In my review of Five Go Adventuring Again I listed it as one of top three Famous Fives and I am now going to review the other two, starting with Five Go Down to the Sea which is the twelfth in the series. For other reviews see Keith Robinson’s on Enidblyton.net and Terry Gustafson’s on the Enid Blyton Society. It is actually some years since I have read it and to my delight I found that what I have is the 1953 first edition (albeit the 1954 second impression) published by Hodder & Stoughton, complete with a slightly battered dustjacket by the excellent Eileen Soper, exactly as illustrated here.
The book begins with another surprise for me. I have always had the idea that Kirrin was in Cornwall, but that is not so. In fact, on checking, I see that Blytonites have discussed the issue of Kirrin’s location at length. At all events, the Five begin this adventure by departing from Kirrin to Cornwall, involving a long and well-described train journey. There is no convoluted build-up of family illnesses or school break ups; we just get on with the hols, which are to be spent at Tremannon Farm.
Arriving at Tremannon village, the Five’s lack of Cornish credentials are apparent, since when they stop at the village shop for lemonade the shopkeeper describes them as “Furriners”. Ju rejects this label on the dubious basis that his “mother had a great-aunt who lived in Cornwall”. The scene set, we arrive at the farm to be greeted by Mrs Penruthlan with possibly the finest high tea in the entire Blyton oeuvre:
“A huge ham gleaming as pink as Timmy’s tongue; a salad fit for … several kings, it was so enormous … Lettuce. Tomatoes. Onions. Radishes. Mustard-and-cress. Carrot grated up …”
There are also, in one of the few approximations to the popular parody, “lashings of hard-boiled eggs”. Add “an enormous tureen of new potatoes, all gleaming with melted butter, scattered with parsley … a big bottle of home-made salad cream … cream cheese … fruit cake … drop scones … cherry tart … cream,” and we have a quite extraordinary spread. Mrs Penruthlan is welcoming, but Mr Pentruthlan is more forbidding. A huge man “as dark as a sunburnt Spaniard”, which might make us wonder if he could be a baddy, he speaks in monosyllables or phrases so obscure that only his wife can understand them (later it emerges that this is only when he omits his false teeth; otherwise he can speak quite normally).
On this first day, we learn several important things. First, the impending visit of the Barnies, a travelling circus whose name derives from the fact that they perform in farm barns, including Tremannon. Second, we meet Yan – really, we are told, Jan, so why not spell it that way? A typical Blyton outsider character, of the sort I dislike, he is a dirty ragamuffin who can barely speak English and he lives with his grandfather (sometimes, inexplicably, described as his great-grandfather) who is a shepherd. This shepherd’s father was, apparently, a Wrecker: someone who used false lights to lure ships to be wrecked on the coast so that they could be stripped of their cargo.
The Five settle in, doing standard holiday things, and declaring themselves determined not to have an adventure (we readers are not convinced), which are marred only by Yan (if we must spell his name so) who is a constant pest but who also mentions a “Wreckers’ Way” which is a secret path from the coast. We get to Sunday, and the children go to church. This is unusual because so far as I know religion rarely features in the Famous Five. In the afternoon, after another fine meal, they go to meet Yan’s grandfather (or great-grandfather).
This is a classic FF encounter with an old man, giving a strong sense of history and acquired wisdom. He tells them how the wreckers used to show a light from what is now a ruined tower and adds that recently he has seen a light there again whenever there is a dark and stormy night. However, he refuses to tell them where to find the Wreckers’ Way. As they go back to the farm, they see the Barnies arrive in a convoy of wagons. They are a jolly bunch except for their leader – later identified only as “the Guv’nor” – and confirm that they will put on a show at Tremannon.
That night – wouldn’t you know it? – is dark and stormy and Dick and Julian go to see if there is a light showing in the wreckers’ tower. On their way they are attacked by a mysterious man, and instead of going to look for the light they follow him. He goes back to the farm and they realise it is Mr Penruthlan. It’s clear that an adventure has started and this is confirmed the next day when Yan tells them that the light had been showing in the tower the previous night. Now the Barnies arrive to set up their show and the children learn that part of the act is a two-man pantomime horse called Clopper. Moreover they learn that the “grim-faced” Guv’nor insists that the horse’s head must always be guarded.
The next night is stormy again, and the boys again go to look for the light and this time they see it (George and Anne don’t get much to do in this book). Could there be wreckers at work again? It’s a horrible possibility. Returning to the farm, they see that there is a light in the barn and find that Mr Penruthlan is going through the pockets of the Barnies’ costumes. The boys are shocked and Julian announces, in an odd turn of phrase, that Penruthlan has “got a kink”.
