Holderness and the Humber Estuary

Following a post about some of the characters in Joan Aiken‘s 1992 novel Is, also known as Is Underground, I want to examine the remaining characters, most of whom live in a town constructed in caverns below a hill.

But before launching into completing the Who’s Who of this Wolves Chronicle I want to add to comments I’ve already made about the town in earlier posts, so as to explore some of the literary influences that may have contributed to this fiction.

WARNING: spoilers follow

Glass Town cityscape by Branwell Brontë

Firstly, the town is known as New Blastburn: it was, obviously, built as a replacement for Blastburn; this, I argue, is positioned roughly where Kingston-upon-Hull is situated but it also borrows aspects of other Yorkshire locations, such as Halifax and the mines of the South Yorkshire coalfields. (There is an additional echo in the name of Blackburn, over the border in Lancashire.)

The ruler of New Blastburn however prefers it to be called Holdernesse, after the hill it’s built under in the novel, though our world’s Holderness (without the final ‘e’) is in reality a low-lying peninsula to the east of Hull and, a little further north, Beverley.

This ruler has also seceded from the kingdom ruled from London by the rightful monarch Richard IV, forming his own polity which he calls Humberland or Northumberland. This is modelled on the pre-Conquest historical kingdom of Northumbria, which extended north and west from the Humber Estuary into southern Scotland and across to the Irish Sea. A slight problem exists here, however, for there is no river or estuary called the Humber in the novel, only the River Wash (this name borrowed from a more southern estuary, situated between Lincolnshire and East Anglia): ‘Northwashland’ doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

William Henry Fox Talbot, Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, London, April 1844

Children from the south, and especially from the London area, are being lured away (as in the story of the Pied Piper, specifically mentioned in the novel) to an imagined new life of ease there: they are persuaded that this land is instead named Playland. The equivalent of the medieval Land of Cockaigne, it also parallels Toyland (paese dei balocchi in Italian) — or, as it was first translated, the Land of Boobies — in Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio which was first published in 1883.

“There are no schools there: there are no masters: there are no books. […] On Thursday there is no school; and every week consists of six Thursdays and one Sunday. [The days] are spent in play and amusement from morning till night.” — Candlewick, Chapter 30.

However, as in the Pinocchio tale, the youngsters are destined to enjoy not a life of leisure but forced labour in the mines under Holdernesse Hill and out under the North Sea.

The rebuilt town of Blastburn will in due course be renamed Is, as we’re told in the novel’s final pages, inspired by the legendary Breton city of Is or Ys submerged by the sea.

Now, what are we to make of these numerous place names — Playland, Blastburn, Holdernesse, Is and Northumberland? Joan Aiken is herself playing with a number of sources, in particular two which I want to draw attention to:

  • A poem written by the author’s older sister Jane Aiken Hodge when the latter was seven-ish, published as the opening to this novel, furnishes the name Playland ruled by the aggressive Gold Kingy (who in the poem viciously attacks Winchelsea, near Rye where the Aiken family then lived).
  • In the name Northumberland do I detect an echo of Northangerland, a polity invented by one of the young Brontë siblings? And did the name Blastburn remind the author of Glass Town, the principal city in their Glass Town confederacy (later called Angria)? In the same way that Northangerland may — just possibly — borrow from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, does Blastburn also owe something to the Brontë juvenilia? For Glass Town doesn’t only have factories and palaces but also underground passages and caverns where intrigues and uprisings are set in motion.

It’s now time to see who inhabits this underworld, and we start with the latest nefarious member of the Twite family.

A Twite family tree


Underground city built in a huge natural cavern under Holdernesse Hill and inspired by the area around Trafalgar Square

Roy Twite. Moderator of the Regional Council of Humberland. Also known as Gold Kingy. His wife is long dead, shipwrecked off the coast of Holland. (Presumably this refers to the Netherlands rather than the region of Lincolnshire by the Wash once known as the Parts of Holland.) Brother of Hosiah and Desmond, both now deceased from wolf attacks, he is thus Is’s uncle: in fact the second uncle whom she’d had no inkling of before the start of the novel. She soon realises he’s cruel and ruthless, well deserving the kind of fate meted out to his older brothers.
• The author’s description of Roy Twite — as short, stocky, whiskered and ruddy, his suit and tall hat of red plush, with a forename derived from French roi meaning king, and enthroned underground — put me in mind of fairytale dwarves excavating mines, and of troll kings (as in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt); in fact in one of the last views we have of him we’re told he “looks like a black dwarf”. The medieval tale recounted by Walter Map tells of the legendary King Herla, who entered the underground court of a red-bearded dwarf king riding a goat:

