LONGLIST REVIEW: A Song for Will and the lost Gardeners of Heligan

'A Song for Will and the Lost Gardeners of Heligan' is a fictional story based on real people, place and events. Written by Hilary Robinson and beautifully illustrated by Martin Impey, the story is told through a series of letters written between the gardeners of Heligan House during the First World War. 

When war was declared in 1914, it wasn’t long before men across the country courageously volunteered or were called up to serve the war effort. The gardeners of Heligan, near Mevagissey in Cornwall, were no exception and to mark the occasion, they wrote their names upon the privy wall of the outdoor staff toilet, as a reminder to all of their brave commitment to leave the gardens to serve king and country. Thirteen outdoor staff left Heligan to fight across the sea but only four returned. William Guy was one of the nine who never came home and this book is dedicated to his memory.

'A Song for Will' tells the story of both the changing seasons at Heligan and the effects on the gardens from the war waging abroad. The loss of livestock, changing diets due to lack of food and the developing 'make do and mend' attitudes all feature. The loss of skilled workers meant that the gardens themselves would eventually become neglected and overgrown and would not be restored to their former glory for many years. 'A Song for Will' also highlights the feelings of those bravely fighting on the battlefields, the tragic mental toll of the war and sadly the loss felt by all, when loved ones did not return home.

This is a poignant story, gently told and would be suitable for use within school in both upper and lower KS2 classes to illustrate and investigate the effects of the First World War. The book could be introduced through artefacts, plants and gardening equipment featured in the book. The letter story telling format might inspire similar attempts to write in character. Hilary & Martin’s book contains letters between only two individuals and there were many more that left Heligan to serve both on land and at Sea whose stories could also be told. Readers could keep either a diary of events and feelings whilst reading the story or imagine what characters might write in their own diaries. Children might enjoy reading the text aloud to each other or summarising sections to share. 

The gardeners that served during the Great war are listed at the back of the book and a quick search through war records, such as those held by ancestry.com  would yield lots of information for developing reports on each soldier. 

Finally, the book acts as the perfect guidebook to the gardens and a visit to Heligan would be an enriching and memorable experience for a class of children. For more details about our visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, please take a look at our blog post here.

Hilary and Martin have become a wonderful story writing team, detailing various aspects of the First World War through several books they have authored together. They can always be relied upon to tell the most difficult of stories with the dignity they deserve whilst maintaining an appropriate amount of detail, so as not to distress a younger audience. Their book ‘Flo of the Somme’ won our Poetry category last year and their other books- ‘Where the Poppies Now Grow’ and ‘The Christmas Truce’  - come highly recommended. Their next title, 'Peace Lily', comes out in November.

A Song for Will and the Lost Gardeners of Heligan by Hilary Robinson,

illustrated by Martin Impey

Strauss House Productions ISBN:  978-0957124530