My Countryside interview: Cressida Cowell

The best-selling author of the How to Train Your Dragon children’s books discusses her early island life and the stories it inspired, the magic of natural words, and her capacious gardening apron

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My books have always been inspired by the countryside. I grew up in London but my dad’s heart was in the wilderness. Every spring and summer, we were taken to an uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland – an island so small that when you stood on the top of it, you could see sea all around you. We’d be dropped off on that island by a local boatman and picked up again two weeks later. And there was nothing on it the island! No shops, no houses. When I was nine, my dad had a house built on the island and we spent the whole summer there, and my dad got a boat, so he could catch fish. It was an incredible experience for a child.

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That island was the inspiration for my How to Train Your Dragon books, because it was the first place the Vikings came to when they invaded Great Britain, and the last place they left. There were real ruined houses on that little island I used to explore, play in, and pretend I was a Viking.

I have a special fondness for the sea, the wildness of it. I remember an extraordinary occasion when we were on a beach on Mull, just the family, having a picnic. We had this beach, which is like a secret cove, entirely to ourselves, nobody there, blue… The boat was moored in quite shallow water, and a pod of dolphins came in to play with the boat in the bay. The children ran into the water and they were all just playing around the moored boat. It was a magical moment. The sea landscapes, those wildernesses of the Hebrides are the most beautiful places. Particularly when the sun is shining. My heart just lifts when I go to that western part of Scotland.

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The Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides

My father didn’t necessarily know what he was doing in a boat! And on those tricky waters in the Hebrides… He would do things like accidentally tie the boat to a lobster pot instead of a buoy. I remember going out in a storm, where we were bailing out the water and it really did feel very dangerous. You suddenly realise that this is an out-of-control situation about which you can do nothing.

Anybody who has camped in the 1970s will know that 70s tents were not waterproof! We’d get very wet and not be able to dry out. And then if you did manage to get your jeans to dry out, they would turn stiff with the salt. Like putting on cardboard jeans. Many of my hero Hiccup’s experiences – of the cold, of the damp, of being frightened by going out into the sea in storms – are definitely ones that I had in my childhood. 

My grandmother’s family grew up in Sussex, and I spent a lot of time there as a child. There was a nearby hill, which we called ‘The Fairy Hill’ – in fact it’s called Levin Down – that had these extraordinary bumps, like grassy molehills, all over the hillside, and the adults didn’t know what they were. I used to imagine that this was the miniature burial grounds of the fairies. This became the direct inspiration for The Wizards of Once, which imagines giants, wizards and sprites living in Iron Age Britain. 

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Cressida Cowell on Levin Down, which she called ‘The Fairy Hill’ as a child

I wear my gardening apron a great deal. It has lots of pockets so I can absent-mindedly put everything in it – keys, reading glasses, a trowel, gloves. I put on the same apron for painting and for gardening. I do look a bit eccentric in the apron with a raincoat on top, to go in and out of the shed in the rain. 

I have a shed at the bottom of my garden to write in. It’s buried in green and roses, with a magnolia tree there. I can’t see any houses; I’ve deliberately created an island where I can turn in on my own thoughts. You have to do that when creating a fantasy world, because you need to drown out the noise of the internet or the phone or other things crowding in on you. We’re instantly connected all the time and I think it’s very important for us to disconnect. For me, it is my writing shed, but I also find that going to the island or walking in the countryside is a way of disconnecting; and also of reconnecting with the things that are most important.

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Cressida Cowell’s writing shed is tucked amongst greenery

If I had a magic wand, I would have all the hedgerows back and everything organic. We can’t go on using pesticides that wipe out insect species. Thankfully, I see hedgerows returning. And 20 years ago people said organic wouldn’t take off, and it has, so let’s hope more of that will come in.

I’m a huge fan of writers such as Robert Macfarlane. In his book Landmarks, he wrote about how the Oxford Junior Dictionary had replaced words such as ‘acorn’ with words like ‘blog’. Losing such words suggests we’re losing a connection with the landscape. 

In The Wizards of Once, I have the ‘sprite words’, lost words of the countryside, being collected by giants. Some are real, some I’ve made up. They’re very particular words, such ‘hair ice’, which describes a kind of fungal, icy formation that appears on twigs in frosty conditions. I’ve tried to introduce these to capture children’s imaginations about the countryside. 

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Cressida’s sketches of the Hairy Fairies in The Wizard of Once

I hope I’m carrying on with what my dad was doing as an environmentalist. The books and films of How to Train Your Dragon aren’t just funny exciting tales about dragons, they’re also about looking after nature and the wilderness, our relationship with nature. 

I feel it’s so obvious that things like global warming are happening that, in the end, we will look beyond the short term. I think we’ll be able to prevent, not all the disasters that will happen, but hopefully many. 

As for cream or jam first on a scone – what about butter? I have them a lot, you see. I would put the butter on first, then the jam and then the cream. From a visual point of view, it’d be like the jam in a sandwich.

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Cressida Cowell’s latest book series, The Wizards of Once, is out now