Exploring Humberland

Euston Station, Doric arch 1839

Joan Aiken‘s alternative world created for her Wolves Chronicles bears a great similarity to ours but with a number of significant tweaks to make it feel unfamiliar, even disconcerting.

With a plot that ranges from Blackheath — south of Greenwich — north to London and then on to the northeast coast (to what Aiken calls Humberland) this latest chronicle from this world is not just different because it’s set in the 19th century but because there’s no Queen Victoria on the throne.

I’d like to guide you as we follow in the footsteps of Is Twite, the uchronian heroine of the novel Is — named, of course, after Miss Twite or possibly from the new name of Blastburn, a location based loosely on Kingston-upon-Hull.

The story opens on Blackheath (‘bleak-heath’) where a wounded traveller seeks safety from a marauding pack of wolves in the former barn where Is and her older sister Penny are now living. Blackheath, despite Greenwich Park having taken a bite out of it, was historically a wild place, anciently crossed by Watling Street, a mustering point for rebel armies, the haunt of highwaymen and the location of gibbets. Because by the 19th century all the wolves had gone, exterminated as late as the Stuart period, Aiken imagines her wolves to have migrated from the Continent via the Chronicles’ Channel Tunnel.

When Is leaves for London she travels westward on Watling Street (here the A2) along Shooters Hill Road, Blackheath Hill, Blackheath Road, through Deptford on New Cross Road and onto the Old Kent Road. At the junction with Great Dover Street she turned north to cross Tower Bridge, a fictional precursor to the famous Gothick Victorian drawbridge built in 1894.

Once across the Thames she will have turned east, onto Wapping High Street towards Shadwell Docks. Here, at Sampan Stowage off Green Bank, were her friends the Greenaways; I wonder if their family name was inspired by the Kate Greenaway medal, won by longtime Aiken illustrator Jan Pieńkowski but, sadly, never by Wolves illustrator Pat Marriott (who died in 2002 in Abergavenny). At the Greenaway warehouse Is meets the sad personage ‘Baron Renfrew’, in reality King Richard IV pining for his missing son Prince David.

From Wapping she next walked around the Tower westwards along Cheapside and Holborn, then north along Farringdon Street before turning west again, along Euston Road, to St James’ churchyard and a disused clog factory.

St James’ Gardens, Euston

The 1895 Ordnance Survey map shows St James’s Gardens, site of the former graveyard. We can see the burial ground truncated by Cardington Street, with the eastern end occupied by Euston Station (initially completed in 1837, with its iconic arch later demolished in the 1960s). The clog factory may be imagined to have stood here, the clandestine site of the London terminus of the novel’s Playland Express which it’s whispered will take London’s ‘lollpoops’ to a land of unimaginable joys.

The graveyard actually belonged to the parish of St James’s Piccadilly, used from 1790 until it was closed in 1853. It is on the Playland Express that Is hitches a ride from Euston to discover what has really happened to her cousin Arun and to the young Prince David.

Euston Station 1837

Thus begins her journey to what the street children have been told is the Joyous Gard Hotel. Most will recognise this as a reference to Arthurian legend, in particular to the Morte Darthur in which Joyous Gard is Lancelot’s castle, identified by Malory as either Alnwick or Bamburgh Castle, both in Northumberland.

Now, historically Northumberland (or Northumbria) is, as the name implies, the ‘land north of the River Humber’, but after the early medieval period it shrunk to become the area between the Scottish border and the River Tyne, eighty miles north of the Humber estuary. All the evidence points to Hull as being the model for Blastburn, and the former marshland southeast of the Yorkshire Wolds — Holderness — being the site of the underground city of New Blastburn or Holdernesse. And medieval literature in fact underlines this identification.

* * * * *

Early in the 13th century appeared the anonymous romance Lancelot of the Lake. A certain White Knight arrives at a defended site in search of adventure (Corley 1989:104ff); after reaching the end of a track

“he looked at the castle, and saw that it was proudly and splendidly situated, for the whole fortress sat high on natural rock.

