Elena Mannion on The Happy Hedgerow

By Countryside Voices

September saw the publication of The Happy Hedgerow – a wonderful new children’s book endorsed by CPRE and celebrating our favourite landscape icon. Author Elena Mannion tells us why she hopes it will inspire all children to connect to nature.

As an established publisher, what prompted you to publish one of your own stories for the first time?

I’ve been writing on and off for many years, but the lockdown opened up time and space in interesting ways. It finally gave me time to focus on creating a story that chimed with my passion for the natural world and the values of childhood. It also coincided with the direction in which I am taking my publishing list.

A smiling woman in blue leaning on a table
Author Elena at home in Hertfordshire

Without giving too much away, could you sum up the essence of the story of the Happy Hedgerow, and its lead character, Old Oak?

The story is really a eulogy to our landscapes, which would be bare and bereft of much interest and wildlife without the humble hedgerow. Many hedgerows feature a large tree in their midst, so I wove Old Oak into the story, as a place of safety for birds and insects, and someone who watches over his barley field.

'The story is really a eulogy to our landscapes, which would be bare and bereft of much interest and wildlife without the humble hedgerow.'

As in life, Old Oak and his hedgerows suffer shocks and hard times, but the positive ending shows that there is always hope if there is compassion and consideration of the future.

Do hedgerows and oak trees have a special meaning for you?

I have always known that many of our hedgerows have been destroyed for a variety of reasons. And that has bothered me over the years, as it has many people. Only recently did I discover from CPRE and The Tree Council just how much we had lost!

So yes, they mean a great deal to me. They are the humble hero, benefitting all of us and our wildlife in infinite ways, and I feel very protective of them! As for oak trees, they seem to symbolise something permanent and reliable, as well as producing extraordinary fruit and beautiful leaves.

An illustrated book cover showing an oak tree and hedgerow
The Happy Hedgerow is Elena’s attempt to speak up for the natural world and encourage children to connect with it | Erin Brown

Sir Andrew Motion has said the book is a ‘welcome reminder that hedgerows are our greatest nature reserves’. Was that something you set out to do?

When I wrote The Happy Hedgerow I wrote from a place of childhood values, as a storyteller with a wish to speak up for the natural world. I wanted to reflect back to children what they see and love, and encourage them onwards in that connection to nature.

But I didn’t want to show a world that children weren’t really seeing – I wanted it to be accurate. And as I am not a natural history expert, I turned to those who are – Amy-Jane Beer and Paul Lawston – for advice, and began my own journey, learning some of the species that are connected to, or rely on, hedgerows for their survival.

Do you feel optimistic that, with the government’s warm words in response to CPRE’s campaigning, there is reason to be hopeful about the future of our hedgerows?

I am hopeful about the future, but as ever one has to be watchful to see that actions and funding follow words. It will all take a continued, concerted effort. CPRE has done a brilliant job, and when I talk about the book I genuinely see reactions that tell me it’s not hard to get the message across that our hedgerows are not only beautiful, but critical to biodiversity and defending us from climate change.

'Our hedgerows are not only beautiful, but critical to biodiversity and defending us from climate change.'

What do you hope young readers will take from the book? And the grown-ups who’ll read it to them?

I hope that young readers will feel confirmed in their instinctive connection to nature, and go forwards giving it a strong voice as they grow up. The grown up reader who doesn’t already know their local hedgerows may – hopefully – just pause and take a look on their next walk. And that in itself can be the start of a journey.

Hedgerows and trees in a frosty landscape
Hedgerows gracing a winter sunrise in Elena’s county of Hertfordshire | Stuart Pryor / Alamy Stock Photo

Apart from hedgerows, what do you love most about the English countryside?

The English, and Welsh, countryside has a sweetness that almost defies language. Wherever you are it seems to offer an embrace of abundance, laid out in ways which are a delightful – and no doubt often accidental – marriage of function with beauty. Even the flatter regions offer a wistful echo of something intangible – but something we need, to breathe freely!

Do you have a personal favourite hedgerow, or landscape?

I’m lucky to live in a village with footpaths and hedgerows at every turn, and I don’t have a firm favourite. But when I’m travelling or walking up and down the hills of this little corner of Hertfordshire, I see whole hedgerowed landscapes that just make you smile!

'When I’m travelling or walking up and down the hills of this little corner of Hertfordshire, I see whole hedgerowed landscapes that just make you smile!'

Your business, Pikku Publishing, is based in the village – is that unusual for the industry and what are the benefits?

When I started Pikku, we were based in London, so when I returned to my roots, I was isolated from the buzz of the industry and bookshops there. It is unusual to be based outside a town or city when you are a publisher, certainly. However, there are benefits. I don’t feel distracted or taken up by ephemeral trends: there is room to think, to develop ideas, and to walk a footpath and clear the head!

Do you feel that with better rural broadband and other services, more businesses like yours could help boost rural economies?

It would be wonderful for rural creative businesses to be able to offer more jobs to young people living locally. Creative industries like publishing and design often don’t need to be based in urban sites. They rely on sending large files down the wires on a regular basis, so yes, better broadband would help with efficiency and expansion.

A woman drawing hedgerows on paper
Young illustrator Erin Brown has brilliantly captured the details of nature

The illustrations in The Happy Hedgerow are wonderful and central to the story. How did you choose Erin Brown as your creative foil, and did she share your passion for hedgerows?

Erin Brown, whom I discovered in the books of an illustration agency, is a huge talent. To start, I proposed she do a sketch of Old Oak, to see whether she could capture his essence. Creating a benevolent, warm hearted face integrated into an old tree without it looking contrived or even spooky is quite a challenge! But Erin had understood perfectly the story and what I wanted to convey, so we moved forwards as soon as I received her sketch!

'Creating a benevolent, warm hearted face integrated into an old tree without it looking contrived or even spooky is quite a challenge!'

She is brilliant at capturing the detail of nature, and went on walks in Jersey where she lives, to gain inspiration. I’d say she’s a fan of hedgerows now, definitely! In fact, she even emailed me during the creation period, to tell me about local hedgerow planting on Jersey, which I was thrilled about.

We hear there is a sequel in the making already. Will this be part of a longer series, and can you give us a hint of how the saga might unfold? 

There will be a second book, planned for publication in September 2022, but I haven’t thought beyond that at the moment (though I am planning a book on a very different topic, connected to our landscapes!). So yes, Old Oak will be back – but I’m not giving away any of the story yet!

Thank you CPRE for all you do for everyone: you are like hedgerows, the quiet heroes who deserve so much recognition!

The Happy Hedgerow would make the perfect stocking filler for young nature lovers aged four and up. It retails at £10.99 and is available from all the usual book outlets.

 

An illustration of a hedgerow and oak tree with a variety of bird species
A scene from The Happy Hedgerow featuring its lead character, Old Oak Erin Brown

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