Beneath the Yew Tree at Green Knowe

 “Now Tolly, you may take the cloth from the table, carefully now, and shake the crumbs outside for the birds for they will be glad of them on a hard frosted morning such as we have today.”

“And may I play outside?”

“You may, but come in when you feel the cold bite and we will sit by the fire till you warm.

Outside the air was so cold it felt it might snap. Each twig and bud was furred with a coat of fine crystals of ice. Tolly shook the cloth and a rush of waiting birds took every crumb almost before they touched the ground. Blue tits, great tits, sparrows… Tolly was glad to see his friend the Chaffinch make off with an unusually large morsel of toast with a smear of butter still adhering to it. The chaffinch sat in a low part of the spreading yew and seemed mightily happy with his prize.

Taking the chaffinch’s cue, Tolly followed his friend into the spreading shade beneath the tree and squatted down to puzzle at the heap of old stones that clustered there like bones from a long forgotten beast. Some rounded, some angled, the stones lay tumbled dumb to tell their tales. The boy scratched at the ground half thinking to uncover the carving he could see on one of the stones but the ground, frozen hard and knitted together with large and small roots of the yew was beyond his power to excavate. One of the roots caught his eye though, it had a straightness and an edge that the other roots lacked. He held it between thumbs and forefingers and worked it gently back and forth till it became a little looser and he could grip it more fully. Tolly pulled; the object resisted then slipped smoothly as if from from a scabbard of earth.

Tolly he’d the object in his two hands, it was long a straight. It tapered towards one end and, though it was rusted, it was clear it had once been sharp. A sword. Not a shiny officers sword like Toby’s perhaps but a tool for a men to strike another man with. To hurt, or to kill. Tolly looked up. There was granny sitting and writing at her desk by the window. Or if not granny, someone very like her. He waved the thing he had found and waved again but granny, gazing out at the yew and the lawn beyond, didn’t seem to see him. Lost in her thoughts perhaps. He would show her when he went in to get warm. If he did go in to get warm, it was not – he realised now – as cold as it had been. 

Looking around Tolly realised that the mornings hard frost had quite disappeared. More than that, the wintersweet bush whose bare branches had been burdened with spicy, jasmine scented blossoms, was in leaf, buttercups and daisies studded the grass. Tolly listened, the buzzing of bees and the song of the birds thrummed in the air. And not just those sounds, not far away, quite distinctly, was the sound of a child crying. Not a baby but a child of his own age judging by the sound of it. Tolly quickly climbed a little way into the tree so he could peer down like a squirrel and see without being observed.

Leaning against the trunk of a tree not twenty paces away sat a child wearing breeches of a rough cloth and a jerkin over a shirt that looked, to Tolly’s eyes, more like a girl’s blouse than a shirt that a boy might wear. The child had their head in their hands and was sobbing such that their shoulders heaved. Tolly watched until the sobbing abated but the boy’s head stayed cradled in his hands. 

Tiring of waiting, Tolly plucked a red berry from the yew and tossed it towards the child. It fell short so he plucked another and, throwing with increased confidence, landed on the back of the childs hand where it left a wet, red mark. The child looked at their hand then set to sobbing with redoubled vigour. Tolly was shocked by the reaction to what had seemed so mild a prank and slithered down the tree calling out ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt’. 

As Tolly ran towards them the child looked up and showed face. Unmistakably a boys face but pale and much bruised and battered. The boy was panic stricken – ‘I’m going! I’m going now!’ He tried to stand but his legs gave way and slumped back down against the tree. Tolly saw that the yew berry’s mark on the back of his hand was not the only red. There was a great dark patch on his britches and a stain where he had been sitting. Tolly gasped, ‘come into the house! Granny will fix you – or Come to the stable, Boggis will care for your wounds.” But the boy would not, or could not rise, he grasped Tolly’s hand and pulled Tolly’s fresh, clean morning face to his pale, tear stained one. “My father, my brothers. They are killed. The bridge. When the men came through with the plate from the chapel for the king’s funds. We went to see them pass…” The boy gasped and clutched at himself. 

Tolly said “you should rest, let me get my granny” but the boy would not let go and pulled Tolly closer.

“We stood to watch and cheer as we were told but the parley men came then and we were surprised. They must have thought we were with the militia for we were cheering for them. And when they came with likes and muskets…”

The sobbing wracked the boy’s body again and this time Tolly did not try to encourage him to stand or offer to fetch his grandmother. He did not know much of death – he who had been so much amongst the dead – but he could feel that it was near and that this poor boy of four centuries ago needed the comfort of his company more than he needed any doctor. He stayed quiet and in a while the boy continued.

