular the secret passage from the schoolroom down steep stairs, past an anteroom to the Great Hall, library and down to the dairy all had to be factored in.

Plan of Willoughby Chase house

Willoughby readers were also invited to do portraits of some of the main characters. I only managed to get round to the creepy character Mr Grimshaw — he of the wolfish grin — who pumps poor young innocent Silvia in the train carriage for details of the set-up at Willoughby Chase while trying to tempt the starving orphan with cakes and other tidbits.

Mr Grimshaw shows the gentler side of his predatory character

I never got round to food-related tasks or dioramas but I did complete a boardgame challenge. In this race game, appropriately called Willoughby Chase, at least two players (maybe Bonnie and Silvia) take alternate turns rolling one die to move their counters around a maze-like course, following any instructions given. They also try to ‘collect’ characters (there are at least a dozen mentioned) counting each new one once and once only.

Willoughby Chase, the board game

The ‘props’ in the photo reference the passage of time up to Easter 1833 (the date is determined by the moon), the geese — two are called Goosey and Gandy — which Simon walks from Blastburn to London, and the round the world voyage that Sir Willoughby and Lady Green never completed.

The last two weeks has been extremely enjoyable, having virtual conversations with Aiken fans — both established and new — all enthralled by the storytelling of this, the first of the Wolves Chronicles. Ably marshalled by Ben readers too many to mention created, shared and applauded with wit, knowledge and enthusiasm. I’m extremely grateful to Ben Harris who invited me join in and to Lizza Aiken who suggested me to him in the first place.

I leave you with two of Pat Marriott‘s original illustrations featuring wolves, the first of the creature who leaps into the train carriage to attack Silvia and Mr Grimshaw, and the second taken from the cover of the early Puffin edition of a pack menacing Silvia and Bonnie in Willoughby Chase Park early one evening.

Don’t groan: I have one more post — a wrap-up of my discussions of Midnight is a Place — yet to come, plus a second review (of sorts) of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

This extra review will feature some of the ‘new’ chapter headings I wrote for #WilloughbyReads, since the author neglected to provide any for the eleven divisions of the novel

11 thoughts on “Willoughby Chase is a place

    1. Thanks, Johanna, it was a lot of fun, and it goes a long way to explaining why my engagement with blogging and other people’s posts has been intermittent! I’ll try and do a bit of catching up in the next little while as well as posting some new reviews.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Willoughby Chase is a place — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. earthbalm

    I’m currently reading the Gormenghast trilogy and have ordered several Edward Gorey books. I mention this only because your Mr Grimshaw drawing fits in beautifully with my current aesthetic. Hope all is well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is, Dale, thanks, and hopefully with you too! I’m glad Grimshaw caught a bit of the old Gorey magic — unintentionally, but rather fortuitously. 🙂

      I must embark, sooner rather than later, on my continuation of series, whether new-to-me like Gormenghast or rereads like His Dark Materials, Mortal Engines, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. (Notice any common factors?!) I’m way behind, distracted by classics and shiny new books and somebody offering me their pre-owned copies… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not groaning at all, Chris. All the details contained in this post are fascinating and I’ve greatly enjoyed being part of the #WilloughbyReads gang. Your Grimshaw is very close to the one of my imagination too. You and Ben have successfully converted me to Joan Aiken and I will definitely be reading more. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joan Aiken is the kind of conversion therapy I can unashamedly approve of, Anne! Yes, the #WilloughbyReads community was great to know and well worth neglecting dedicated blogging for a fortnight; it’s a bit of a bump to come down from that euphoria… 😁

      Pleased you liked the Gimshaw: I was so impressed with all the creative things done under this banner, the salads (!), dioramas, portraits, plans and games, as impressed as I was with the insights into the writing of TWOWC. And I agree, Ben marshalled it all so ably, didn’t he. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not groaning either. The Twitter event sounds like it was a great success and I’m very impressed with the variety of activities you managed. Everything I read about Wolves reinforces my intent to read the series. Soon! Meanwhile I shall await your next post on the subject with much anticipation!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a great success, Sandra, thanks, lots of participation both at the heart and at the fringes. Many of the participants were Key Stage 2 teachers, but there were also college lecturers, folklorists and authors! I’ve scheduled a final post on Midnight in which I also mention Wolves: I do hope you manage to get round to the series, but only when you’re ready!


  5. I am sorry I missed out on this one, it looks like you had a lovely time delving into the heart of Willoughby. I’m penciling the series in for my Christmas break.

    And, love your art-work. It sounds like I should keep your maps and floor plans to hand for reference.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cath! Yes, I hoped the maps and plans would help any new readers navigate their way round the twists and turns of the plot, much as I increasingly did for other instalments in the series. Just four more titles to go now!

      Liked by 1 person

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