Musty Books: “Astercote” by Penelope Lively (1970)

The past, bleeding into the present. It’s a staple premise of countless classic childrens’ tales, from the simplest of goofy ghost stories to the rich, folkloric intrusions of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. Penelope Lively’s beautifully lyrical debut novel includes a fascinating twist: when subsumed by the echoes of its own traumatic history, the isolated Cotswold village of Charlton Underwood also finds itself overwhelmed by the unwelcome encroachment of 1970s modernity.

Hemmed into the centre of this cultural pincer movement are practically-minded Welsh schoolboy Peter Jenkins and his more whimsical sister, Mair. Freshly arrived in the village, where their father has been installed as the new headmaster, they swiftly find themselves straddling the social (and literal) boundaries between the archaic ways of the “old village” (“Looks as though it’s been asleep for a couple of hundred years” muses Mr Jenkins Snr, with typical parental naivety) and the patios and sprinklers of their own, freshly-built housing estate, pointedly located on the other side of a dividing main road.

One drowsy summers afternoon – and Lively’s descriptions of the weather and landscape are poetry in themselves – Peter and Mair learn of the village’s grim history when their dog, Tar, vanishes into the tangled, off-limits woodland that borders the remote World’s End Farm. Here, they discover the ruins of an abandoned medieval village, Astercote, whose 14th century inhabitants were wiped out completely by the Black Death, and whose remains – and a mystical chalice, whose presence in the woods purportedly ensures the disease will never return – are guarded by the seemingly sinister figure of Goacher.

Despite giving the initial impression of having stepped out of the 14th century himself (he eyes Mair suspiciously as a potential witch, and is seemingly unfamiliar with the sound of a passing aeroplane), this is cunning sleight-of-hand: Goacher is, in fact, the eldest son of the local Tranter farming family, an unspecified childhood illness having left him with considerable learning difficulties. Befriending the children, he confides that he lives in morbid fear of the Black Death’s resurgence, a fear that itself – with delicious irony – becomes highly infectious when both Goacher and the protective chalice mysteriously disappear.

What follows is a remarkable depiction of the effects of mass hysteria. As word ripples through “old” Charlton Underwood of the chalice’s absence, isolated incidences of commonplace illnesses – beginning with the Tranters’ daughter Betsy contracting mumps – are seen as the inevitable return of medieval plague. The rational reassurances of the everyday are swiftly and terrifyingly swept away: accusative white crosses are soon painted on the doors of any resident with so much as a mild sniffle. And, once the news reaches the haughty pages of a local newspaper, the village finds itself beseiged by a deluge of rubbernecking visitors – media and general public alike – all intent on mockery and ridicule.

At which point, irrational health hysteria darkens into outright paranoia. An impromptu roadblock is erected overnight to further isolate the old village, and the inevitable, by-the-book reaction of both the local council and police force only serves to reignite the community’s deep-seated resentment of “outside” authority. “Half them’s really frightened of what they think’s happening, and the other half’s forgotten what all the fuss is about and are just enjoying having a go at Them… everyone who isn’t Us”, observes youthful district nurse Evadne; a woman caught, like the children, in the uncomfortable liminality between tradition and modernity; she is the daughter of a village woman and a visiting US serviceman, increasingly struggling to counter the scared superstition of her home village with the rational medical science of her chosen profession.

Everything about Astercote is beautifully judged, beautifully weighted, beautifully depicted. It captures the very real tipping point when an almost pre-industrialised way of rural life still extant in the mid-20th century (although the Tranters have a tractor, they have no electricity) was finally wiped out by the 1960s housing boom, the explosion of social mobility, and the march of the mass media. But it also evokes the freewheeling spirit of a very 1970s childhood (the children, of course, take it upon themselves to recover the missing chalice, largely unemcumbered by parental concern) and it captures with poetic detail a soothing sense of pastoralism. “The wood hummed and sang, life flickering and rustling at every level: insects underfoot and at knee-height, dappled moths, bees, butterflies, birds above and around…” Oh, my flinty heart has melted.

And although the ghosts of Astercote never literally materialise, the gentle hints of the otherworldly that breeze through the story are all the more haunting for their subtlety. Mair, when her conscious guard is down, experiences nebulous “memories” of the village’s medieval plight; she is subsumed by fleeting but overwhelming feelings of empathy with the doomed locals, and occasionally hears the sounds of marching cattle, and distant bells from the now-ruined church. These profound experiences deepen her sympathy for the fears of the 20th century villagers, and Evadne too claims to have picked up on these faint, psychic echoes of the village’s tragic past. But ultimately it’s the power of story that lends Astercote – both the village and the book itself – such potency. And good grief, what a story it is.

POINT OF ORDER: Astercote was adapted into a 50-minute drama for BBC1, broadcast at 4.50pm on 23rd December 1980. Tim Worthington writes about this, and other children’s Christmas ghost stories, here…

MUSTINESS REPORT: A reassuring 8/10. The pages of my copy boast a yellow pallor and a sulpherous tang impressive enough to grace the shelves of Astercote Central Library itself. It also has two library stamps from Wrenn School in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, boldly marking it as being due for return on 2nd February and 18th August 1983. I hope whoever borrowed it on either occasion enjoyed it as much as I did, 37 years later.