“My father and my brothers, and uncle Thomas and three of his grown sons. We tried to get away it we were up against the river and the militia were holding the bridge. It happened so quickly. I saw cousin Joseph take to the water but he could not swim and I did not see him again. And we fell. All us Boggises fell. I stayed quite still and was so much amongst them, my kinfolk, that they must have thought me dead too. I waited till all was quiet and crept here.”

The boy’s voice had fallen to a whisper and his breath had become faint and irregular. Tolly held his hand and said, “I’m sure you’ll be fine, I’ll fetch a doctor” and other nonsenses. And the boy seemed to fall asleep and his head fell to the side.

Tolly held his hand a while longer then let it go for a moment and blinked his eyes once and twice to clear the tears that had come unbidden. Opening his eyes he saw the frost was back and felt his hands quite frozen with cold. He was still leaning against the trunk of the tree but the boy had gone. The dark spreading stain on the ground had gone. 

Tolly stood up and stamped his feet which felt more like blocks of ice than like real human feet. As he stumped life back into them he noticed the sword blade that he had pulled from the ground beneath those blocks of stone. With distaste he slipped it back into its earthen scabbard. He brushed the dirt and soil from his hands and went indoors to find his grandmother.

“My my Toseland, you’re quite pinched with the cold. Come sit by the fire and tell me where you have been. Look at you – you’re trembling.”

In fits and starts Tolly told his grandmother what he had found that morning and what the boy had told him. “All of them Grandmother – all Boggises he said – father and uncle and cousins and brothers’ can it be true? Would all of them die?” He looked at his dear grandmother who seemed now to have retreated far inside herself. He saw her glance for an instant toward the photographs that crowded the top of the dresser.

“We wouldn’t know” she said at last “the names of men such those your boy spoke of wouldn’t be recorded. But I’m sorry Tolly for those men belonged to this house just as you do, and I do, and your dear mother did. I am sorry, for war is a cruel thing and it takes so many that we love – sons, brothers, husbands.”

Then old Mrs Oldknow wept, and Tolly wept though he was not quite sure for whom or for why he wept. And around them the stones of the house gathered close and the eyes of the garden gathered too.

Christmas Quiz for Year Six

Year Six Residential Quiz

You can do this on scrap paper and read the questions – no need for printing. The logo round is a single image which you can copy and put up on smart notebook or powerpoint. I’ve just added a Christmas Round. I’ve spent no time on this so don’t come running to tell me about the undoubted swarms of typos.

  1. Music
  2. Geography
  3. Video Games
  4. Books
  5. TV
  6. History
  7. Logos
  8. BONUS!! Christmas Round



  1. Music – Name the artist who had a hit with these songs.

1) Thriller (Michael Jackson)

2) Bodak Yellow (Cardi B)

3) She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah (The Beatles)

4) Fireworks (Katy Perry)

5) How Long (Charlie Puth)

6) Shout Out to my Ex (Little Mix)

7) Poker Face (Lady Gaga)

8) Crazy in Love (Beyonce)

9) Youngblood (Seven Seconds of Summer)

10) Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)



  1. Geography

1)      Beginning with ‘N’. This African River runs from Uganda to the Mediterranean Sea. It is the longest river in the world. (Nile)

2) Beginning with ‘A’. These mountains are in France, Austria, Germany and Italy. People go skiing there. (Alps)

3) Beginning with ‘C’. This country in Asia is famous for a wall. It is the biggest country on the planet. (China)

4) This Italian city beginning with P is home to a famous leaning tower. (Pisa)

5) This African country beginning with ‘S’ was home to Nelson Mandela. (South Africa)

6) This flat European country beginning with ‘N’ has borders with Germany and Belgium. It is famous for tulips and bicycles. (Netherlands)

7) This Country in the Americas that begins with ‘M’ has borders with the United States, Guatamala and Belize. (Mexico)

8) Beginning with ‘E’, This city in Britain is the capital of Scotland, it has a famous castle. (Edinburgh)

9) This River in South America, which begins with an ‘A’, runs through an area of rainforest. (Amazon)

10) This very cold continent, beginning with ‘A’ is the largest desert on our planet. (Antarctica)


2)      Games

1) This classic console game features a jumping plumber. (Mario)

2) In this phone game you catapult very cross flying creatures to knock things over. (Angry Birds)

3) This board game features climbing equipment and dangerous legless snakes. (Snakes and Ladders)

4) This pencil and paper game based in a three by three grid features both circles and X’s. (Noughts and Crosses)

5) This playground game participants jump over a turning rope. (Skipping)

