This might be the first example I had of coming to a children’s book via merchandise. I was given Brambly Hedge stationary as a gift and wrote my first ever story in the exercise book. I was also intrigued by the words on the back:
“The mice of Brambly Hedge live on the other side of the stream across the field. If you look very hard amongst the tangled roots and stems, you may see a wisp of smoke from a small chimney, or through an open door, a steep flight of stairs deep within the trunk of a tree…”
I love the fact they could be anywhere, near anyone. They could be other side of my stream, your stream, anyone’s field. It was a really clever way to start the imagination firing… And the illustrations are gorgeous, highly detailed, mixing animals with nature.
I had the very good fortune to chat to Jill some years ago, as she was another very kind lady like Shirley Hughes, who responded when I sent them a letter asking for help during a University project. I was amazed and thrilled that Jill phoned for a chat, she was a lovely lady to speak to.
Jill told me that she got interested in art as she had an eye complaint that was thought to worsen if she played sport at school, so sat drawing in the Art room instead. She went to St Martins School of Art and would sketch the countryside on her hour long train journey into London. Interested in both biology and art, ‘Brambly Hedge’ is a mixture of the Lake District and Epping Forest, near her home.
She has a studio in her house with a large desk and various cubby holes filled with odd bits, leaves and berries. She draws a rough version of her sketch first, and then photocopies the roughs and goes over the characters in pencil, adding ink, and then watercolour for a final result. Jill likes to draw out of season, as “if you draw out of season you look back with more nostalgia.”
She had just got married when she started Brambly Hedge in 1980, so her husband supported her financially at first. She took her portfolio and lots of research to three different publishers at the same time, which she admitted was a little naughty, but received an offer within two days.
Her favourite book to date is The Secret Staircase, as she likes to draw exteriors and interiors, and I could hear the smile in her voice when she said that her drawings can take ages, but are helped along with a bit of chocolate! However, she had an eye operation which meant since then she had only done bits and pieces of work. Even though her eyesight is now better, she said it was hard to take the plunge to do the books again. She sounded a very nice person, and seemed very pleased I liked her books.
Our chat was back in 1998, and it seems the last new book Jill wrote about Brambly Hedge was Poppy’s Babies, in 1994, although all eight are so popular that they are continually in reprint. It is a speculation, but perhaps her eyesight now struggles with the tiny detailed precision that her illustrations require, so, since Poppy's Babies felt like a natural stop, perhaps she has decided it is best to leave the mice there.
Since then, the books have been successfully adapted to a TV series by the BBC, and there is plenty of collectable merchandise out there, so the world of Brambly Hedge lives on… So next time you are passing a stream, do look towards the other side, as you never know what you may see…