9 thoughts on “Musty Books: “Astercote” by Penelope Lively (1970)

  1. Chris Orton April 4, 2020 / 11:10 am

    I’ve been trying to think of a list of all of the main tropes from children’s fiction and drama. One or more of them probably fit into most stories:

    * Children moving to a new village

    * Being sent to live with an eccentric relative

    * Being the outsider

    * Spooky locked rooms or secret passageways

    * Idyllic countryside that the child initially dislikes

    * Befriending a disabled or mentally-ill, misunderstood adult

    * Bullies

    * Nefarious criminals

    * Having it all come to an end and going back to their old life


    • bobfischer April 4, 2020 / 3:35 pm

      Bonus points for inappropriate advice given by village ne’er do wells to newly-arrived children. “Now then, young Billy. You’ll be wanting to know all about hare coursing…”


  2. zoefruitcake April 4, 2020 / 12:42 pm

    My husband introduced me to this book when we first met and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I then showed him my copy of The presence of time past: an introduction to landscape history also by Penelope Lively. Published in 1976 it touches on the real life abandoned villages


    • bobfischer April 4, 2020 / 3:33 pm

      Oh, thanks Zoe – I didn’t know about The Presence of Time Past, I’ll look into that. Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

    • GStocker May 15, 2020 / 9:16 am

      Thank you for that. I have just looked up a description of it. Looks really interesting. I will try and read it at some point!


  3. GStocker May 15, 2020 / 9:12 am

    I remember the tv adaption of this being advertised in the Radio Times in the Christmas 1980 edition. It had a really good write up and I had been looking forward to seeing it. For some reason though I got in late (it might have been because I used to have a paper round back then) and only caught the second half. Thankfully though, after reading this article, I found it on Youtube. I also sent off for the book from Amazon. They were both good. Funnily enough the village which I live in is set a bit further back from the parish church. The story being that the original village used to be closer to the church, but due to the black death, it became depopulated and when they rebuilt it they did it further away and gave the site of the original village (the church excepted) a wide berth.
    Similarly another village where I went to primary school apparently grew up when the original village, over the brook, became infected with black death. So everyone (who could) upped sticks and went over the river. The original village was still there, albeit smaller, along with the parish church.


    • bobfischer May 15, 2020 / 5:07 pm

      Oh, fascinating – thankyou! Glad you enjoyed both the book and the TV adaptation.


  4. februarycallendar November 14, 2020 / 3:31 pm

    This makes me think of Peter Hitchens – yes, yes, I know, but he can be surprisingly thoughtful and perceptive when he’s not adopting the fire-and-brimstone, apocalyptic tone of his print columns – suggesting that his childhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s was the last time you could reach out into, and feel some sort of connexion with, the world that had existed before the Great War. And he did specifically say that “I reckon the last doors closed around 1970”.

    Even in the last quarter-century so much has been levelled out, though – for reasons far too private and personal to go into here, we moved from the London commuter belt to Dorset in 1994 when I was 14, at a time when I was completely in hock to the “unchanging countryside” myth learnt from my parents’ copies of the Mail & Telegraph (even though they were Labour supporters: I think they read those papers because they weren’t Left-wing culturally like they were economically). I listened to radio programmes whose core audience was many times my age – that’s how I know songs like “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife” and “It’s a Musical World”, which are lodged in my head as a memory of our final weeks in Kent, dreaming of this netherworld beyond – and had no interest in any of what a station like Kiss was doing (if I had done, my attitude to moving would have been completely different). So I felt terribly let down by what I saw as a homogenised, globally-suburbanised place which didn’t have the specialness and distinctiveness that I had been hoping for. But of course, as late as that, it was nothing on now: when I completely changed a couple of years later and got into hip-hop, I had to travel significant distances to buy any of it, something which to current teenagers – streaming Headie One et al to the top throughout the UK – would seem like something out of the early rock’n’roll era when, as you say, much of the ancien régime of rural life still survived. So I shudder to imagine how betrayed and disillusioned Mail/Telegraph believers would feel on making a similar move today, and I regard part of my function in life as warning them.

    I also think of a comment by the technology editor of Sky News recently on Twitter, pointing out that it might be hard for the current government to square the circle of speeding up internet connexions in non-metropolitan areas while simultaneously suggesting that they would help people to live “quiet, local lives”, the antithesis of what they actually do of course, and I think in many ways the entire history of the Conservative Party since the Macmillan consumer boom, when for the first time it found itself having to acknowledge that it was not running a great power on its own terms, has been the story of attempting – not usually successfully, but often being able to avoid full interrogation on the matter – to square the circle of the importance of the “unchanging countryside” myth within its internal culture and core support base (the people without whom it might not have survived the Blair wave) with what its favoured economic policies actually do to that ideal. There is a parallel between the roll-out of faster broadband &c. and the same party during the Macmillan consumer boom overseeing the launches of the likes of Southern, Anglia & Westward, ITV having started before Suez (which in many ways was clearly its making) and before the consumer boom in the big cities and (then) industrial areas where internet connexions in our own time generally became faster quicker. And Southern launched three days after Vaughan Williams died as well …

    But I also think of Colin McArthur’s film criticism where he talked about how ‘Whisky Galore’ and ‘The Maggie’ (about which two films he later wrote a whole book) reassured people that the old order of Scottish society was surviving just as global capitalism began decisively to encroach it. Something similar can be said about the otherwise inexplicable number one success of “Combine Harvester”: people wanted to use pop to reassure them that the old order of rural life survived, pop of course being a central and key factor in its passing.


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