• Landscapes in Children's Literature: The Arthur Trilogy by Kevin Crossley-Holland

    Children's author and poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland  creates intriguingly compelling and atmospheric backdrops to his stories often setting them in places that he knows and loves. The haunting ghost story Storm and the gripping Waterslain Angels  explore the mysterious marshlands near his home on the North Norfolk coast. Here he reveals the secret landscapes of the Welsh Borders that he evocatively re-imagined for his Carnegie Medal winning Arthur Trilogy and tempts us to discover them for ourselves...

    When we reached the top of the hill, my father pointed to the west.

    'Over there,' he said, 'beyond the Vale of Aylesbury and the city of Oxford, beyond the Cotswolds... are the Marches and ancient mountains of Wales. Can you see them?' 

    Of course I couldn't. They were well over a hundred miles away. And yet, in my mind's eye, I could.

    That's how my childhood was. A blend of the present and the past, a mix of the actual and the imaginary.

    When I wrote my Arthur Trilogy, I soon realised that my hero was in a state of in-between: in between childhood and adulthood, in between an oral and literary culture, in between centuries, in between the actuality of day-to-day life and the stories of King Arthur in his seeing stone, and sometimes at odds with a strongly structured society in which he is growing up because of his more egalitarian instincts and reflective self.

    That was when I decided that The Seeing Stone must be set in a crossing-place, and one that reflected the Celtic origins of the Arthurian legends.

    So my wife Linda and I set off for the borders of England and Wales and began to explore. You know the way in which you don't quite know what you're looking for until you find it? It was like that with our discovery of the fortified medieval manor house at Stokesay in Shropshire.

    I made repeated visits to it, I looked at it, and heard it; I smelt it and ran my fingers along its rough walls; yes, I got to know every nook and cranny, and Linda and I explored the secret landscape surrounding it. And so the day came, during a snowstorm in Minnesota, when I began to re-invent it as my Caldicot. 

    For three days, I drew and coloured a detailed field-map – complete with the cottages and crofts on Sir John de Caldicot's manor, the archery butts and hives and the pigsty, the orchard and the well and the windmill and the copper beech, all of them to feature in The Seeing Stone and its successor, At the Crossing-Places and King of the Middle March.

     The Arthur trilogy ranges widely through the Middle March. Arthur de Caldicot buys a horse at Quabbs; he visits Clunbury and Clun; he meets scribes at Wenlock Priory.

    And on the last night of the twelfth centuary, he stands on top of Tumber Hill beside a huge bonfire, its heart brighter and darker than anything he has ever seen, and looks out and about:

    Away north, I could see fires burning at Wart Hill and Woolston and Black Knoll and Prior's Holt. To the south I saw fires at Brandhill and Downton-on-the-Rock, Leintwardine Manor and far Stormer; and away to the south-west, there was a ninth fire, so far off that it kept blinking, white and cold and uncertain of itself, like a fallen star. My father said he thought this fire was at Stanage, or else Stow Hill.

    Nine fires and our own fire, roaring and crackling. But away west in front of us, the was nothing but a mask of darkness – Pike Forest and the wilderness of Wales.'

     Soon after writing these words, I had an idea. I could base the manors and castles visited by Arthur de Caldicot on actual medieval sites and ruins. Holt and Verdon and Gortanore and Catmole...

    I've been wondering: can you identify these places and then visit them for yourselves? So that you too, like Arthur de Caldicot, and like this author, have one foot in the present and one in the past, one in the actual and most beautiful Welsh Marches, and one in the imaginary world of my trilogy. 

    Kevin Crossley-Holland 


    A good place to start to look for the fictionalised places Kevin set his Arthur Trilogy would be to walk a section of Offa's Dyke Path.  This 177 mile (285 Km) long walking trail is named after, and often follows, the spectacular Dyke King Offa ordered to be constructed in the 8th century, probably to divide his Kingdom of Mercia from rival kingdoms in what is now Wales

    The Trail, which was opened in the summer of 1971, links Sedbury Cliffs near Chepstow on the banks of the Severn estuary with the coastal town of Prestatyn on the shores of the Irish sea. It passes through no less than eight different counties and crosses the border between England and Wales over 20 times. The Trail explores the tranquil Marches (as the border region is known) and passes through the Brecon Beacons National Park on the spectacular Hatterrall Ridge. In addition it links no less than three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Wye Valley, the Shropshire Hills and the Clwydian Range / Dee Valley.


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