In “Colonel Sheperton’s Clock” a little wooden galleon, ‘The Golden Rose’ was the centre of all David’s daydreams and adventures. In that fantasy world he could leave behind his handicapped leg and all the feelings of inadequacy that went with it. The prosaic and rather under-stated build-up to the operation that will give him a chance to walk and run like anyone else, is actually presented as less important to David’s emotional growth than the friendship of Peter and Arthur and the mystery that they stumble across when they find a scrap of an old newspaper inside the organ of Darnley Mills Parish Church. When they solve the puzzle of Colonel Sheperton’s clock and David realises that there is adventure and heroism on his own doorstep if you know where to look, it breaks the chain that has bound him to the obsessive and escapist fantasies of childhood. This idea is continued in “Sea Peril” where David gains further self-respect when he discovers within himself the instinctive courage to put his swimming ability to good use and rescue the drowning Jane and her dog. As the series progresses the author allows David more and more opportunities to reflect on the world around him with perception and increasing intelligence. Though not allowed to dominate any of the action, his thoughts about his own future career and whether it will take him away from Darnley Mills, becomes a strand of the storyline that sustains this plausible representation of his progress to maturity.
It is only when you get to the end of the modern cycle of stories that you realise each and every one, though set in the present, has had strong elements which have led back to the past. Even certain events in the two series mirror and reflect each other – the summer journey of the boys upriver in “Sea Peril” so that they can explore the Bridgebolton Estate is matched by the magical Boxing Day journey of Richard and Emma down the Darnel in the opposite direction to “Powder Quay” during that first winter of World War I. The snow piled high that stops for a while a doctor getting through to the injured Midshipman Diggle in “Powder Quay” reminds us inevitably of the snowbound cottage of Miss Cadell-Twitton in “The Grange at High Force” and the desperate journey made by the boys to rescue her. Most poignant of all, however, is the moment in “War on the Darnel” when the lost engine, “Taffy” is found in the shed in the yard on the Bridgebolton Estate. It isn’t just a reminder to all of the boys about the former importance of the lost railway and how it was a part of the economic life-blood of the region; it is a personal message to David about the courage of his great-grandfather, Taffy Hughes, in whose honour the locomotive was named. His own resolution having been tested and found reliable, David can meet this tangible reminder of the past with happiness and pride. The reader, who knows about Taffy’s later life from “Powder Quay”, and who witnessed the way he coped with the death of his wife and then his only son, realises that there is far more to this family “inheritance” than David has yet understood. But now we are back to the adult themes that are explored indirectly in the final volume, “Skull Island”, through the painful experiences of Peter’s aunt.
Each of the “Darnley Mills” stories is strong in narrative grip, rewardingly deep in characterisation and themes, compelling in its description of northern landscapes and seascapes, and “The Grange at High Force” was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal. Nevertheless it is only when one has read all the nine inter-linked stories that one can truly appreciate the extent of this lost domain that has been created by this skilful author.