Brilliant, absolutely brilliant and for the second time in my life (if not the third or fourth) I was completely absorbed cover to cover by Cynthia Harnett's The Wool-Pack, first published in 1951 and the winner of the Carnegie Medal as the outstanding children's book of that year.
It's 1493 and living history as the workings of the fifteenth century Cotswold wool trade are revealed and now I want to go back to Burford and check out all the references. We used to stay there regularly back in the 1980s, would park the car in Sheep Street, probably right outside the very house Cynthia Harnett reveals in her illustrations and afterword that she used as the family home of the Fetterlock family.
We've wandered around Burford Church, up and down the main street, admired the almshouses, bought my treasured wooden thimble (the one and only thimble) in the woodcraft shop there
and all with the knowledge of this book's location buried too deep in my memory to make the connections at the time, perhaps because we had three small children in tow. I do remember that three of the Levellers ( the Cromwellian ones not the singing ones) took refuge in that chuch and one scratched his name in the lead of the font but only because I bought and kept the postcard.
I have probably appreciated all the wool mentions far more as a grown-up too, the loaded distaff tucked under the arm as the women dropped, twisted and wound up the spindle in the days when spinning wheels were new-fangled, heavy, cumbersome things for the well-to-do. Then the information about the cloth trade, the workers and the weaving all equally interesting.
Tavistock Parish Church has a fine Clothworkers' Aisle added to the original 1318 church in 1445. A bit of digging and I discover that our tin mining Stannary town was also a flourishing centre for the cloth trade, manufacturing cloth from the fleeces of the Dartmoor sheep and this aisle gifted in memory of local wool merchant Maurice Berd by his widow Constance.
Now I'm wondering whether there are more references to the trade around the town, perhaps in old street names, and the fast-flowing River Tavy would certainly offer a plentiful supply of water power for a mill, so I must keep my eyes peeled. And of course, I wouldn't have bothered to find out any of that but for reading this book, amazing that a book like The Wool-Pack can still inspire all these years on.
But alongside all this, the coming-of-age story of young Nicholas Fetterlock who must eventually leave his comfortable carefree country life and learn the trade before he can take on his father's mantle as a Merchant of the Wool Staple.
Cynthia Harnett's illustrations reminded me of those books of history told in pictures we used to have,a particular era and page after page of line drawings...need you even wonder, of course I've still got mine.
Now I'm remembering the hours spent tracing these pictures into school projects, how did we manage before the photocopier?
All that pencilling in on the reverse to make your own variety of carbon paper.
But what a great and invaluable reading experience The Wool Pack has been, in fact I almost wish I had a school project to do on it right now.