Outstanding writer of the 20th century

IAN COLLINS Philippa Pearce, who has died aged 86, was one of the outstanding children's writers of the 20th century - with brilliant flights of fantasy rooted in her beloved East Anglia.

IAN COLLINS

Philippa Pearce, who has died aged 86, was one of the outstanding children's writers of the 20th century - with brilliant flights of fantasy rooted in her beloved East Anglia.

Her first book was published in 1955 and her last is due out next year, but she will always be best-known for the time story Tom's Midnight Garden.

This classic saga won the Carnegie Medal in 1959, prompted film, play and three TV versions and has been a Penguin best-seller for three decades.

Philippa had an idyllic childhood as the daughter of a flour miller at Great Shelford on the River Cam.

The King's Mill House was a rambling den with a wild, watery garden which she came to share with generations of readers.

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"Although there wasn't much cash we had lots of space," she once said.

"We had a canoe, we swam, we fished with net and rod, we skated on flooded water meadows.

"On Saturday afternoons we used to creep into the mill by a secret way and play among the bulging sacks, and hide."

After school and college in Cambridge, she worked as a radio scriptwriter and producer for the BBC's Schools Broadcasting.

During a long spell in hospital with TB, she drew on vivid childhood memories for her first book, Minnow on the Say. "I just went straight ahead," she said. "It was lovely."

Then came the unhappy news that her father's retirement would force the sale of the Mill House.

"Suddenly my childhood was chopped off from me," she said. "I began thinking of writing a story based on the house and the garden and this feeling of things slipping away."

And so unfolded the fabulous tale of how Tom is summoned, when a grandfather clock strikes 13, to play with his fantastic friends in the garden.

Philippa Pearce's husband, Martin Christie, died shortly after the birth of their only child, but she continued - slowly yet steadily - to write fiction based on the things and places she loved.

The Battle of Bubble and Squeak followed the travails of daughter Sally's gerbils; The Way to Sattin Shore was inspired by a spell on the estuary of Suffolk's River Stour.

But from 1973 she was back in Great Shelford, living down the lane from the Mill House. Continuing to speak at conferences, edit anthologies and write short stories, she published The Little Gentleman - her first new full-length book for two decades - in 2004.

Every summer Philippa and another grandmother spent a week in Southwold - where she entertained me to an uproarious tea in August, her radical opinions delivered in the forthright tone of total innocence, reducing Swan Hotel eavesdroppers to silence.

That fellow granny was none other than Helen Craig, illustrator of many children's books, including the Angelina Ballerina series.

At long last - and just in the nick of time - these two ungrand dames of children's literature had been collaborating on a new story in which both took great delight. It will appear next year.