If you have read The Little Grey Men you will know all about Oak Tree House and the Stream People, and how three gnomes – Dodder (a lame gnome), Baldmoney and Sneezewort – went up the Folly Brook to look for their lost brother Cloudberry, and how they discovered him, after many adventures, fit and well and full of high spirits.
You will remember too all about the Jeanie Deans, a toy ship they found on Poplar Island, what fun they had aboard her and how they all went back to Oak Tree House on the banks of a Warwickshire brook.
If you have not read it, it doesn’t matter; perhaps you will one day before very long.
These four – Dodder, Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Cloudberry – were the last gnomes left in England. All the others, and the fairies who used to inhabit the green places and the streams, had long ago disappeared but our gnomes had survived for so long because they lived in a very secure and ancient oak tree in a remote part of the Warwickshire countryside. They had managed to avoid coming into contact with the Mortals for hundreds of years, and, believe me, that took a bit of doing! For this very same reason the badger survives to this day: one of the oldest animals we have, he has endured simply because he never shows himself during the day (except when he is ill or old) and is very particular never to get mixed up with Mortals and their quarrels and he never (or very rarely) steals their property, as is the habit of the foxes, rats and some wild birds.
Soon after the gnomes got back to Oak Tree House after their hair-raising adventures, I left the district where they lived. I often wondered what happened to them because I knew that men were at work spoiling the Folly Brook and all the lovely country in those parts. And perhaps I never should have known their fate if it were not for a little bird, who told me the rest of their adventures. From what he narrated to me I have managed to piece together the following book. It happened this way.
One April morning quite recently, when I was in Pricket Wood watching a bottle-tit (a long-tailed tit) build its nest, a tiny yellow bird came hopping about among the blackthorn just over my head and I recognized Peewee, the willow wren, newly arrived from Africa.
It was Peewee who gave me the facts. He had them from his wife’s cousin who happened to live by the Folly Brook, so you may be sure he was telling the truth, and Woodcock had also told him a great deal. But Peewee was a bad storyteller and he had to stop every now and then to look for caterpillars and other little green insects, besides which he was still very tired after his long journey. So I will tell you myself in my own way, just as I did in the first book.
Well, after the Animal Banquet (that is a sort of jolly feast) in Oak Tree House, and all the birds and beasts went home, the gnomes and Squirrel fell fast to sleep. The fire went out and it became very cold inside the tree. But the gnomes were as warm as a litter of puppies. They all squeezed up, one against the other, and tucked the dead bracken bed around them and then they snored and snored. December passed, January came (what a bitter winter that was too!), with the snow piling up in drifts about the oak tree root and the Folly was like black iron. It was a bad time for the Stream People. February came and still the snow lay. Sometimes it thawed and became all dirty and brown, but soon fresh snow would come and whiten it again.
It was not until mid-March that one could feel the spring stirring. At last the Folly Brook was unbound and could sing its old sweet song, buds appeared on the willow trees and the tits, Blue Button, Bottle Button (the long-tailed tit), Black Bonnet (the marsh tit) and Spink the chaffinch, began to get busy in the hedges and woods. The water-voles came out of their holes and sat in the sun, warming themselves, and the red-gartered moorhens began to think about nest building.
Big winds came roaring over the greening water meadows, weeding out every rotten tree and pulling them out of the ground. The March wind is Nature’s dentist, it pulls out every decayed stump and rotten branch and makes the trees sound and well again.
And how busy the peewits were over the ploughlands, tumbling about in the pale windy sunlight crying ‘A week, a week, two bullocks a week!’ It was good to think the bitter winter had passed.
And then, one such windy day, when the Folly flashed and the first celandines gleamed on the warm bank, newly painted with yellow varnish, there came a scrabbling on the door of Oak Tree House. ‘Scratch! Scratch! Scratch!’
Dodder was the first to stir. And how stiff he was! He pushed away the bracken and stuck his big nose out like a sleepy dormouse.
Sure enough, someone was scratching very loudly on their front door! Now this was a great breach of animal etiquette. Never before had the Stream People dared to disturb them from their winter sleep. Dodder was so puzzled and annoyed he awoke the others.
