In the endlessly wet, cold, dark days of last January, when hibernation seemed the only possible option, I was given the perfect book to escape into – a children’s book as it happened. Reading it brought back to me the old sofa in an upstairs room where I used to go and curl up as a child and dream myself back into other times and places. I realize now that it was from the children’s authors I read then, rather than anything I learned in the classroom, that I connected with English history. They lit up my imagination. During those endless afternoons I was the lonely Roman soldier on Hadrian’s Wall dreaming of home, the medieval peasant in his hut in the forest, the little girl living near the docks in Tudor London, catching her first glimpse of the great ship Mary Rose.
So last winter I found myself back in the twelfth century, jogging along a scorching red dirt road in the company of Philip d’Aubigny, a young squire raised in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem – the narrow and dangerously exposed strip on the Mediterranean coast then still held by the Christian families who had stayed on in the Holy Land after the First Crusade. Times were perilous. Saladin had managed to unite the Turks and was preparing for a Holy War against Outremer – the land ‘across the sea’ as it was known in the Europeans’ Norman French.
The book that had me so gripped was Knight Crusader, the first in a series of twelve childen’s novels which follow the story of one family from the Crusades to the First World War, written between 1954 and 1972 by a schoolmaster whose pen name was Ronald Welch. It was no surprise to me to learn that Knight Crusader – which follows Philip’s adventures as he is caught up in the struggle against Saladin – had won the Carnegie Medal for the most outstanding children’s book of 1954. My only surprise was to discover that the entire series was now out of print.
I found I wasn’t alone.
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