HER creations are known across the world, but Jill Barklem herself is unlikely to be recognised in her own home town of Epping.

Mrs Barklem is the author of Brambly Hedge, the beautifully illustrated stories about a group of mice.

Her first book appeared in 1980 and her stories have since been translated into 15 languages and sales have exceeded 4.5million.

She said: "I discovered drawing when I was at school. I had a detached retina at 13 and wasn't allowed to do sport, so I swopped the gym for the art room. With drawing, the more you do the better you get at it and I did a lot."

Mrs Barklem says Epping Forest inspired her stories, not surprising as most of her life has been spent in Epping.

She was born at St Margaret's Hospital and as a baby lived above Pynes Stores, which was owned by her father.

Later they moved out to a home in the gardens behind the shop. She would spend a lot of time in the fields behind Bower Hill with her friend looking for shrews and voles.

She studied art in London and then in 1977 married and moved out to Forest Side in Chingford.

She said: "In 1981 I was in hospital having my daughter when my husband came running in to tell me he'd seen a house in Epping. It wasn't really the ideal time to tell me, but we did end up moving into this house in Theydon Grove which looked over the fields.

"We moved into Church Hill in 1987, the year of the hurricane. On the night of the storm we hadn't moved in yet and I was imagining the tiles and things coming off the roof. It was fine, but the chimney blew off the place in Theydon Grove."

At the moment some of her original watercolours are on display in the Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey, many of which are on display for the first time.

Mrs Barklem said how attached she feels to her little mouse creations.

"They're like my family. It's like my babies up there in the museum. I keep wanting to go and see they are alright."

It's not surprising considering how much time she has spent drawing them, writing about them and even researching her fictional mouse society.

"I do like to get everything right," she said. "I like to research and I did buy lots of books on country living before I started. I find it satisfying when I look at my pictures and I can see all sorts of things that would be right, like how they could make inks out of blackberries and pens out of feathers.

"I like the detail of things, but my paintings never seem to go quite right.

"I always have a picture in my mind but it doesn't ever seem to look quite like it. A picture takes three or four weeks when I'm working solid. And you can guarantee I will drop my paint brush on my painting once every picture! Only when I come back to it do I think 'that's not too bad'."

So what do her family think of her work?

"They don't really notice what I'm doing. When he was younger my son Peter wondered if Wilfred was based on him. But I told him 'I made Wilfred before I made you, so you must be modelled on Wilfred'. They do help me by reading things through for me sometimes but most of the time they just leave me to it."

For now Mrs Barklem is thinking about her next project, which could be a story for younger children.

"I've started on something, I've had a few ideas,. For health reasons I've been having a bit of a rest, but I've done a bit of drawing. I think it would be nice to have something younger children can read themselves without having to have the stories read to them."

The Brambly Hedge exhibition will be at Epping Forest District Museum in Sun Street, Waltham Abbey, until January 26, 2002.

November 29, 2001 8:54