Sophie Neville, President of The Arthur Ransome Society, explores Arthur Ransome’s Lake District…
‘Where can we find the places described in “Swallows and Amazons”?’ As Arthur Ransome died 50 years ago, this daunting question is often asked of me. Having played ‘Titty’ in the original movie of “Swallows and Amazons (1974)”, I remember film locations but, being twelve years old at the time, I needed to embark on a voyage of exploration to refresh my memory.
My quest began in ‘Antarctica’, as ‘Titty’ called the southern end of Windermere, where we spent our first day filming on the Haverthwaite Steam Railway. I had a chat with the train driver, who explained they now take people from distant lands to Lakeside Station where ‘Native shipping’ transports them on to ‘Rio’ (Bowness) or the ‘North Pole’ (Ambleside).
Curiously, the platform looked shinier than when we roared off in a yellow taxi with Virginia McKenna, who played my mother, ‘Mrs Walker’.
Arthur Ransome knew the Furness Railway well. It brought him from Leeds, where he was born, up to the Lakes for treasured family holidays.
I was wondering if we’d see any crossed flags that have become the symbol of his series of “Swallows and Amazons” stories when a sign on East of Lake Road above Coniston Water directed me to Bank Ground Farm or ‘Holly Howe’. You can call in for tea or stay at the house, the old stables or the converted barn where we once filmed our night scenes. I wanted to run down the field full of buttercups, like the ‘Walker’ children when they first arrived on holiday, to see if Swallow was in her boat shed. Here the old stone jetty still lies below tall horse chestnut trees. I remembered how icy the water felt and was struck by the fact that it smelt the same.
The four Ransome children, Arthur, Joyce, Geoffrey and Cecily, spent their summer holidays on Swainson’s Farm at High Nibthwaite, at the southern end of Coniston Water, where you find the ‘Knickerbockerbreaker’ rocks featured in “Swallowdale”.
Their father fished at ‘Octopus Lagoon’ (Allan Tarn) a little way along the reedy River Crake. You can walk down the footpath they must have taken to a ‘rough stone-built dock’, that Ransome refers to in his autobiography, known as Slate Quay.
Unless you want to climb ‘Kanchenjunga’, as the ‘Walkers’ and ‘Blacketts’ called The Old Man of Coniston, take a trip on Steam Yacht Gondola as Ransome did as a boy and imagine him skating on the vast frozen lake described in “Winter Holiday”.
It’s possible to stop at Brantwood, where his friend and mentor WG Collingwood worked as John Ruskin’s secretary. It was in the Grizedale Forest nearby that, during the filming. we went to visit the charcoal burners and met an adder.
I gazed out over the water to see Brown Howe with its Edwardian boathouse, used as the film location for the Amazons’ house ‘Beckfoot’, portrayed in “Pigeon Post”, before reaching Peel Island where the Ransome family first met the Collingwoods. Later, as a young man, Arthur sailed there with Dora and Barbara Collingwood. Later still, he was inspired to forego his career as a foreign correspondent and write “Swallows and Amazons” for Dora’s children, Taqui, Susie, Titty, Roger and Brigit, after they presented him with a pair of red slippers for his forty-fifth birthday.
For me, Peel Island will always be ‘Wild Cat Island’. You can look for the mossy tree that I climbed ‘for fear of ravenous beasts’ and imagine ‘Titty’ trying to row Amazon through the rocks of ‘Secret Harbour’.
The boathouse at Slate Quay came to be owned by Dora Collingwood’s daughter, Brigit Sanders, who was the inspiration for the youngest Swallow: ‘Vicky, the ship’s baby’. She taught her grandchildren to sail in Mavis, the original Amazon. Her brother, Roger Altounyan, also had his five children sailing to Peel Island without life-jackets. Sadly Mavis became too leaky to use but she’s been restored, renamed Amazon, and resides at the Ruskin Museum in Coniston, where she can be visited much like a great aunt.
One of the secrets of filming “Swallows and Amazons (1974)” is that it was made on four different lakes. While the fishing scene was on Elterwater, ‘Cormorant Island’, the ‘Lighthouse Tree’ and various sailing sequences were shot on Derwentwater.
