Through the hole in the garden wall, Ivy sees a world that is an eerie mirror of the land she knows. This is Underfell: the fairy realm that lies beneath the mountains and lakes of Cumbria, home to the Lake District National Park. Ivy doesn’t know why her brother sought out this passage to Underfell, or how to turn him back into a boy again; all she can do is pack up her rucksack, grab her map and follow him through.
In some of the best fantasy stories the characters don’t physically travel through a portal at all. Instead, they come to realise that the world they know is not what it seems. That’s the case for the Drew siblings and Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising, and for Colin and Susan in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: they stumble upon ancient magic in the landscape, and are drawn into its enchanting (but often dangerous) orbit.
Underfell is a bit of both. Geographically it looks just like Cumbria, and the mountains and lakes are (for the most part) where you’d expect them to be. But the sky is not really a sky at all, the trees and plants don’t abide by the seasons, and the landmarks are weird echoes of their equivalents in the world above.
I wanted to reflect that there is magic in the world we know, in nature and in other people. That the land we live in is full of stories, their roots as deep as our most ancient trees. That a portal to a far-off place may really have been leading you home all along. It’s a bit like John Muir’s famous words: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
(The best portals of all, of course – and the easiest to find – are made of ink and paper, stored on shelves or piled up beside the bed. I don’t know of a better way to make a quick escape to another world, where anything is possible.)
So the next time you stumble upon an ancient doorway to a long since crumbled building, or a spiralling hedge with a circular hollow at its heart, take note. You’re never too old to be transported to another realm, and that’s the wonderful thing about portals: it’s always possible that you just haven’t found yours yet.