Bryan Holden: Writer, Illustrator, and Arts Master

PUBLISHED: 00:20 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013

Bryan Holden

Bryan Holden

Solihull writer and publisher Bryan Holden tell of his fascination for the works of BB, a writer, illustrator and former arts master at Rugby School, who took his pen-name from the size of lead shot used by wildfowlers.

Solihull writer and publisher Bryan Holden tell of his fascination for the works of BB, a writer, illustrator and former arts master at Rugby School, who took his pen-name from the size of lead shot used by wildfowlers.

I never did get to meet BB, although he work was to become a big part of my life. Denys Watkins-Pritchard, which was BB's real name, died five years before I first started reading, then collecting his books.

Over many years I had feasted on the works of BB's contemporaries such as Henry Williamson; Henry Tegner; R M Lockley; Seton Gordon and writer/artists Eric Ennion and Peter Scott, but somehow BB's writing had eluded me.

Maybe this was because I wasn't a fisherman or a wildflower and therefore unaware of his frequent articles that appeared in shooting and angling journals. Even so, there seemed little excuse for my lack of awareness of such a significant author. Surely, I should have known of his Carnegie prize-winning children's classic The Little Grey Men; Brendon Chase his schoolboy adventure story; and Rufus the one-eared fox hero of Wild Lone, one of the best animal stories ever written.

However, in later years, following the formation of the BB Society, I was consoled by the assurances of many long-committed BB enthusiasts that "either you know BB very well, or you've never heard of him".

My first encounter with BB took place in a Dorset bookshop where on a crowded shelf I came across a copy of "Letters from a Compton Deverell", a tranquil book, calling up the very sights, sounds and smells of the English countryside. I was captivated by the author's style and subject matter and read the first two chapters there and then.

Seeking out more of BB's books with their evocative black and white scraperboard illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford (in my innocence I believed writer and artist to be two different people) became almost an obsession, and I began collecting all his books, little realising the mammoth (and indeed costly) task I'd set myself - some 60 books ranging from angling and wildfowling to travel, birdlife, butterflies, the countryside and its wildlife and a plethora of children's books.

BB was a born naturalist, brought up in a Northamptonshire village rectory with extensive gardens and surrounded by fields and woodland. Educated at home and often left to his own resources, he busied himself exploring his immediate surroundings and later venturing further afield on the back of a small pony. He learned the calls and habits of birds, recognising many as individuals. He was adept at finding nests and believed himself possessed of a sixth-sense and able to pin-point a nest however cunningly placed.

As a teenager he gained a place at Northampton School of Art and completed his studies at the Royal College of Art where one of his fellow students was Charles Tunnicliffe, who likewise became a leading wildlife and countryside artist.

After leaving college, BB struggled to find a suitable post, eventually becoming an assistant art master at Rugby School where he remained for 15 years before leaving to pursue a full-time writing and illustrating career. During his years at Rugby, BB lived a dual existence, teaching by day and burning the midnight oil at home writing books and articles. His efforts bore fruit when in 1942 he was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal for "The Little Grey Men", a story of the last four gnomes living in England.

Despite his upbringing in Northamptonshire, BB chose to locate the Folly Brook and Oak Tree House, the home of the gnomes, on a stream in Warwickshire.

He said: "Warwickshire is one of the last English counties where one might meet with a fairy; surely William Shakespeare knew this when he wrote A Midsummer's Night Dream."

This was not as surprising as it might sound, for as a youngster BB was a frequent visitor to Tanworth-in Arden where his maternal grandfather the Rev Robert "Gippy" Wilson was the vicar.

As a 13-year-old, fishing the River Blythe on the Umberslade Estate, BB caught a 13.5 lb "monster trout" which he later referred to in numerous books and articles, as in the extract from Warwickshire and Worcestershire Liife (Nov 1963).

"These scaly and slightly mysterious creatures of the deep, who spend most of their lives hidden from sight have always fascinated me from the time when I caught an enormous trout out of the brook that runs from Tanworth-in-Arden in Warwickshire to the Bird in the Hand public house on the Alcester Road."

He often recalled childhood visits to Tanworth-in-Arden before the outbreak of the First World War.

"One of my favourite walks was the Long Walk, a wide grass-grown drive lined on each side with trees. I always think of the Long Walk bathed in the quiet glow of a summer's evening with the shadows of the evening banding the green sward and the "wizz, wizz, wizzo" of the whitethroats and the rippling song of the willow warblers. Thee too one heard the monotonous "crake crake" of the corncrakes as they skulked in the golden forest of buttercups." A Child Alone (1978)

It is surprising how, since that first encounter with BB in that Dorset bookshop, that our paths have crossed, for it could be said that I walk in BB's footsteps nearly every day, for my offices are in the former stable yard of Umberslade Hall adjacent to the Long Walk with its secluded pools, woodland and lush pastureland.

On dreamy summer days I have often dawdled, deep in thought, across the quiet fields (no longer does one hear the "crake crake" of the corncrakes in golden fields of buttercups) toward the Blythe Brook where the sage of BB's monster trout had its beginnings one bright April morning more than eighty years ago. On the banks of the brook stands a stag-headed oak, a brave and resolute sentinel. But the little grey men have long since departed.

In 2008, together with a handful of other BB enthusiasts, I became a founder member of the BB Society. Our mission was to keep alive the rich heritage of BB's writings and to alert a growing generation to the threats facing the countryside and its rural traditions along with the pressing need for the conservation of Britain's fast -vanishing flora and fauna.

The steering group met, appropriately, at The Stone House in High Street, Henley-in Arden, facing the market cross, a mere mile, as the crow flies, from Tanworth-in-Arden village church.

The Society has flourished with a present day membership of around 500 including members in South Africa, Holland, United States, Canada and the Republic of Ireland. The Society is extremely active and forward-looking and holds two main meetings a year, the AGM in February at Rugby School, in BB's old art room, and a summer meet at a venue associated with BB and his writings.

I am privileged to serve the Society as Honorary Secretary and I am also editor of its annual journal, Sky Gipsy, a 40-page booklet with an abundance of articles, photographs, drawings and features.

In 2004 I founded Roseworld Productions Ltd, with a mission to publish quality books, both classic and new titles, in cloth-bound and luxury leather bound limited editions. The fledgling company has flourished. Our first two publications are BB related. Letters from the Round House, featuring over 100 letters written by BB to his friend Gordon Wright, covering and abundance of interests from rearing nestlings, fisherman's tales, art and literature, and day-to-day rural life.

Our second book, "BB's Birds" is a sumptuously illustrated anthology of BB's bird writings featuring over 100 species: summer migrants, garden birds, hedgerow and field, mountain and moorland.

Letters from The Round House by Gordon Wright

Price: 45 + 4. p&p

BB's Birds by Bryan Holden price: 35 + 4 p&p

Both books are limited editions and available direct from Roseworld Productions Limited, 9 Park Road, Solihull, West Midlands B91 3SU (0121 704 1002).

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