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The Chronicles of Combe Dingle Wood are a series of stories about the unique folk that inhabit the wood. They have exciting adventures in 'Between time' (created for them by a friendly witch). They encounter dangers, but they do so with a sense of humour and fortitude that is typical of the West Country folk.
It was a few years after the Second Year War when I first encountered the real inhabitants of Combe Dingle Wood. Were they people trees or tree people? You know to this day I am still not sure. Perhaps you could decide? The story books I have produced are based on the records and drawings I kept in my diary all those years ago.
That morning a swirling, magical mist lay on Combe Dingle Wood. Something had awakened me. I felt the same thrill that I had felt many times before. As I looked out of my bedroom window in my Grandfather's house, the woods seemed to be calling me. The dawn was breaking and the Sun's gentle fingers were parting the grey clouds of night. There was an air of expectancy that you could almost feel. I recognised the signs, Combe Dingle Wood was about to enter 'Tween Time'. I dressed hurriedly and in minutes was running up the sloping meadow from the big house to the wood. As I reached its edge the dawn sunlight was striking through the trees. Shafts of yellow bathed the trees in a mysterious glow. I was right. 'Tween Time' was beginning. I sat beneath a great tree, which by its markings I knew to be Rosie Chestnut. I settled back, note book in hand. The Sun rose in a beautiful clear blue sky fringed only by distant white, galleon clouds. It was that time of year in 'Tween Time' called Temperous-Mag or, in our time, August.
Berry's brook tumbled down through the wood from its source high in the Mendip Hills. Beneath its clear, bright water lived stickleback, gudgeon and small brown trout. It meandered between the trees, ever dropping towards the lower dell. Within its stream, green weed bent and swirled in the current like a forest resisting the force of the wind. Dappled water cascaded over time-worn pebbles and stones where no weed grew. The torrent's turbulent music could be heard mixing with the bird song, and echoing through the branches in the clear morning air. The brook finally emerged from Combe Dingle at the lower dell and struck out across the five-acre meadow, pausing only to top up the quarry pond, before journeying on down to the Somerset Levels and, via the mighty Axe River, to the sea.
As he awoke, Wooder Elmer Dog Rose felt the cool water of the brook between his toes. He could feel the coolness rising up his roots and tinkling through his body. "Fishing", he thought "I will go fishing!" He remembered where he had found some jam jars last 'Tween Time' and he knew where he could get hold of some nets. Not for him was the way his uncle Jethro fished with rod and hook on a line.
"It weren't very nice to stick a hook into them wriggly worms. 'Taint very nice for the fish neither", he said to himself. Elmer checked himself all over. There were a few neatly trimmed branches, but this time none of the limbs he used last 'Tween Time' were missing.
"I am very lucky this time. I 'as all the arms and fingers I did 'ave last time. I am not 'aving to fiddle about learning 'ow to use new ones", he thought.
Elmer twisted out of the ground and trudged up the side of the wood to find his friends. It was this side of early and he did not wish to waste a moment of this lovely day. He reached Saxon bridge, which was an ancient stone construction, perhaps older than the wood that, in the olden days of the Diddicoys, served as the only way in for the 'girt carts' that they used to carry their wares and to sleep in. The Diddicoys had long since become Wooders (thanks to Ivy, the witch of Wooky Hole) and no longer had need for such things. Elmer crossed the bridge and walked down the path to the home of Ollie Oakdale. Ollie lived in a quiet glade surrounded by low hedges of twisted blackberry and spiky hawthorn. As he arrived the tree family were waking up.
"You be an old stop-a-bed you be Ollie and you is wasting the first day of 'Tween Time'. We's got lots of adventures to go on", called Elmer.
"I've been awake a long time but I am 'aving to sort out 'ow to use a different branch for an arm. They old foresters 'ave cut off the good un I did 'ave last 'Tween Time'. I am finding it powerful difficult at the moment", he replied as he practised picking up some dry twigs from the ground in front of him.
"That don't make no never mind", Elmer said, impatiently. "Thee will soon get used to it. I wants us to go fishing. Be you coming?"
"How do you mean, fishing?" Ollie said, suddenly beginning to take an interest.
"I do mean fishing in Berry's brook for stickle backs and they gudgeon things. I knows where there be some big jam jars, an' we can walk along in the stream and catch the fishes what is 'iding under the stones", he said smiling triumphantly.
"How is us catching 'em? With our 'ands?" Ollie questioned.
"We is using they nets on sticks what your cousin Fern do 'ave, if her will lend 'em to us", replied Elmer. 'Course, her is your family so you is going to 'ave to ask her like", he added.
"She might want to come with us mind", Ollie warned.
"That don't make no never mind either. Her is a girl—her won't want to splash around in the water and get muddy feet. She will just watch, you see", encouraged Elmer.
By this time, Elmer and Ollie were on their way down the broad path that swept through most of the village. I suppose it was the nearest thing to what we might call a road.
