Monday, 17 September 2018

Astley Book Farm

Ever since Penn bookshop closed earlier this year (you can read about it here), we've been on a mission to find a replacement. So far we've got Wolverton Books (very cheap) and a good, mixed secondhand shop in Wantage. Of course, I am lucky to have one of the best secondhand bookshops ever just down the road, in the shape of Books & Ink. By the way, Sam at Books & Ink is happy to put books in the post so, if you're looking for something in particular, do give her a ring.

But, when it comes to books, more is always better, right? So, on Friday my son and I set off to visit another new-to-us secondhand bookshop that looked promising. Astley Book Farm is North-East of Coventry,  just over an hour's drive from here. You go in through this modest little blue door ...

That sign reads 'Unattended children will be given
an espresso and a free puppy'

... to find yourself in a huge maze of a shop.

Room after room, full of books on every conceivable subject and all housed in a barn - or maybe it's a series of barns. There are chairs dotted around so that you can browse the books in comfort and there's even a stove in one room.

The fiction alone extends through several rooms. Everything is alphabetically ordered and the stock is good. I always think the test of a secondhand bookshop is the children's section. All too often, this is just a random collection of any books aimed at children. Not the case here, I'm glad to say. 

The children's books are housed in the hayloft and have obviously been selected well. We know quite a bit about children's literature and found lots of interesting titles that we hadn't seen before. The fiction is stronger than the picture books but all the sections are good. There's also a bookcase of older (as in collectable) children's books by the main desk.

We were pleased to see that the shop also stocks all the Persephone Books which I don't think I've seen anywhere other than at the Persephone shop in London. In the courtyard there's a small barn of random, cheaply priced stock. For those too young to remember 'old money', ten bob is ten shillings or 50p in new money.

And, last but not least, there's even a cafe. We had a very nice broccoli and stilton soup but the cakes looked wonderful too. I think we'll have to sample those on a future visit. I loved this display of Puffin book covers on the front of the counter.

So, what did I buy in this exciting shop? Mostly children's books of course. I got twelve new Puffin Firsts which is a lot to find in one go.

I was particularly pleased with these two.

I'm a big fan of Barbara Willard's historical fiction, in particular her Mantlemass Chronicles, a series of books following the lives of two families from the 15th to 17th century. So, I was pleased to find 'The Penny Pony' about two children who want a real pony but can only afford an old model of one from a junk shop - sounds like a promising start to a story. The cover is illustrated by Juliet Palmer and I think it's particularly attractive. A lot of thought went into choosing artists to illustrate the Puffin Story Books.

'Mademoiselle' is set in Paris in the Summer of 1914 which would be enough to make me want to read it but it's also by Geraldine Symons who wrote 'The Workhouse Child' which I read and loved as a child. On getting it home I realised that 'Mademoiselle' is a sequel to that book, albeit with another book in between. Now I need to find a copy of 'Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges' to fill that gap. 

Not all the Puffins were fiction. I found these two history books, both written by James Barbary.

They look interesting; there was another one about the English Civil War but my son got that one. I wonder if Barbary wrote any others.

I do love a good poetry anthology so I was pleased to find this Puffin collection from 1976.

Which leads nicely on to my special find of the day, another poetry anthology.

This is a lovely book, originally published in 1957. What attracted me though was the name of the compiler. Pamela Whitlock was just 15 when she and her friend Katherine Hull decided to write a book. They wrote alternate chapters and then swapped them to edit each other's work. When the book was finished they sent it off to their favourite author Arthur Ransome. This is where the story gets really exciting as Ransome loved the book, persuaded his publishers to publish it and even wrote the foreword. 'The Far-Distant Oxus' was set on Exmoor, as were the two sequels 'Escape to Persia' and 'Oxus in Summer'. The first of the books was re-published some years ago by Fidra Books which is how we discovered it but, sadly, all three are now out of print.

Anyway, back to the poetry. As well as poems chosen by Pamela Whitlock, there are also a few beautiful woodcuts by Joan Hassall. One of the great twentieth century exponents of wood engraving, any book with Joan Hassall illustrations is a great find.

I did buy a few picture books too. These three hardbacks each cost only a few pounds.

The most interesting one is perhaps that one in the middle.

'Kindle Me A Riddle' by Roberta Karim is the story of a Pioneer family in mid nineteenth century Utah. Each page features something from the family's life and the riddle of where it came from. So, for example, Constance's winter cloak was once the winter cloak of the sheep.

The oil paintings throughout the book are by Bethanne Andersen. I'm not sure if this book was ever published in the UK; the one I found is an American edition from Greenwillow Books who are part of Harper Collins.

This picture book is much smaller and also much older.

'The Tale of Noah and the Flood' by Clark Hutton is number 54 in the Puffin picture book series and was published in 1946. I have quite a big collection of old Puffin Picture books so I was glad to be able to add a new one to the pile. There are several stunning double page illustrations in this one 

It also ends with these words (in block capitals) 'Noah lived another 350 years after the flood cultivating vineyards and when he died he was nine hundred and fifty years old'. Mmm, not too sure about that. One day I must write a blog post about this series of books.

I just want to show you one more book that I bought at Astley, an addition to my collection of Puffin Annuals.

'Puffin's Pleasure' was published in 1976 and is a compilation of stories, articles and activities by some of the great names in children's literature. You only have to open the book and look at the endpapers to know you're in for a treat.

How about a story by Ursula Le Guin?

Or perhaps an illustrated poem by Joan Aiken? This one's about a cat with a crooked tail.

Then there's an article about life on a canal narrowboat, written by Jill Paton Walsh.

My two other Puffin Annuals are from 1974 and 1975. I don't know if there any others but, if there are, I want them!

I think the annuals were an offshoot from The Puffin Club which ran from 1967 to 1989. If anyone knows any more about these annuals, I'd love to hear from you.


  1. I took my first trip here last week, and loved it! I came away with 12 lovely books, and a firm intention to go back to sample more of the delicious cake.

  2. Now I'm really wishing I'd had some of the cake! I'll definitely be going back too.

  3. My brother got a Puffin Annual one Christmas, it would have been about 1977-9 and I absolutely loved it (I always read his books as well as my own). I just loved the illustrative style (and the terrible jokes) and I really wish one of us had kept it.

    1. Did it look like any of mine or can't you remember? I too read all my older brother's books, including Biggles and lots of scienc fiction.

  4. What a charming bookstore. If you haven't discovered it already abebooks is a great way to track down titles. It pulled up a baker's dozen of copies of Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges. You could order on line, or use the listed bookstores as impetus for another reading-roadtrip. .

    1. Yes, I do know about abe but I try not to use amazon companies because of the way they treat their staff and the pitiful amount of taxes they pay. I shall look for that book in real shops; I always think it's more exciting to find a book than to order it.