Musty Books: “Children of Winter” by Berlie Doherty (1985)

There has perhaps never been a more apposite time to read Children Of Winter. As a deadly pandemic sweeps across Britain, three youngsters self-isolate, breaking off all contact with older family members. The spectres of 17th century plague foreshadow 21st century life even moreso than they haunt Catherine Tebbutt, the 1980s narrator of this gentle timeslip story.

Caught in a summer storm at the end of a bus journey to visit their grandmother in rural Derbyshire, Catherine and her younger siblings shelter from the rain in a remote barn. Already aware of a strong familial link to the local landscape (the barn stands in Catherine Field, on the side of Tebbutt Hill) she feels an overwhelming connection to the ancient building itself, and is subsumed by a chilling race memory seemingly inherited from an ancestral namesake. For the 17th Century Catherine Tebbutt was a 13-year-old girl exiled by her parents to the same barn, instructed to isolate there with younger sister Tessa and brother Dan while an outbreak of bubonic plague ravaged their defenceless village.

The timeslip element may act as an alluring klaxon to summon fans of Alan Garner or Penelope Lively, but here it’s essentially a simple framing device for the main narrative. As 1980s Catherine recounts the story of her spirited ancestor to her attentive siblings, we are transported – for the bulk of the book – to the rural Derbyshire of the mid-1600s. And, as Catherine, Tessa and Dan prepare to spend an unaccompanied winter fending for themselves in isolated farmland, they are forced to consider the real crux of the story: what actually constitutes home?

At first understandably scared, the youngsters begin to form reassuring attachments to their new surroundings, coining endearingly childish nicknames. The source of their water is the “trickle-stream”; a fallen tree-trunk dragged into the barn by Dan becomes the “thinking-log”; and they are swiftly joined by the family’s resident cow, Cloudy, who brings “the smells and comfort of home every day”. Dark thoughts, of course, still intrude: six-year-old Dan becomes convinced of the presence of a night-time ghost, hearing it “walking in the straw, making it crackle”. The ultimate culprit is a visiting field mouse, with Dan’s acceptance of this (“He’s my friend. I think I’ll call him Ghost”) further testament to their increasing stoicism.

Autumn fades to winter, and Doherty’s depiction of the children’s battle against the deteriorating weather is both affecting and evocative. Gathering wood for the fire dominates their days and physically exhausts them, and although the arrival of snow provides the opportunity for both scenic and literary beauty (“it hushed the distant prowl of wolves and the dry crackle of the crows; it seemed to cloak the field with quiet and comfort”), the resulting conditions force the trio to compromise their pragmatic approach to the plague. Where once they had refused to touch the cloth of an emergency food parcel left for them by their mother on a nearby riverbank, they now have little option but to smother themselves in the winter sheepskins dumped in the barn by itinerant shepherd, Clem.

There is genuine darkness, too. The siblings face deliberate infection from local farmer Maggie Hoggs, consumed by grief after the death of her own six children (“Let me breathe on them the breath my children breathed on me!”) and, in a truly chilling scene, Dan notices that – of the fifteen village houses visible from their hideout – only seven now have smoke rising from their chimneys.

But the true test of their resolve – and, indeed, the extent to which the barn has become “home” – comes with the arrival of Clem himself, wracked with illness and seeking help and shelter in their snow-bound hideout. Conflicting emotions collide, as the children’s innate desire to nurse him tangles with their reluctance to allow the breach of what has become a secure and comforting refuge. Ultimately, it is six-year-old Dan that blinks first. “I wanted to comfort him,” he tells his sisters through the waves of his own resulting fever.

The story is clearly inspired by the plight of the real-life Derbyshire “plague village”, Eyam, and there are some intriguing historical Easter Eggs dotted throughout. I raised an eyebrow at the children’s ability to read the Bible, then felt guilty for my cynicism: with the dawn of the Age of the Enlightenment, literacy rates rose rapidly in 17th Century England. I also chuckled at the children’s suspicion of potatoes, still an exotic newcomer to British diets in the mid-1600s. These are charming adornments, but – even without them – Children of Winter would make an affectingly human story for any era. As Berlie Doherty herself says: “It could be about refugees from a war or from any kind of disaster. It’s about survival”. Told with tender sensitivity, its resonance with life in 2021 is certainly both touching and telling.

POINT OF ORDER: The barn itself is real – it’s close to the village of High Bradfield, in the countryside surrounding Sheffield. There’s more information on Berlie Doherty’s website, here:

https://berliedoherty.com/books/children-of-winter-eyam-great-plague

In January 1988, Children of Winter was read by Sylvestra Le Touzel for Jackanory. In 1994, it was dramatised for the Channel 4 schools series, Book Box. That version is here:

And, in May 2021, Berlie Doherty herself uploaded a reading to her own Youtube channel:

MUSTINESS REPORT: 4/10. My 1992 reprint was bought in a North Yorkshire bookshop in July 2021. It has only the vaguest whiff of must, with pages the colour of an April sunrise.

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