Inspired by a childhood spent in Lamport, Denys Watkins-Pitchford was a renowned author poet, illustrator and naturalist. His love of country pursuits form the fabric of his stories and have inspired generations.
Laura Malpas takes a look into the life of this Northamptonshire Countryman.
When I was a bookish little girl, I found a tatty old cloth-bound book in a library. The outside was unappealing, but the inside was filled with beautiful jewel-coloured illustrations, and black and white images of the natural world. The stories were quite magical, about little men, gnomes, who lived in the countryside, living their lives alongside us bigger humans. Their survival relied on their knowledge of the natural world, and their fellowship with each other. The book was called The Little Grey Men written by the mysterious sounding ‘BB’, and I never forgot it. Now nearly sixty years later, I was thrilled to discover who ‘BB’ was, and to learn that he was a Northamptonshire man, from Lamport.
‘BB’ was the pen name for Denys Watkins-Pitchford. He was born the elder of twin sons to the Rector of Lamport and his wife in 1905. Their home was the gracious Queen Anne rectory, set on the edge of the village overlooking the rolling countryside of Northamptonshire. Denys’s twin brother Roger was tall, strong and healthy, but Denys himself was short and delicate all his life. Their young childhood was idyllic, with butterfly nets, fishing rods and muddy boots featuring strongly. Then aged 4, Denys saw something which was to change his destiny.
There are not very many people who claim, with absolute conviction, that they have seen a gnome. And the gnome was right there in his bedroom. His brother Roger was sleeping peacefully and did not wake until Denys called for their governess. He was able to describe the creature he had seen next to his bed, a diminutive being, with a round red face the size of a crab apple. The little gnome did not seem at all malevolent, but had a merry countenance, seeming to be as alarmed by the encounter as young Denys was. The gnome escaped, but the memory stayed with Denys to the end of his days. This encounter eventually inspired the book The Little Grey Men.
Denys was left alone as his brother went off to school, and his loneliness was relieved by making friends with the local countrymen. They taught him their skills, and he was especially drawn to the watery world of fishing and wildfowling. Denys also showed a real aptitude for art, and after gaining diplomas for painting and engraving, he was appointed art master at Rugby school.
Denys had written since he was a child, but his first novel Wild Lone, the tale of a Pytchley fox, was published when he was 33. It was a best seller, and four years later, The Little Grey Men was published, winning him the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature. The story tells of the last gnomes in Britain, and their hunt for their lost brother. The most enchanting quality of his stories is the utter confidence that the natural world is a magical place, and that magic is practical and unsentimental. Coats are made of moleskins, not thistledown or rainbows. Nature is observed with accuracy and honesty.
Denys used the pseudonym ‘BB’ when he wrote his children’s stories, referring to the size of shot he preferred to use when hunting wildfowl. He used his full name for his work as an illustrator. His art, like his writing, is sensitive to nature, accurately observed and beautiful in its simplicity.
The volumes kept on coming, and Denys was able to rely on his writing and illustration to make his living. He wrote lyrically about country pursuits, especially his beloved fishing, and wildfowling, and the things that captured his passion, such as the Purple Emperor butterfly.
Today, he is remembered as an author poet, illustrator and naturalist, despite his now controversial love of carp fishing and wildfowling. He was a gentleman from a past era, and his legacy records a bygone country way of living.
Denys Watkins-Pitchford passed away in 1990, but he is remembered with great affection. The BB Society actively support his passions, and work to keep them recognised and relevant today. His memory inspires conservation, naturalists, artists, poets and writers. They actively look for ways to share his life and work. One of my favourite places to get in touch with the spirit of Denys Watkins-Pitchford is to be found at the Brixworth Country Park on
the shores of the Pitsford Reservoir. Here you can pick up a map with delightful original illustrations, and then follow a trail to meet the gnomes in their hunt for their lost brother Cloudberry.
This country park reflects a wetland landscape close to the heart of ‘BB’ and is a wonderful way for families to reconnect to a wilder more natural world. It’s a perfect outing on a crisp January day, and if you are lucky, you too might see one of the last gnomes in Britain, watching you curiously
from behind a tree…
For more information, please visit www.bbsociety.co.uk