Corfe Castle in Dorset has, as 11th-century castles often do, an amazing history. One of the earliest castles to be built with stone. Mentioned in the Domesday Book. Twice besieged during the civil war. One of the last Royalist strongholds in the southeast until it finally fell to parliamentary forces. But most important of all – and the reason I am here today, clambering up the mound on which its ruins stand – is that at some point in the early 1940s Enid Blyton paid a visit. She rechristened it Kirrin Island, pushed it out to sea, and made it the headquarters of her most beloved creation: the Famous Five.
“In the very middle [of the island,] on a low hill, rose the ruined castle. It had been built of big white stones. Broken archways, tumbledown towers, ruined walls. Now the jackdaws nested in it and the gulls sat on the topmost stones.” So runs the description during Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy’s inaugural visit in Five on a Treasure Island. The words are purest Blyton. “A style drained of all difficulty,” as fellow children’s writer Geoffrey Trease once put it, “until it achieved a kind of aesthetic anaemia.”
It’s artless, basic, repetitive (two “ruineds” in three lines) and – a point not given much weight by Trease – wholly effective. The quote perfectly encapsulates both Blyton’s extraordinary talent for appealing to young minds – and the reason she was able to produce so much material. Like the locals who reused the castle’s crumbling stones to build their own houses, she never dug deeper than she needed to.
I am on a day trip to the Isle of Purbeck, as this peninsula on the southeast of Dorset is called, to mark the 75th anniversary of that first Famous Five book. In 1942, Blyton was already a famous author, although her most prolific years, when she would hammer out between 6,000 and 10,000 words a day on the portable typewriter on her lap, were still ahead. She had become a frequent visitor to Dorset, having fallen in love with the county during her first holiday there in 1931.
You can see why it appeals, and you can see why it appealed to a woman who remained in many ways childlike, happily unsophisticated in her tastes all her life. It is an easy landscape to love, especially on a day like today, when the sky looks exactly as Blyton describes it in the opening chapters of Five on a Treasure Island: “so beautifully blue that Anne couldn’t help feeling it had been freshly washed!” It has none of the bleakness of the Fens, or the wildness of the Highlands, or the drama of the Yorkshire Moors. It is a child’s vision of how the countryside and the seaside should be.
The railway stations Blyton and her characters used have recently been restored to their steam age glory. The wooden signal box at the Corfe Castle stop is painted cream and inside there is a roaring fire – in the ladies’ waiting room only. “Ah, Enid!” I sigh. “What wrongs feminism has done us over the years.”
I warm my hands and listen to the stationmaster and his boss explain how this summer steam engines will finally start to run again along the full Swanage to Wareham route Blyton would have known. Later, the talk turns to the effort required to ensure the right green paints were used for the station’s interiors. Buckingham green is very different from Brunswick green, apparently, and hues can even fluctuate between pots of the same colour. On a day dedicated to an author who understood the importance of consistency, and who with broad strokes filled her world with colours as bright as they were unerring, this gladdens my heart.
On the way to do some putting at the Isle of Purbeck golf club, once owned by Blyton and her second husband, I catch a glimpse of Brownsea Island. It’s now a nature reserve owned by the National Trust but, in Blyton’s day, it belonged to the kind of eccentric that England once specialised in, a woman called Mary Bonham-Christie who bought it at auction in 1927. She promptly evicted its 200 inhabitants and turned the whole place over to nature, save for a phalanx of armed gamekeepers to warn people off.
Blyton renamed it Whispering Island and put it wholesale into Five Have a Mystery to Solve, along with her nature-loving golf caddy Johnny James, described as “nut-brown and bright-eyed” by the groundsman Lucas, who tells the history of the island. Five Go to Mystery Moor got a nearby stretch of heathland and Five Go Off in a Caravan’s “enormous blue lake that glittered in the August sunshine” is Blue Pool at Furzebrook a few miles away. Kirrin Bay, in the first and several other adventures, is Lulworth Cove repurposed.
Blyton, like her father, had a photographic memory. As a child, she could scan a page once then recite it. “My imagination,” she wrote, “contains all the things I have ever seen or heard, things my conscious mind has long forgotten … I don’t think that I use anything I have not seen or experienced. I don’t think I could.” To critics, this inability or unwillingness to alchemise experience into Proper Art is her greatest weakness. To young readers, not yet ready for Proper Art and still mesmerised by the alchemy of marks on paper conjuring the world they know, it is her greatest strength.
Presumably as part of the universality that was her trademark, Blyton chose not to use real place names in her books (though she occasionally put them in prefaces), apart from a single mention of Polzeath in Cornwall, it being the place where George’s cousins usually took their holidays, until the day they have to stay with Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny instead. But Blyton’s translation of various Dorset locales into fiction is transparent enough that a day spent roaming them feels like stepping inside the books.
Part of Blyton’s appeal was always the succour she offered. Wartime was her greatest period of popularity and the unprecedented need she met surely helps explain her longevity. And jackdaws in the castle, rabbits on the ground, glittering seas and blue skies still form a welcome retreat from the world, in print and in reality.
As I leave to go back to the horrors of London, real life and rolling news, there is a sudden downpour and a rainbow emerges, arching over the station. A storybook ending, just for today.