At the foot of the rock, on one side, ran the Humber; and on the other side ran a great stream.

The castle was called the Dolorous Guard, because every knight errant who ever went there was either killed, or at the very least was imprisoned there.

Below the castle was a very pleasant town called Chaneviere,* and was situated right on the river Humber.”

When the White Knight successfully ends the enchantments of the castle he renames it Joyous Garde. Before that he learns that his true name is ‘Lancelot do Lac’ and that he’s heir to King Ban of Benwick. This could almost be a confirmation that Roy Twite, alias Gold Kingy, saw himself as a successor to an ancient kingdom.

As we’ll discover in a later post, Gold Kingy is searching for a particular holy grail, one which will apparently give him eternal life. However, Sir Lancelot he is not: the first person Is meets after escaping from the train (in a rolled up carpet) is a priest from St Bridget’s church who’s actually called … Father Lancelot. And he lives at Number 2, Wasteland Cottages — another suspiciously Arthurian name familiar from the grail romances and also very apt, because the town of Blastburn is itself is devastated, a Blakean satanic landscape with demolished properties.

Blastburn, from Midnight is a Place

We’ve come across Blastburn before in the Chronicles, first in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) and then in 1977’s Midnight is a Place (which may or may not be part of the series). Some details from my sketch map reappear in Is and transpose easily, others are less certain.

James Street is here described as the “grandest thoroughfare” in the town. The public library has lion statues outside, and the imposing entrance hall has a pair of curving staircases meeting at the top of their flights. The Old Post Office is 5 minutes away by horse cab, down a side street. The Infirmary is by Strand Gate, near the iron foundries, the docks and the canal. (In contrast, Hull’s Infirmary was originally built in 1784 away from the docks, on Prospect Street.)

Away from the central area, Holdernesse Hill was to the north and east of Blastburn. The lower slopes were reached by cart from the station: halfway down stood St Bridget’s with its steeple and Wasteland Cottages, both amidst the ruins of factories, stables and warehouses. Remaining terraced houses were as high as five storeys high (No 2 had a cellar with four storeys and an attic above).

Somewhere further out by a stream is a flour mill, the redundant and now decrepit Corso Mill where two aged sisters live, refusing to be moved elsewhere and forming part of a passive resistance movement.

* * * * *

But wicked uncle Roy Twite had tunneled into Holdernesse Hill, creating New Blastburn or Holdernesse within the caverns. Its focus was Twite Square looking like Trafalgar Square: a column with Roy’s statue dominated the space, and down one side stood his Palace with pink granite columns outside and an imposing galleried throne room; mansions lined the rest of the square.

Leading off Twite Square, perhaps akin to London’s Piccadilly, ran Twite Avenue, home to stores, galleries, and amusement arcades. Electric tramcars trundled along the streets. Like Hull, which had gas street lighting by 1822 and a police force by 1836, Holdernesse scarcely lacked any amenities, apart from taste and soul.

Holderness in the early 19th century

Also under Holdernesse Hill, and stretching out 5 miles under the sea, were the coal mines, with the raw materials that powered the foundries and provided Roy Twite’s economic strength. Holderness (without an ‘e’) in our world has no such upland nor seams, however: it’s reclaimed marshland subject to high erosion, a ness or sea promontory of farmland (from Scandinavian holdr) leading to Spurn Head, a shifting sand spit at the mouth of the Humber estuary. Aiken’s spelling Holdernesse may deliberately echo Lyonesse in Arthurian legend since it suffers a similar fate.

Hardback dust cover

The labour force for the mines was provided by the children who had been lured away from London with false promises (the local children had already all been taken). In our world the Coal Mines Regulation Act became law in August 1842, making it illegal from 1843 for women or children under the age of ten to work underground in Britain, but no such law pertained in Gold Kingy’s realm, which he’d walled off from the south of the island.