‘Hi! Baldmoney. Ho! Cloudberry. Hey! Sneezewort! Wake up! Wake up! There’s someone scratching on the door!’
Baldmoney turned over with a grunt and sat up, his beard full of bracken bits. ‘Someone at the door?’
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
‘Disgustin’. What are the Stream People thinkin’ of?’
‘Go and see who it is,’ commanded Dodder, rummaging about among the bracken for his leg. ‘Tell ’em to go away, give ’em a piece of your mind.’
Baldmoney grunted. Particles of bracken had got down his neck and he felt all tickly and irritable.
He felt his way to the door and undid the bolts and bars. When he opened it, the flood of brilliant light and rush of cold sweet air blinded him. He passed his hand over his face and then he sneezed so violently he fell over.
‘Who’s there? What do you want?’
‘It’s me, Water-vole,’ came a squeaky voice. ‘We thought you ought to wake up because something dreadful’s happening.’
Baldmoney opened his left eye a tiny way and slowly he became used to the blaze of light.
Soon he could make out the familiar form of Water-vole appearing extremely agitated.
The poor animal was so upset he could hardly speak or make himself clear. ‘Oh dear, it’s awful, it’s awful!’
‘What’s awful?’ asked Baldmoney irritably, for he was not yet quite awake.
‘Why, the Folly – it’s getting so low and we don’t know what’s the matter. All our galleries and holes are high and dry and there’s only just a trickle of water coming down!’
‘Well, I expect it’s because of the dry weather,’ said Baldmoney, rubbing his eyes. ‘Don’t get so flustered, Water-vole, it isn’t like you.’
‘But there’s been plenty of rain, it can’t be that. We’re afraid the miller’s been playing some tricks up at Moss Mill and he’s stopped the water. All the Stream People are worried about it. Some of the voles from Lucking’s meadows are moving house because they think there’ll be more water down this way.’
By now Baldmoney’s eyes had become accustomed to the light. He stood there with bracken and dried grass in his beard and gazed at the Folly. And I must say he had a nasty shock. On the oak root was a pale bleached band quite a foot in width which showed the usual height of the water. Normally they could almost launch their fishing-boats from the very doorstep of Oak Tree House but now the level was far below and in place of the brown pool there was a wide expanse of wet green shingle.
‘All right, Water-vole, I’ll fetch the others. Dodder’ll be here in a minute.’
‘What’s the trouble?’ Dodder was at his elbow. He had put on his bone leg and like Baldmoney was rubbing his eyes in the unaccustomed glare of day.
‘The Folly – look at it!’ exclaimed Baldmoney, now thoroughly alarmed. ‘Looks as if it is running dry or something.’
By now Sneezewort and Cloudberry had appeared and Squirrel too. They all staggered sleepily down the wet shingle to have a look.
‘This is serious,’ said Dodder. ‘Looks as if we’re all going to be left high and dry, and see who’s coming down the stream!’
Round the bend above the oak tree came a party of water-voles and seven or eight distracted moorhens. ‘Looks as if they are in a hurry, let’s ask them what’s the matter.’
In a few moments the frightened birds and animals came up to them. ‘It’s awful,’ gasped a mother vole. ‘The stream isn’t running at all now up by Lucking’s meadows, only the pools hold water and the fish! – you should see them kicking about on the shingle!’
Dodder, who had been looking at the stream with a keen eye, suddenly gasped, ‘Pan save us! Look at the fish in the pool – they’re all going downstream.’
The others followed his gaze and, sure enough, it was as Dodder had said. The amber depths were alive with fleeing fish. They were passing in cloudy shadows, hundreds and hundreds of fish: perch, roach and minnows, all jostling each other, pushing and darting, with fear writ large in their jewelled eyes.
‘That’s bad,’ said Dodder. ‘They know something’s up too.’
One of the water-voles began to snivel. ‘What’s to become of us all if the Folly dries up?’ she wailed. ‘Where shall we go?’
Extract from Down the Bright Stream © 1942 The Estate of Denys Watkins-Pitchford