For almost the whole of his life, Kenneth Grahame’s first love was ‘the cool and secluded reaches of the Thames, the stripling Thames, remote and dragonfly-haunted’ – in short, that section of the river between Streatley in the west and Windsor Castle in the east, which he first came to from Edinburgh, in sadness, as a boy of nearly five. Grahame was grieving for his mother, who had just died from scarlet fever and for his father who, broken-hearted, had fled abroad to live by himself. Kenneth, his two elder siblings and his younger brother Roland were taken in by their grandmother at a large house called The Mount, situated on the banks of the Thames at Cookham Dene. Henceforth, Grahame’s happiest childhood days would be spent playing about on the river, sometimes ‘messing about in boats’ though more often on foot, so that he came to know the life of the river banks intimately. At first it was a new and unusual world to this city boy, whose knowledge of meadows and rivers was as limited as if he had spent his whole life underground. But soon came the awakening of his interest in boats, and the love that every country child has for long summer days and the woods under winter snow. Many commentators have spoken of literary creativity arising from some terrible loss in an author’s life. Whatever it was, as a result, Kenneth found the need to daydream, and many of his dreams are re-created in that bedtime idyll of a pastoral England, already disappearing in Edwardian times, The Wind in the Willows.
At thirteen Grahame went to St Edward’s School, built near the river just outside Oxford. Here his relationship with the Thames developed ever more deeply, as indeed did his love for the ‘good grey gothic’ of the nearby university. Grahame fell in love with the place that he came to call his ‘golden city of the imagination’. He felt at home in the peaceful academic atmosphere of the Oxford colleges and was devastated when he was told that he was not to be allowed to try for the university, as money could not be found to support him. Instead, he went straight into a clerkship in the Bank of England. Grahame consoled himself by taking a house near the Thames, catching a riverboat every day to his office in the City, and at week-ends taking off for the willow-fringed reaches of the stripling Thames of his early years. The riverscape thus became Grahame’s spiritual home, where his stories began to take shape. What first beckoned him as a young boy who had ‘lost what he could hardly be said to have found’, he gives to Mole and Rat to discover in The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. In this, the seventh chapter of The Wind in the Willows, the pair go in search of Little Portly, a foolish otter cub who has gone missing. They find him ‘in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper’. The young otter is in the care of the classical deity Pan, he of the panpipes and horned countenance, whose presence Grahame himself no doubt felt he could sense in the haunted reaches of his childhood home.
The Wind in the Willows itself was not at first intended by Grahame for publication, being based largely on bedtime stories he began telling his only child, Alistair (known as Mouse), one night when he should have been accompanying his wife to a dinner party. The tale continued in walks and in boats on the river and in letters to his son when he was away in his beloved Fowey, Cornwall (‘the little grey sea town’ that the sea-rat in Willows knew so well). The book made Grahame a best-selling writer and remains popular today. It has been adapted several times since its publication in 1908, perhaps most memorably by Cosgrove Hall in the 1980s. One of that show’s strengths was the way common themes ran through the series – for example, it taught children about the destruction of forests and animals’ natural habits. In season four, humans start building a new railway that is planned to go through the area where the animals live. The railway gets closer and closer to the animals’ homes, yet in the episode Happy New Year it turns out that the railway would be travelling under unsuitable land, and therefore the route is diverted from the Riverbank and Wild Wood areas. There was to be a tragic ending in real life however, when Mouse too died early, in an accident on a railway line while at Oxford in 1920. His father was devastated and lived another twelve years, an ever more unhappy man. He died in 1932 and was buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford, alongside his golden boy in his golden city. His headstone reads: ‘To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alistair, who passed the river on the 6th of July 1932, leaving childhood and literature through him the more blessed for all time’.