This was no ordinary village. There appeared to be no houses or shops and no village pub—or was there? Here and there short paths lead off the track to dells and copses wherein larger trees grew. If you looked very carefully you might just make out faces appearing on these larger trees. Their features might remind you of people you have met or seen on your local village street. One or two might have reminded you of a teacher you once had or even an aunt or cousin. Of course, as 'Tween Time' progressed, you would have been aware that the trees were becoming more and more human. But 'Tween Time' never quite lasted until they were fully returned to the humans they once were. These 'Wooders' as they were called, were the 'villagers' of Combe Dingle Wood. The dells and copses were their homes. Of course any Wooder would say that the good thing about living this way is you could choose and change where you want to live. If, for example, you got fed up with living where you were, you could easily move to somewhere else. The wooders often did. This is why the ordinary humans living on the Mendips did not like to go into the woods. They used to say you could never be sure that the path you used yesterday would still be there today. Locals said it was an enchanted place and best kept out of, unless you had business there, like the foresters had when they were about their tree surgeon duties. Combe Dingle Wood was protected by a Royal Charter. It went back as far as Queen Elizabeth 1, and as such, had to be properly maintained by the people who lived in Sherborne House, in whose grounds the wood lay. My ancestors had lived in the house since before the days of the charter. The wood was now the responsibility of my grandfather—one day it would be mine.
Bert, the village postman, laboured up the slope towards Elmer and Ollie. He pushed an old bicycle that had definitely seen better days. The chain hung loose and dragged the ground. Both tyres were so flat that they made sort of squelchy sounds as they turned, and seemed to be desperately clinging on for dear life to the buckled, almost spoke-less wheels.
"Hello Bert", said Ollie, as he came up to them. "Where did you get that old bike? It can't be of much use to you in that state".
"Never you mind about that, this yer is my authority to deliver the letters. I did see a 'uman postman just afore we did go to sleep last 'Tween Time' and he did have a real handsome bike, and I did think to myself, that is what I should get next 'Tween Time' and yer 'tis!"
"You be too big to ride it, even if 'twere all mended anyway!" Elmer said, and his grey-brown bark gave way to a broad grin.
"It don't make no never mind, it is what all 'posties' should have. We is moving in modern times now and make no mistake!" replied Bert seriously. He hurried on his way, still talking to himself about the merits of his trusty two—wheeled beauty.
Elmer and Ollie carried on down the village path. Soon they came to where Ollie's cousin Fern lived. The small copse was rapidly transforming into the village bakery. Behind the shop was the water mill. It was powered by Berry's brook. An ancient wheel creaked and groaned as the busy waters pushed the paddles aside. Inside the mill, Fern collected the stone ground flour in hessian sacks that had seen better days. She saw the boys approaching and greeted them with suspicion.
"What be you two up to then?" she asked cautiously.
"We is wanting to go fishing 'cause it is such a powerful nice day, and we was wondering like if you wanted to come?" said Ollie, brightly.
Fern looked at them in that penetrating way girls have when they don't believe that you have told them everything.
"What do you mean by fishing? Do you mean for tiddlers in the brook or trout in the quarry pond or is it summut else?" she questioned.
Ollie started to speak but she went on, not waiting for an answer.
"Anyways, you aint got no nets, or rods and that—'ow is you going to catch these fish then, with your 'ands? I 'spect you only wants me to come so as how I will bring some fresh bread sandwiches. I knows you two of old".
"Taint so—we just thought you and a friend perhaps would like to come. You don't 'ave to do nothing", said Ollie defensively.
"No, that's right", said Elmer. Taking a deep breath, he stumbled on. "You could lend us your nets though, if you still got 'um like".
"I have still got 'um, on account of I don't go lending um to no one, 'specially them that don't look after things", she replied.
Elmer and Ollie looked at each other in a resigned sort of way—it seemed they would have to look elsewhere for the nets. They both remembered what Fern was hinting at. You see, the last 'Tween Time' they had sort of borrowed Fern's dolls pram to carry stones from the quarry. This was to build a hideout in case of bandits. The stone carrying soon got out of hand when they decided to have a competition to see who could pile up the biggest pyramid. Of course you can imagine what happened. The weight buckled the wheels, and when they tried to move it, the whole frame leaned over at a very peculiar angle, and it twisted the pram-handles in the opposite direction. They straightened everything up as best they could, and then returned it late in the evening, so that Fern wouldn't be able to see it clearly. But the next day they were in deep trouble and had to take refuge in their "hide out" sooner than was expected!
"I remember what happened to my nice dolls pram last 'Tween Time'", Fern said with some anger in her voice.
The boys squirmed uneasily, reliving the embarrassment of that time and remembering the punishment they received from their parents. "We did say we was sorry", said Elmer. He went on quickly. "Anyway, it didn't make no never mind because your dad did get you a new one. We is only asking to borrow your fishing nets this time and we is willing to let you and a friend, any friend mind, come with us. It don't make no never mind who you do pick, we is not complaining".