There follows an interlude in the adventure as the Barnies give their show, which everyone finds hilarious, especially when Clopper does his act, rendering Mr Penruthlan beside himself with mirth. The show is followed by one of the most splendid feasts ever, attended by the villagers and all the Barnies except the Guv’nor, who eats alone in the barn. Dick and Julian are sent with his food and they find that he has left a note saying he will be gone for an hour. Fascinated by Clopper, they try on the outfit but the Guv’nor returns so they run off, still in the horse costume which they can’t remove because the zips are stuck, with him in chase. Mr Penruthlan sees them and thinks that a stray horse has appeared. But when he realises that it is Clopper he helps the boys out of the costume and they return it to the barn, where the Guv’nor is waiting, furious.
I have described this scene, which has no real significance for the plot, because it is really one of the most ridiculous in any Famous Five book. Why would the Guv’nor leave Clopper unguarded when earlier it had been stressed that he would never allow this to happen? Why, when he gave chase, would he not be able to capture two boys in a clumsy pantomime horse and just tamely return to the barn to fume? And why would Mr Penruthlan, who had just minutes earlier seen a pantomime horse performing and is an experienced farmer to boot, not realise from the outset that this was, er, not a real horse? All very unconvincing.
Never mind. The adventure gets going again the next day when the Five go to the Wreckers’ tower, very forcefully refusing Yan’s pleas to accompany them. The tower, which rises from a half-ruined house, proves to be a fantastic place to explore. These are really good scenes, of a classic Famous Five sort. There is a spiralling stone stairway and at the top a crumbling parapet with quite magnificent view of sea and countryside. As they take it in, they reconstruct the modus operandi of the old wreckers. Pay attention at the back, because it is crucial to what happens next. They surmise that there must have been a path from the tower to the coast, so that the wreckers could reach the ship they had bamboozled onto the rocks with their light, but that they would also have used the light to signal to their accomplices in the village to join them for the spoils. Thus there must be two paths, one from the tower to the coast, and one from the village to the coast. For some reason they decide that it is the latter path which is the Wreckers’ Way, and decide to try to find the former path, the one from the tower.
But they are on their guard, because they have found fresh paraffin splashes, showing that someone is still using the tower (which shouldn’t be such a surprise, as they have already seen the light). Who? Mr Penruthlan, surely (after all, he has a kink)? But, no, Julian for another unexplained reason asserts that he must be the watcher at the other end of the Wrecker’s Way. This is all very convoluted and doesn’t make much sense but who cares when there is a secret passage to be found? And find it they do, with Timmy’s help: he shifts to being bloodhound as they put him on the paraffin trail.
The underground passage leads them to a door, behind which there is a cave. But as they explore it they are locked in by an unseen man. Luckily, as so often, they have plenty of food in their knapsacks (another inexplicable event: earlier they complain how heavy their food packs are, so surely they would have taken them off when exploring the passage). Some hours later, the much-despised Yan saves the day (again the standard use of an outsider by Blyton). He had followed them, releases them, and takes them from the coast but this time using the Wreckers’ Way (I hope you are keeping up) which turns out to emerge in a shed at Tremannon Farm. On the way, down at the coast, they hear a motorboat and also see a big man. It is dark, but they are sure that it is Mr Penruthlan, up to no good. And they have by now also guessed that since there are no shipwrecks any more the no good he is up to is smuggling.
Back at the farm, Mrs Penruthlan is relieved to see them but when they tell her the whole story she is furious at the accusations against her husband and attacks Julian, boxing his ears. Anyone who has ever wanted to give Ju a good slap will relish this scene. Things are a bit awkward until Mr Penruthlan turns up and reveals that, far from being a baddy, he is “working with the police” – whatever that means – to catch the smugglers. Rather surprisingly for a Blyton, the contraband turns out to be illegal drugs. Now events move very quickly as it emerges that the Guv’nor, unbeknown to the rest of the Barnies, is the leader of the smugglers and Dick guesses that the booty is hidden in Clopper’s head (and that’s not a sentence you’ll often see written). The Guv’nor is locked in a shed and the police are sent for. With another fine meal the adventure is over.
On re-reading, there are several things I don’t like about Five Go Down to the Sea. There are far too many inconsistencies or gaps in the plot, and too many loose ends. The scene when the boys take Clopper is particularly irritating but, also, why would the light only be shone on dark and stormy nights? That makes sense if the crime is wrecking, but surely for landing smuggled goods this would be the last kind of weather they would choose? Why did Mr Penruthlan not tell his wife he was working with the police and wouldn’t she notice that he kept going out all night long? And what happens to the rest of the smugglers apart from the Guv’nor? Do they go free? I hope not but we aren’t told.
On the plus side, and in contrast to Five Go Adventuring Again when it is obvious from the outset that Mr Roland is the villain, Blyton creates a fantastic about turn with Mr Penruthlan emerging as a hero. There are great evocations of the countryside, a fine farm, a classic search for a secret passage and some absolutely iconic meals. So on those grounds I think it just about remains in my top three and the clincher is Julian’s hopelessly, or perhaps shamelessly, lame attempt to claim Cornish heritage.