6) In this multi platform game one hundred people jump out of a bus and fight until there’s just one left. (Fortnite)

7) This game, often played in pubs, consists of two players taking turns to throw small arrows at a circular target. (Darts)

8) This computer game features a strangely blocky character makes and destroys cubes. (Minecraft)

9) The name of this card matching game is a synonym for a sharp break. (Snap)

10) This board game has two teams of sixteen pieces. Players take turn to move one until the male ruler is taken. (Chess)


3)      Books

1) Four children pass through a wardrobe into a world of perpetual winter where they must defeat an evil queen with the help of a talking Lion. (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe)

2) A farm boy takes care of a horse amongst the battles of the first world war. (War Horse)

3) A boy wins a Golden Ticket and gets to visit a very special factory. The owner shows him around and disposes of some other, much nastier children. (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

4) A boy goes to Wizarding school where he makes new friends and discovers a terrible terrible enemy. (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

5) A pig named Wilbur has his life saved by a spider who can both talk and write. (Charlotte’s Web)

6) Lyra and Will have adventures in a strange alternate Oxford where children are being by abducted by the beautiful but evil Mrs Coulter. (His Dark Materials)

7) A hobbit travels with a wizard and band of dwarves to win treasure back from a dragon. Along the way he meets a strange creature and wins a ring from him. (The Hobbit)

9) A young boy survives the murder of his family and grows up amongst the ghosts in a graveyard under the watchful eye of his vampire godfather. (The Graveyard Book)

10) A viking boy makes friends with a dragon instead of killing it and learns how to domesticate a diverse range of dragon species. (How to Tame Your Dragon)


4)      Sport

1) Which football team plays at White Hart Lane? (Tottenham Hotspur)

2) Which sport is played on a diamond? (Baseball)

3) Which player scored the most goals in the 2018 World Cup? (Harry Kane)

4) What sport is played on ice using sticks and a puck? (Ice Hockey)

5) What year will the next Summer Olympic games take place? (2020)

6) How many players are there on a netball team? (7)

7) To the nearest second – how fast is the current world record for running one hundred metres. (10 seconds – rounded up from 9.58 seconds)

8) Trischa Zorn is the most successful Paralympian ever with 55 medals. What sport did she compete in? It’s one where you can win a lot of medals at a competition… (swimming)

9) How many points does a team get for scoring a try in rugby union? (five)

10) Which game is played in a swimming pool with goals, a floating ball and players of different teams identified by different coloured swimming hats? (Water Polo)

5)      History

1) Who came first? King Henry the Eighth or William the Conqueror? (William obvs)

2) Where did the Viking people come from? (Scandinavia/Sweden/Norway)

3) True or false. In Victorian times poor people ate horse poo. (false)

4) What year did the First World War finish? (1918)

5) Where in the world did the Aztec people live? (Latin America/Mexico)

6) How long ago were the pyramids built in Egypt? (approx. 4000 to 5000 yrs)

7) Who came first? The Ancient Greeks or the Romans? (The Greeks)

8) How long ago did Oxford University start? (approx. 1000 years ago)

9) Which came first – the first aeroplane or the first tank? (aeroplane)

10) What country did Napoleon Bonaparte lead?

6)      Logos – picture round.



8. BONUS!! Christmas Round

1 – Christmas charity single featuring lots of pop and rock stars –  DTKIC (Do They Know it’s Christmas)

2 – Christmas picture book which was made into a film starring Tom Hanks and a train  – TPE (The Polar Express)

3 – Christmas song featuring a shouting man from Birmingham – IWICBCED (I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day)

4 – A Christmas food consisting of tubes of forced meat surrounded by slices of porcine flesh – PIB (Pigs in Blankets)

5 – A Christmas carol featuring the marvellous word ‘welkin’ – DDMOH (Ding Dong Merrily on High)

6 – Supposed dwelling place of a large bearded gentleman who habitually dresses in red and cares for a large number aerialist members of the species Rangifer tarandus – TNP (The North Pole)

7 – Christmas movie about a man who threatens suicide but is persuaded to think again by an angel who shows him what life in his town would be like without him. Probably the best Christmas Movie ever – IAWL (It’s a Wonderful Life)

8 – A sock rammed with fruit, nuts and small gifts – CS (Christmas Stocking)

9 – A novel which has been adapted many times into plays and films – notably by the muppets – ACC (A Christmas Carol)

10 – A song which perpetuates the myth that December in the united kingdom is generally snowy and delightful rather than grizzly and grim. Propaganda for the Christmas Card industry – IBTLALLC (It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas)










The ‘Mortal Engines’ Movie – my hot take

The movie of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve hit the cinemas today and me and the boy went to see it. We were pretty excited – we’ve known the book for years and years and the anticipation has been building for a while since we knew that the movie was on its way.