Curiously Pat Marriott’s cover design for this novel changed from the hardback dust jacket to the paperback edition, with the children of the first being replaced by adults, which makes no sense plotwise.

1993 paperback edition

Joan Aiken borrowed the names Playland and Gold Kingy from her sister Jane’s early poem, quoted in the novel, but Playland was the latest in a line of mythical lands of plenty where no work needed to be done and food was there for the picking: Lubberland, Schlaraffenland, Het Luilekkerland, the Land of Cockaigne, and Big Rock Candy Mountain, for example.

País de Jauja is the Spanish version, named after a Peruvian town (pronounced ‘Shausha’) in the Andes; and this reminds me of the mountain Juhuhooa mentioned in her sister’s poem with beautiful birds, beasts, cats, fruits and flowers. (Her paradise is in ‘the Mediterrranean’ [sic] however.)

The Land of Cockaigne (1567) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Blastburn’s Playland, in whatever form, was not to last. Just before Joan Aiken completed Is, between January and March 1991 Iceland’s active volcano Hekla erupted for the third time in twenty years (1970 and 1980–1981 preceded that, the previous eruption being 1947–1948). No doubt this encouraged her to include its violent volcanic activity as a plot element, though unlike our world, this precipitates a tsunami that affects the North Sea coasts. Joan loved to include crises caused by volcanoes, using the device in The Whispering Mountain, The Stolen Lake, and Limbo Lodge.

We do know that, after being dormant for six decades, Hekla erupted between 1845 and 1846, but this of course doesn’t fix the date of the action of Is, as we will discover.

Hekla 1850-1

Following this post on places there will be further ones on people, themes, incidentals and timelines.

Lancelot of the Lake. Translated by Corin Corley, introduction by Elspeth Kennedy. Oxford World’s Classics. 1989: 104ff.

* The French name of the town, which must be from chenevière or chanvière), is related to chanvre or cannabis and signifies a garden plot for growing hemp in the Ardennes region of Northern France

4 thoughts on “Exploring Humberland

  1. Another wonderful commentary, and I love the Arthurian connection, it is obviously right, and somehow I just took it for granted! The ‘covers’ story is interesting, I think the publishers were a little worried, but usually there would be a change from hardback to paperback edition.
    Lovely images you have found too!

    One of my favourite Is quotes is from Is: ( https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/favourite-aiken-moments/ )

    “What’s the point of reading?” Is had grumbled at first. “You can allus tell me stories, that’s better than reading.”

    “I’ll not always be here,” Penny had said shortly. “Besides, once you can read, you can learn somebody else. Folk should teach each other what they know.”


    “If you don’t learn anything, you don’t grow. And someone’s gotta learn you.”

    Well, thought Is, if I get outta here, I’ll be able to learn some other person the best way to get free from a rolled-up rug.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, that’s my favourite quote from the novel, Lizza, and of course that’s the great thing about Grandpa Twite’s printing press — reinforcing the message about having stories to read. Which is why Roy’s destruction of Wasteland Cottages, including the press, was such a philistine act (to add to his other atrocities).

      The next post I’m preparing about Is will be about themes, including the Arthurian ones, and you can probably guess what the Grail will be (something to do with eternal life)…

      The cover changes from hb to pb I can understand, especially if they’re for different publishers, but unless the dust jacket really proved a disincentive to buy I still question the change to adult foundry workers.


  2. buriedinprint

    I can only imagine that Joan Aiken would have been tickled pink by the attention you’ve paid to her details. It’s just delightful, too, to be able to follow a character’s journey in such detail, with the aid of digital mapping app’s in concert with personal perambulations (when possible).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re lucky (even if some aspects are scarily Orwellian) to have so much information available at our fingertips. At least we have the propensity to apply imagination to others’ imaginative endeavours, which I’m not sure AI can do just yet. I hope Joan would have been pleased at my creative interpretations, and at least her daughter Lizza is around to tell me if I’m on the right track or not!

      Liked by 1 person

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