Finding Peter Pan's Wendy
Have you ever heard of Cockayne Hatley?
Nor had I until I stumbled upon it one day with my daughter, Finty. We were searching for historic sites and ghosts in Potton Wood and only a few miles from where I live in the UK is this tiny little hamlet, as old as the hills and called Cockayne Hatley. In truth, it's no more than a single, deadend lane that occupies two hills on the borders of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, houses flowing down into a steep valley between.
On one hill is a beautiful thirteenth century church. It stands alone, quite majestic, and looks out over ancient woodland to the west. Indeed, the isolated church houses internal furnishings ‘rescued’ after the Battle of Waterloo. Noteworthy enough, but imagine my surprise when Finty and I discovered its small and quiet graveyard houses the inspiration behind two of the world’s most famous literary characters. In the grounds are buried the real people who inspired the writerly creations of Long John Silver from Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stephenson), and Wendy Darling from Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie).
It turns out they are from the same family, a loving father and daughter, his ashes interred in her ornate, art deco grave in a place she loved. He was the poet William Ernest Henley, famous for penning ‘Invictus’, and she was Margaret.
Margaret’s is a sad tale.
She and her father were friends of J.M. Barrie and as a little girl they called him "Friend", which she pronounced “Fwend” and turned into “Fwendy Wendy”.
Her life was short. At just five she died of cerebral meningitis in 1888. Her father and mother had her buried in Cockayne Hatley; a tiny hamlet that was not their home but a place their daughter loved to visit and play. It's a beautiful place to sleep. So peaceful that when you sit by her ornate grave and you can all but hear her laughter on the breeze.
Strange though, don’t you think.
Most of us have heard of Peter Pan and Wendy, but little Margaret, the inspiration behind the character, never read about nor knew of Wendy and the boy who wouldn’t grow up. And yet, even though many will not know of her, J.M. Barrie and his pen have made her live and fly forever.
In a letter to William from Robert Louis Stephenson, the author of Treasure Island wrote:
"I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver ... the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you."
William's left leg had been amputated below the knee at the age of nineteen as a result of tuberculosis of the bone contracted when he was just twelve years old.