So what did we make of it? Headline is that we really enjoyed it. The following review presumes you know the novel of Mortal Engines but contains no spoilers for the film. This is a hard line to tread so apologies if I fall down either side. If you want a proper review you’ll find loads of those online – this one comes from the specific perspective of someone who loves the book and desperately doesn’t want the film to let it down while recognising that of course some changes have to be made in adapting a 200 page novel to a couple of hours of screen time.


Ok – starting over. Yes we enjoyed it very much. The movie is fast paced and a lot of the changes to the plot have been made to ‘clean up’ the plot so it zooms along. From the pre-credit sequence onward you now you’re in absolutely safe hands.

Philip Reeve is known for his world building. A big part of the excitement for this film has been wondering how the WETA team, who created the visual effects for ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ among other films, would match up to Philip Reeve’s imaginative world. The good news is that it looks just stunning and pretty much exactly as you’d hoped it would – or better maybe. The team, led by Peter Jackson’s right hand man Christian Rivers, were careful to ensure this isn’t a steam punk world – Steam Punk is a reimagined Victorian era while this is set in a post-apocalyptic world some thousands of years in the future. There’s lots of fun to be had looking at all the bespoke props and the great costuming but the real triumph is the locations; traction London, Airhaven, the Shield Wall and other locations familiar from the book are recreated in stunning detail and look just glorious on the screen.

The casting is just great. Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmarsdottir play Tom and Hester. They are just a little older than the duo as we know them in the books but that really isn’t a problem. I understand that Philip Reeve originally wrote the pair as being in their late teens or early twenties and shifted them a few years younger at the suggestion of his editor at scholastic who thought the book would sell better at the top end of MG than at the bottom end of YA. I had been a little worried about the casting of Robert Sheehan as Tom – I wondered if he was a little too self aware but I was quite wrong – he really does a great job. The film Tom is maybe less dowdy than book Tom but I think you’d expect that in a movie. Yes it changes his character arc a little but it’s not problematic. Hera Hilmarsdottir is great too, maybe less harsh than her book counterpart but we’d expect that.

The biggest controversy around the film was Hester’s level of facial disfigurement. The book describes her as having only one eye, barely a stump of a nose, a livid scar crossing her face and so on. Early images from the film showed that this had been toned down to a great extent, she has two eyes, her nose is intact, the scar is there but it is not livid – she has a disfigurement I guess but she is very pretty indeed. Philip Reeve blogged on this, he said that to him it is not a big issue, for him the purpose of the scar is to make Hester see herself as ‘other’, that it was the effect on the character’s self image and motivation that was important rather than how other people see her that matters. He reckons that this lighter scar is still enough to impact on her self image. Obviously I’ll respect his view as the author but I do think the disfigurement is hugely important to how Tom responds to Hester in the early stages of the book and we track is changing relationship to her through the way his internal voice – through the narrator – sees her. His gaze is the primary view into the film and his vision of her does focus on the scar. My feeling on this is that a big budget movie which aims for global reach was never going to have a Hester as badly disfigured as the character is in the book. Hera Hilmersdottir does a good job of communicating some of the character’s feral harshness, she drinks muddy water from a puddle convincingly, and is lovely on screen but maybe I think an aspect of the book is lost in allowing her to be so attractive. Let me know what you think.

The other three big bits of casting are Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine, Jihae as Anna Fang and Stephen Lang (behind CGI prosthetics) as the Resurrected Man Shrike. All three of these are very well cast. Valentine is a different man from the character in the book in some ways but Weaving inhabits him with conviction and authority – fans won’t be disappointed. Jihae is just terrific, I cannot fault her in any way. Stephen Lang’s Shrike is not quite what I had in my imagination – he doesn’t match very accurately to the description in the book looking to my mind further toward the zombie end of the spectrum and not as close to the cyborg end. Lang’s performance, both the motion capture element and the voice, are extraordinary. I know Lang best from his work in Avatar – I’ll be looking out his other roles after this.

So, the look of the film is spot on. The casting is terrific. What else? The direction by Christian Rivers is super assured. Rivers directed parts of the Hobbit so is not a newcomer but not many directors can have been asked to take on a film of this scale and complexity as their first solo gig. It would have helped that he was working with a team that he knew and who knew him already but even so it’s a very strong debut.

