The Hollow Oak

Have you ever sat inside a tree?  Maddy (our twelve-year-old in Badger Clan who is now grown-up and walks on her own regularly) told us the other day of ‘a tree that you can climb inside’.  One September evening she takes Jemima and I with her, and Fergus, the energetic dog (Tyn has opted to stay behind).  The sun is glowing a benevolent orange over the line of poplars marching across the high ridge that hems in one side of the village.  By the time we’ve reached the right field via our scenic route it is getting dark, the way lit by the occasional dandelion and aided by the glow from the late-flowering oilseed rape, grown to be ploughed back into the soil.

      ‘Should we go on?’ I ask, but the girls are determined to reach the tree.  ‘We won’t go any further than that,’ I say, pointing to where the trees encroach into the field, but we’ve arrived, for Fergus has stopped and is wagging his tail at the imposing oak. 

     Jemima needs no further invitation and has scrambled her way inside.  ‘It’s like a hobbit hole,’ she says.  Clichéd, perhaps, but there is no other way to describe it.  The ancient oak boasts an arched front doorway, a larger rear exit and a naturally formed window.

     ‘Come inside,’ she tells me.  ‘You know you want to.’

       The tree is no less lovely inside and I touch the bark with my hands, the lintel over the door – aided to look this way or natural I wonder – and stare through the window and into the brambled  scrub, ripe with blackberries.  My log-perch in the centre is perfectly placed, presumably by a previous visitor, and I glance upwards to see how high the vaulted ‘ceiling’ is; it’s hard to tell as it’s so dark, and festooned with cobwebs that obscure the view.  You couldn’t imagine a more child-friendly and welcoming tree, unless, of course, you are fearful of spiders.  Being inside it takes me back to that safe, enclosed feeling we have in dens as children, whether impromptu camps under a tablecloth or creations with sticks and branches.  I haven’t experienced it for years, but it’s very satisfying and snug. 

     The next day I’m back visiting it with our foster son, who dives inside on arrival, then proceeds to clamber up its height, fearless and free.  His way of claiming a tree is climbing it, and he does it very well.

     I’m left thinking about how readily we clamber inside these spaces as children, but have to glance over our shoulder as adults to check no one is looking, feeling we’re just doing it for the kids!  I believe we should allow ourselves to do this more often, both physically and metaphorically.

     The hollow oak makes me think of God’s protection; the psalmist says ‘Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.’  (Psalm 91).  There are mentions of him ‘concealing’ us ‘In the secret place of His tent’ (Psalm 27:5) and ‘In the shadow of His hand’ (Isaiah 49:2). Our lives are said to be ‘hidden with him’ (Colossians 3:3).  This feeling of enclosure is natural for us to seek, our experience from our first conscious thoughts in the womb (said to be between 24 and 28 weeks), and perhaps why we want that cocooned feeling when we are small.  We should naturally feel protected as children; in an ideal world anyway, and I suspect it should point us to our supernatural protection as believers, whatever age we happen to be.

     While we enjoy the novelty of this tree, for some creatures it provides genuine shelter; it is a likely nesting site for birds and bats, no doubt for a fox or badger talking a break from a downpour, and perhaps a hibernating hedgehog, according to The Woodland Trust.[1]   It is far from unique too, and an oak in Cheshire[2] (thought to be the largest tree in all of England in 1880) once ‘served as a bullpen, a pigsty and a Wendy house’, while a yew tree in North Wales[3] contains steps up to a podium, thought to be a location from which John Wesley once preached.

      It has (you might have noticed) sent me down a rabbit hole of research, and I now know its 222 inch girth suggests a tree of approximately 360 years.[4]  That tree could have begun life as a sapling in 1661.  Should nature make us feel small sometimes, and cause us to stop and wonder?  For my part, I think it should.

Those who live in the shelter of the Most High

will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

This I declare about the Lord:

He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;

He is my God, and I trust him.’

Psalm 91:1-2


[2] The Marten Oak, Cheshire

[3] The Pulpit Yew, Denbighshire

[4] How to estimate the age of an oak:

Success or sell-out? My journey into print

cover for ebook small

This week sees the publication of my first book, Badger Clan.  It hasn’t been the most straightforward journey, which is why I’ve decided to write about it here.  I hope my experiences will be of use to one or two of my readers.

     The material in my memoir is mainly from 2015.  Why has it taken so long to get it out there?  I finished writing the book in 2016.  By spring 2017 I looked for an agent, and quickly signed with Anne Williams of the Kate Hordern Literary Agency.  I worked on an edit with Anne, which we were both happy with by July of that year.  This isn’t unusual – an agent will be representing many other authors and I had to fit writing around my full teaching schedule.  Submissions started during autumn 2017 (holiday time is ‘dead time’). Many publishers then asked to see the book.

Rejections included,I’m deeply jealous of all that badger action and I would have loved to give this a go, but I’m afraid I couldn’t get the kind of consensus we need to take a book on’ and ‘I really enjoyed reading this and thought it was beautiful but I’m afraid I didn’t love it enough in the end to want to take it on. I hope you find the perfect editor for this special book.’

The book, then known as The Year of the Badger, went to one or two acquisitions meetings.

