Great Uncle Merry is a bit of an enigma - always here, there and everywhere, off on some mysterious quest or other - and there was something about him that made his family, the Drews, reluctant to ask where he'd been or what he'd been up to. He hires a house in a Cornish fishing village, near St. Austell, one summer, and Simon, Jane and Barney and their parents go to spend the holidays with him.
One wet day they go exploring in the house and find a door, hidden behind a wardrobe, that leads to the attic. Picnicking up there, Barney throws an apple core away, goes to retrieve it, and discovers a scroll in a hidden cranny. It turns out to be a map, but the children can't make head or tail of it as the language is ancient and the condition of the scroll, very poor.
An adventure begins as they start to unravel the meaning of the script and solve various clues. It appears the map on it might be the coastline around Trewissick, where they're staying, but it isn't quite the same. Jane finds a local guide book, with a proper map, in a locked trunk, and takes it off to the vicar who she thinks has written it. Only the author is long dead and the current vicar feels sinister to Jane and overly interested in why she feels the coastline is all wrong.
The children confide in Great Uncle Merry who is stunned at what they have found and explains the danger they are now in. Other people are after this very same scroll and want the object it points the way to. There is no time to be lost as they desperately try to solve the clues and avoid the sinister bunch of people who are menacing them in order to get hold of the map. Who is friend and who is foe also becomes a complicated issue and the children find themselves thrown back on their own resources as the adventure reaches its climax.
Well then, this a children's book from the 1960s - 1965 to be precise, when I would have been 12. A perfect age for this book and I can't work out how I came to miss it. I'm certain I would have adored it, quite frankly, and it probably would have made my '15 books that have stayed with you' list. So, here I am, a middle-aged grandma reading it for the first time, beaten to it by my grandaughter in fact, but loving it to bits all the same. And it no doubt helps that the story is set in a Cornish fishing village, although I don't know the St. Austell area well. I tried to place it - Mevigissey would be the obvious choice but it didn't feel like that village to me, it felt much more like Mousehole... and maybe the author didn't have a precise place in mind. Who knows? Or cares? It was pretty darn accurate as regards atmosphere, I could smell the sea, hear the gulls, feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my face. Wonderful.
Not only that, the children felt like children and I reckon Susan Cooper had met my uncle John when she created Great Uncle Merry. Oh, wait a minute... he wouldn't have been old enough then. Never mind. *g* The author also got older Cornish people spot on. The dialect was perfect, and that's *very* rare, and I had to laugh when she had the housekeeper singing hymns as she did the housework, because that was exactly what my gran used to do... 'The Lord is my Shepherd' and 'Abide with Me' were her favourites, and the song, 'Red Sails in the Sunset'. People just don't sing like that any more it seems to me...
I can't find any fault at all with this children's book, to be honest. I realise how biased I am and all, being Cornish, so maybe I'm not a the best person to judge, but a couple of people mentioned at one stage that actually this first book is not the best of the series. Goodness! The rest must be pretty special then if that's the case. Luckily, I have book two, The Dark is Rising, ready to read pretty soon... I want to finish Terry Pratchett's Bromeliad series before I read that.
Anyway, cue entirely superfluous photo of the sea off the coast of Cornwall:
(Taken by me in 2007 at Marazion.)