The elephant in the room, and the one which to avoid spoilers I can’t explore in any detail, is the changes to the plot. Rivers and Jackson started with a lengthy novel and had to get it into a form that was not overlong on screen. Jackson got this badly wrong (in my opinion) in the third instalment of Lord of the Rings and must have been keen for this outing to come in on time! This obviously necessitated a few of the changes so theres a few scenes and sequences from the book that don’t make it on screen – That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Moving on from that it’s also reasonable to anyone who understands transition from page to screen that some sequences from the book end up happening in different locations and in a slightly different order to the book. The last quarter of the film goes a bit beyond that. No spoilers but the ending is not Philip Reeve’s ending. I don’t think this will or should surprise anyway. Why make these changes? Some of them make the film adhere a little more closely to the accepted structure of a family action adventure movie. There’s one particular sequence which seems to bump up the action to something which isn’t a million miles from an homage to the film which is the mummy and daddy to this sort of movie – very little to do with Reeve’s original but an edge of the seat rollercoaster ride and it would be a very curmudgeonly viewer who resented that. No doubt some will be disappointed by any variation from the source material but I’m quite happy to roll with it. If anything it makes me optimistic that we will get to see a sequel and maybe even a proper series. If we do I don’t think the next film can possibly be an adaptation of Predator’s Gold – the second book in the series – it will have to be something quite new.

In other ways the film did feel like Philip Reeve’s voice was intact. There’s a good gag with some American deities which one can imaging him shoehorning in to the book with a sidelong wink to the reader. Similarly the joke with the ‘Inkies’ feels like it might well have come from him, as does the sequence with the toaster. This may be because the film’s producer and director both share Reeve’s very British sense of humour or it may be properly due to respect for the stories origins in the books. Either way, it made this reader feel comfortable in the cinema.

I do think that some viewers who love the books may feel that the movie simply lacks some of the exploration of the book’s themes. We have to be just a tiny bit careful here – Mortal Engines was published as a children’s book and Philip Reeve distances himself quite carefully from earnest discussion of the books ‘message’ or ‘subtext’. He says that its just a story and that if readers find more in it then that is up to them. I personally don’t quite buy this. To me the stratification of society on board the Traction Cities feels very deliberately done and one can read the structure of those cities, and of Municipal Darwinism, to be in some ways a critique of the capitalist society. The sequence in the books where Katherine discovers the ‘Turd Tanks’ and Bevis Pod is hard to read any other way. That sequence is missing from the film as is her visit to the lower tiers where she gets a sense of the role of the proletariat within the traction system. Similarly the reduction in Hester’s scar, and the gentling of her character, mean she no longer repels the male gaze. it no longer allows us to dehumanise her – as we do in the books – in such a way that her half humanity matches Shrikes half humanity. The book is called ‘Mortal Engines’ and is, to me at least, partly a meditation on machines with souls and humans who lose their souls. I’m afraid these aspects of the book are almost entirely lacking in the film. There’s not much to be said about that – I wasn’t really expecting a big budget action adventure movie released over the Christmas period to go far in that direction. I suspect the majority of the book’s readers don’t pause long to consider these aspects anyway – they are an enriching underlayer that make them more satisfying for middle aged literary types like me but are not the reason that Peter Jackson thought it was worth buying the film rights. If you want a film that approaches some of the concerns I’ve briefly looked at I could recommend Blade Runner maybe, also perhaps Paris Texas. This is not the film you are looking for.

That’s enough for my hot take I guess but let me just add a sentence or two to say how much I liked and valued the diversity of casting in the movie. I was very glad to see the role of Anna Fang’s band of aviators bumped up a bit and to see men and women of a wide range of ethnicities playing the roles of these brave and intelligent fighters. It sounds odd, given that their key introductory scene took place in a floating caravanserai suspended beneath some very lumpy bumpy hot air balloons, but there was real authenticity to those characters and their relationships. I’d love to see more of them. Similarly Traction London, just like our modern day London, was home to people of a wide variety of races. I imagine if this film had been made a few years ago – or by a less intelligent team in the present day – we would have seen a more Dickensian set of Londoners. Chudleigh Pomeroy played by Colin Salmon is just one of a number of characters who are allowed to have distinct and authentic ethnicity without that being the point of their character. In this respect the film felt that it shared some DNA with Taika Waititi’s Thor:Ragnarok where the old pretence of colour blind casting has given way to a genuine valuing of diversity.

So – I had a great time at the cinema, the star of the show in the end is probably the world building and I would have loved to have spent longer exploring London, Air Haven and Shan Guo – let’s hope for some return visits in future episodes. Rivers and Jackson have not just made a carbon copy of Reeve’s novel – they have taken on the source material and made their own thing but without entirely losing the flavour of the original. Fans of Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ quartet need not be afraid to go to the cinema this Christmas.