A certain Mr P, editor from another well-respected publishing house said, ‘This is a really deeply lovely book. Gorgeous writing, hugely engaging, exciting and carefully crafted. The village is alive and nuanced and real in the reader’s mind.’  They were about to re-roll Badgerlands (no clues there, then) and felt unable to help due to a conflict of interests.

Finally, my agent phoned one evening to tell me she’d received a ‘yes’.  ‘Go and celebrate with your family,’ she said.  Something inside me made me hold back from cracking open the champagne; just as well it did.  Despite everything progressing nicely over the weeks that followed, information on where the pictures would go, how many books would be printed and how the book would be marketed, I took another, less positive call a few weeks later.  I remember it well.  It was during my youngest daughter’s birthday tea, February 2018.  The publishing house was having a financial crisis and having to pull out on all new writers.  They told Anne we could be in touch again towards the end of the summer, when, hopefully, their finances would be back on track.

I fought back the tears, lit the candles on the cake and carried it through to the table as if nothing had happened.  My little girl had no idea of the news that felt devastating.  Yet I had much to celebrate too, sang out ‘Happy Birthday’ with the rest of them and sat back, very aware of my blessings. Perhaps, with hindsight, it was the best time to have received the news.

There is a whole lot of waiting for publishers, even without the ‘please get back to us’ scenario.  It helped me to have other writing projects on the go, and to be taking the long view.  We let the summer pass and Anne emailed the publisher in question, then tarried a while but they didn’t respond.  She felt this was signal enough that we’d reached closure with them, and gave me permission to do what I’d been longing to: publish as an indie via KDP.  I had a busy teaching term and wanted to make my own tweaks now that the book was mine again (I had also been through a PhD viva with it and needed to process advice given there).  My goal was to get the book out early in the new year. I contacted Alexi Francis, a name I’d come across through an anthology series we’d both written for, and then Twitter, and asked her to create my cover.  I suggested pen and ink, a design different to the known badger narratives’ covers out there, and said ‘I can imagine some blue in it, with perhaps a night sky and some winter trees.  I do love your Havergate Hare painting.  I think something quite simple with strong, dark colours to make it eye-catching.’  She met the brief and has far exceeded my hopes.  Would a publishing house have given me something I like this much?  They would have been hard pushed to.

So here we are! Annie, my eldest daughter, is now in her second year at university; she was taking her GCSEs in the book, which gives you some idea of how much time has passed.

The route to publication was nothing like I expected, but I’ve learnt a lot on the way.  Enrol on any MA Creative Writing course and you are led to believe that traditional publishing is the most respectable way into print.  How many well-written books are in hiding right now, abandoned with a misplaced sense of shame?  How many writers have given up their calling?  I have been told by many people that my book should be out there, not least my PhD supervisor, Scarlett Thomas, my agent and the publisher who wanted my book, but shall remain nameless: ‘So sorry to excite and deflate like this. But it is a reflection of the life of a small publisher rather than on the book itself, as Caroline writes very well.’  And that is the bottom line – the publishing industry is not in great shape, for publishers, small or large, are not committing to new writers as they did a decade ago. Their bubble may have burst, but as new writers our hopes should not.

I feel my book is as good as any publishing house would have made it.  What I do appreciate is that it is now MY book, not tailored to their whims, but my own.

The would-be published author is made to feel small in the 21st century; like they really need a mainstream publishing house behind them.  Yet I am now actually feeling very excited about launching out without support. I have been interested to discover, too, that self-publishing has the potential to be more lucrative.  A friend told me once she would be receiving ten pence per copy of hardback book sold.  This isn’t outlandish.  A writer will receive perhaps 10% per sale. This doesn’t sound so bad?  It isn’t based on the cover price but rather the price the publisher sells it at.  This could be half the cover price.  Wholesalers can then demand large discounts etc. etc.  The printing cost for my book will be £4.52.  If I sell at £9.99 the royalty on each copy will be £1.47.  I’m yet to see how this pans out, but so far I’m not complaining.

Despite all this, I’m saving the best bit till last.  You see, if I’d like to be known for any writing, it’s my current project.  In 2018 I wrote for a Christian anthology that was published at Christmas (Merry Christmas, Everyone, The Association of Christian Writers).  This unexpectedly kickstarted a new project in me and it has felt like a tremendous release; not that I didn’t enjoy writing Badger Clan, but my new book has been prompted by my own spiritual journey and not someone (who became my PhD supervisor) inviting me to write a book.  My faith grew as I wrote the badger book, and through the rocky road to publication, too.  I sometimes wonder that if Christians always have it easy, what use are we to anyone else?  I can share from my experiences and hopefully be an encouragement to others to see their projects through to a rightful conclusion.

I still expect to write some nature pieces in the future, but I’m not tied into this because it’s what my publisher expects of me.

How will I seek publication for my latest book?  At this stage, I really don’t know.  (When it’s finished I may feel clearer).  But it’s felt more fulfilling than anything to write, and I hope its outworking will do something quite profound; if it can bring greater understanding of the book that’s the most precious to me in the world, and point to the one who changes lives and transforms, then it will be a job well done.  I like the thought of writing something with eternal consequences.   Now that would be success in my mind.


thumb nail book cover