"I am going to lend 'um to you, but I 'aint got no jam jars mind!" she continued, rather slyly. "I have decided I is going to bring along Rosie Chestnut's little cousin Buttercup and my best friends, Maizie Rowan and Betty Beeches. We will bring some sandwiches and summut to drink and we will have a nice tea party!" The thought of having to go through the torture of a girl's tea party filled the boys with horror. However, if they wanted the nets they would have to go along with Fern's plan.
"You win our Fern", said Ollie. "We will all go together after we do get the jam jars".
"Us will meet you down by where the brook does go through the edge of the wood—where it does go into the quarry meadows towards Green Down", instructed Elmer. "Oh, and don't be too long in getting there else we is going to lose the bestest part of the day!" he called as the two boys hurried off to find the jars.
"Where by is these 'ere jars to?" Ollie asked as they walked on.
"Well, you knows that old stone barn sort of thing in quarry meadows?" answered Elmer. "Well last 'Tween Time' I did see 'um there. They were in an old sack under some straw. They is still there 'appen as not. All we have to do is find 'um".
By this time, they were aware that all around them, the Wooder villagers were waking up and making ready for this new 'Tween Time'. There was a rustling excitement through the branches. Voices rose in greeting as families renewed friendships and exchanged theories on what date it might be, or how long it had been since the last 'Tween Time'. The two friends strode on down the path until they reached the edge of the wood. The path and the brook left the wood together at this point but soon after, the brook turned away in cascading torrents towards the valley and Quarry Pond. The path, however, climbed steeply towards the east and eventually reached a level at Quarry meadows. From this point, you could see across Green Down and the tops of Cheddar Gorge cliffs, then away to the sea at Weston-Super-Mare. The boys paused to take in the scenery before them.
"Tis beautiful up yer—it do give I a nice tingly feeling right down to my roots when I do look at that view", said Elmer thoughtfully.
"You can see the seaside from up yer. I do like the seaside. I expect as how I will be going there this 'Tween Time', if I can get our Dad to take us", said Ollie.
Elmer stirred himself back to the task in hand. "Look there be the old stone barn. We is nearly getting they jars. Come on!" he urged his friend.
They reached the barn and entered through the far opening that had long ago lost its wooden swing doors. A few sheep moved out of their way irritably and noisily. By now the two were beginning to look more like the humans they once were. Perhaps I haven't said before, but the longer 'Tween Time' lasts, the less tree-like they become. (Of course when the end of 'Tween Time' is near, the Wooders hear Nature's call and return to their homes in Combe Dingle Wood, ready to sleep until next time). They stooped low to enable their still quite tall branches to clear the underside of the gabled roof. It was quite dark inside but they gradually became accustomed to the light and began to search for the jam jar treasure.
Cheddar Gorge split the upper moorlands in two. Below the shear cliffs, the cart way, once a track for ancient animals and hunters, cut through and descended to the Somerset Levels. There were many caves along the route. The largest of these had, deep inside it, a great lake of crystal clear water that lay tranquil and silent beneath a sparkling ceiling. Its source was a spring deep under ground which when the lake was full, bubbled on out of the cave to meet Berry's brook just below the quarry pond. The cave was an enchanted place, for within the beauty of its glistening rock walls and swirling stalactites was the home of the Elf Princess, Eileanbeth. I should explain that for the elves of the Mendips, 'Tween Time' was always theirs, and like Ivy the witch, they were able to drift in and out, whenever it pleased them.
For the most part, the Crystal Lake was quiet and still, its glass-like surface only occasionally disturbed by the rings made by the dripping water from the vaulted roof high above. At one point, it had a flagstone jetty along its shore line and smoothly polished interior.
The goblin guards of Her Royal Highness, Eileanbeth, were passing the time playing by the jetty with a model boat that Borgan had made. Borgan and Magreth were twins, although, as is often the case with goblins, they did not look at all alike. Borgan was the oldest by a few minutes and therefore always took charge and decided what to do. I suppose it is true to say that goblins are not too bright, but they are good with their hands, and can make most things if the directions are simple enough. Borgan's boat was a triumph. It had wooden side planking, a deep hull (for cargo) and a good sail mounted on a strong mast made from a straight bramble stick that was de-thorned and polished. The sail material came from an old scarf that had been left behind after some humans had visited the cave.
"Good your boat is", said Magreth to his brother. "But float it will not I think, if cargo in it you put."
"Boat I make is good, cargo it will take, sink it will not. Strong I make it, soon you see", replied Borgan angrily.
"Where you get cargo, this I want to know?" Magreth continued to question his brother in the hope of drawing him into an argument. Goblins like nothing better than a good argument and these two were no exception. Goblin differences of opinions often came to blows, but they like this and I suppose it would be no more than you or I having a good game of football. They usually ended with a general straightening out of dented helmets and every one becoming friends again. Together they looked around for something to use as cargo.
"Stone axe you have, too big it is. Knife I have too heavy it is", ventured Magreth. "Something we need that is not too big, and too heavy it is not", replied Borgan.
Excerpted from "There be Goblins in the Wood!" by CHRISTOPHER GRAY Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Gray. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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