The old stories tell us that Herla, the king of the very ancient Britons, entered into a pact with another king, who was like a pygmy he was so low in stature, being no taller than an ape. As the story has it, this dwarf first approached him sitting on a huge goat: he looked just like those portrayals of Pan, with glowing face, enormous head, a red beard so long that it touched his breast.
— Walter Map: De nugis curialium (‘Courtier’s Trifles’), late 12th century, in Barber 1999: 153-155

When Herla later travels on horseback to attend the pygmy king’s wedding “he and his guide entered a cavern in a very lofty cliff, and after a space of darkness they passed into light […] to the home of the pygmies.” After the wedding, which lasts three days, Herla and his men leave the underground region, only to discover that two centuries have passed; Herla and his knights, his Herlethingi, are forced to wander the earth ceaselessly. Fated to die if they touch the ground, they become a manifestation of the Wild Hunt, last seen “on the borders of Wales and Hereford in the first year of king Henry II at high noon.”

Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy

A 12th-century mosaic of a king astride a goat, labelled REX ARTVRVS, still exists in Otranto Cathedral in the far south of Italy. Given the many Arthurian references in Aiken’s novel it seems safe to assume that Roy Twite, alias Gold Kingy, sees himself as the new King Arthur in his subterranean court — but instead of being the very model of a noble monarch he rules as a petty and vindictive tyrant.

Dagly. Roy Twite’s rather sinister private secretary.
• The surname, possibly based on Gerhard Dagly, a 17th-century lacquer work craftsman who helped popularise chinoiserie in Europe, may just have appealed to the writer.

Mr Gower. Deputy Moderator. Keeper of the Exchequer.
• A rather aloof character who turns to Is to help him save his family.

Mrs Gower. Wife of the Deputy Moderator and liable to ‘histricks’, she is anxious that their son Coppy (4) will be taken by Twite’s men to work in the mines. Her sister, Mrs Macclesfield, has already lost her daughter Helen (8) in this way.

Col, Fanny, Ted, Danny Rowe, Bob, Sam Driver and the incognito Davie Stuart — Richard IV’s son and the Prince of Wales — are all youngsters forced to work in Blastburn’s foundries. Tilda Thatcher, Hattie Smith, Annis, Len, Jack, Ridge and Dorcas are among the many children working down Holdernesse’s mines. Is met some of the others travelling up on the Playland Express.

Stritch. A train-driver for the Playland Express, the last to remain after the rest have either been called up to Roy Twite’s army or have absconded: “a right shravey cove” (according to Is) he meets a violent end at the hands of Roy Twite.

Captain Isiah Podmore. Skipper of the Dark Diamond who agrees to get letters down by sea to London.
• You may remember there was a ship called the Dark Dew in Black Hearts in Battersea crewed by smugglers, and a sister ship crewed by pirates, in Night Birds in Nantucket. This latter, oddly, was also called the Dark Diamond until it was sunk by Rosie the whale; this must be another ship with the same name.

Corso Mill

A building on the western side of Holdernesse Hill

Miss Jane Sibley and Mrs Caroline Crockett. Agèd sisters and former teachers who collect herbs for Aunt Ishie and form part of a covert network (called the Warren) of those resisting the regime and helping the children. The term ‘warren’ of course implies an ‘underground’ movement which in this case exists above ground. A little feared as witches, thw warren is also perhaps a coven.
• Coincidentally, the late philanthropist and water diviner (among other accomplishments) Jane Sibley of Austin, Texas was born in 1924, the same year as Joan Aiken.

Bobbert Ginster. The name assumed by Arun Twite after escaping from the mines, taken from a gravestone he had seen. He is also known as “The Cat” for his ability to wriggle out of awkward situations, a human feline to go with Figgin, Ginge and Montrose, the cats whom we met earlier.
• The names Ginster and Bobbert are both of German origin; Ginster isn’t uncommon in Devon and Cornwall (Ginster’s® are in fact a firm well known for their Cornish pasties) and the author, who lived for a period in the peninsula, may have come across a combination of the names inscribed on a memorial.

There will be another post with final thoughts on this novel before we move on to the next instalment of the Wolves Chronicles

• Joan Aiken. Is. Red Fox 1993.
• Richard Barber. Myths and Legends of the British Isles. The Boydell Press, 1999.
• The Brontës. Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Writings. Edited with Introduction and Notes by Christine Alexander. OUP, 2010.
• Carlo Collodi. Pinocchio. Translated in 1892 by Mary Alice Murray. Wordsworth Classics, 1995 (1883).

4 thoughts on “Holdernesse

    1. Thanks, Jo, glad it’s useful! Even more than a Who’s Who I love the equivalent of a catalogue raisonné, with characters and places instead of just artworks or books — it’s not enough just to have a list with bare descriptions, I want to know why those names precisely, what they might mean, why an author may have chosen them and so on.


        1. Thanks, Jo! I pretend to see myself as a kind of archivist within the fictional world of the narrative — it’s fun imagining that world is real and then digging through the records and coming up with hypotheses and reconstructions! 🙂


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