‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into unchartered waters. What mysteries will they hold for us? What dark secrets shall be revealed?
We set off from the Lakeside Railway Station on the southern shore of Windermere to explore Arthur Ransome’s world full of excitement. I was wondering how many signs of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ we would find, if we’d see the crossed flags that have become a symbol of the bestseller he wrote back in 1929.
We found the first sign the East of Lake road above Coniston Water. And there was Holly Howe where the Walker Family came for their holidays. It is so exciting to know that you can stay there too, or go for tea, and run down the field full of buttercups to dip your hands in the lake, just as the real Altounyan children – the real Swallows – must have done. We passed Lanehead, their grandparents’ house next-door as we drove down to Coniston. I gather it is for sale.
Coniston Old Man or Kanchenjunga, as the Swallows and Amazons called the mountain, was snoozing under a thick blanket of cloud but the challenge of climbing to the summit was for another day. Below the village, mooring up to the jetty at the Bluebird Cafe, was Ransome, the Coniston Launch. Peter Walker introduced us to the Captain who welcomed us aboard. He asked after Swallow, the little ship from the film that we had re-launched from the very same jetty in April 2011. If you join The Arthur Ransome Society you can sail Swallow on Coniston this summer.
As we set off across the lake we could see Swallow’s boatshed clearly from the Coniston launch. It has been renovated and repaired but the old stone jetty is still there, below the huge horse chestnut trees. I remember how cold the water was when we first brought Swallow out from the depths of that shed in May 1973 to shoot the opening scenes of the movie. Two sheep came down to see what we were doing. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer, gave me this black and white photograph that, unusually, shows Claude Whatham the Director setting up the shot. I was letting water drain from my shoe.
The Coniston Launch can take you right down the lake to Wild Cat Island, or Peel Island as it is really called. You can see the Secret Harbour best from a boat and imagine Titty trying to get out through the rocks in Amazon, in the dark, when she captured her from the terrifying Amazon Pirates.
We actually disembarked at Brantwood, John Ruskin’s House. It was here that the Altounyan children’s grandfather WH Collingwood worked as Ruskin’s private secretary. He painted him at his desk there. My niece has just graduated from The Ruskin School of Art in Oxford.
Peter Walker met us and drove us on down the lake to show us The Heald, a bungalow above the road where Arthur Ransome lived with his Russian wife, Evgenia and his dinghy, Coch-y-bonddhu. It was here that he wrote Picts and Martyrs. Coch-y-bonddhu played the part of Dick and Dot’s boat Scarab. The original ‘Dogs Home’ can be found in the woods above the house. Rob Boden is very keen to restore it.
It was in the Grizedale Forest that we went to see the charcoal burners and met the real men in the process. And an adder. It was real too.
I looked back at the island where I spent so much of my childhood. It was difficult to imagine how a location catering wagon let alone two Route-master London double-decker buses could have driven down the winding East of Lake road. They parked in the field opposite the islands so the crew could at least eat lunch in the dry and we could have our lessons. The National Parks Authority had to ask the Production Manager to drape wartime camouflage netting over them. You must have been able to see the red buses for miles.
As you drive south you can look over the water to see Brown Howe, the house that we used as a location for Beckfoot in the film of Swallows and Amazons and shortly after, the Edwardian boathouse, which Claude Whatham used for the Amazons. I don’t think this was the one Ransome envisaged. His was at the mouth of the Amazon River – a reedy place. The pictures in the illustrations show a building with a low-pitched roof.
Peter took us down to a farm the south of Coniston Water where the real Ransome children spent their summer holidays. You can walk down the footpath they must have taken to dip their hands in the lake. And there I found what must be the real Amazon boat house.