Although Ransome modelled ‘Captain Flint’s houseboat’ on TSSY Esperance, now at the Windermere Steamboat Museum, the Lady Derwentwater was modified for the film, a brass canon fired from her foredeck. I still have the white elephant flag we captured.
What the people of the Lake District most remember is how Bowness was transformed into ‘Rio’. A member of The Arthur Ransome Society said: “You were lucky the old Victorian boatsheds were still there”. The original bandstand was used and there is a barber’s shop at Woodland Road in Windermere that was made into the chandlery where we went to ‘buy rope for the lighthouse tree’.
Ransome and his wife went shopping in a ‘Rattletrap’ (Trojan motor car), purchased in about 1926 to climb Cartmell Fell to Low Ludderburn where, in a room on the first floor of the grey barn, “Swallows and Amazons” was written in 1929.
Ransome, who loved fishing, later lived at The Heald, a bungalow set above Coniston Water, where he wrote his last Lakeland book “The Picts and the Martyrs” in 1943 featuring the ‘Dog’s Home’ that you can find in the woods; and a dinghy called Scarab (Coch-y-bonddhu). He rented Lowick Hall for a while and ended up at Hill Top near Haverthwaite, part of which is now a holiday cottage.
I was left assured that the imaginary landscape mapped in the frontispiece of each book is an amalgam of real places, most of which can still be found.
Eventually I came across another representation of the crossed flags. It was embroidered on a kneeler at Rusland Church where Arthur Ransome and his Russian wife, Evgenia, lie buried in the peaceful countryside they loved. I wonder what he would think of being hailed one of ‘England’s Literary Heroes’ fifty years after passing on?
Interested in “Swallows and Amazons”? Here are some top tips and ideas by Sophie Neville:
- The Arthur Ransome Society (TARS) is gathering at Coniston for the long weekend of May 25-28, 2018 to explore the locations and enjoy activities featured in “Swallows and Amazons”. Formed in 1990, TARS has become the second biggest literary society with 1,115 members and branches in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada as well as the UK, where it has six regions. The society offers grants for young members to travel and participate in Ransome-ish activities. It produces three different journals while keeping a stall and extensive library. Family membership enables you to join in summer camps usually held on Coniston.
- The National Trust offers “Swallows and Amazons” cruises on Coniston Water on the Steam Yacht Gondola, and Grand Victorian Circular Tours that also take in Windermere.
- Mountain Goat Tours offer “Swallows and Amazons” tours of the Lake District.
- Glenridding Sailing Centre run “Swallows and Amazons” adventure days on Ullswater.
- The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway has trains running up to six times a day.
- Cruise on the Tern featured in “Swallows and Amazons (1974)” with Windermere Lake Cruises.
- Cruise in the Lady Derwentwater with the Keswick Launch Company.
- Take a “Swallows and Amazons cruise” on the Coniston Launch.
- Hire a boat or a bike from the Coniston Boating Centre.
- Visit the John Ruskin Museum in Coniston where the original Amazon resides.
- To stay at ‘Holly Howe’ contact Jonathan Batty at Bank Ground Farm.
- To stay at Arthur Ransome’s house, Hill Top, near Haverthwaite, contact Stephen Sykes.
- The Elterwater Hostel welcomes Arthur Ransome enthusiasts.
- Virginia McKenna stayed at the Langdale Chase Hotel, where a wrap party was held for the cast and crew of “Swallows and Amazons (1974)”.
- StudioCanal, which distributes both the 1974 and 2016 movies of “Swallows and Amazons”, sells gifts featuring scenes from the films on jigsaws, mugs, framed prints and even cushions.
- William Edwards produces collectable fine china with licensed designs from the “Swallows and Amazons” books, which is available from our Swallows and Amazons Shop.
- Julian Lovelock’s book “Swallows, Amazons and Coots: A Reading of Arthur Ransome“, with a forward by Sophie Neville and illustrations by Arthur Ransome, was published by The Lutterworth Press in 2016, and is available from our Swallows and Amazons Shop.
- The “Swallows and Amazons” adventures in East Anglia, as told in “We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea” and “Secret Water”, can be explored by sailing Nancy Blackett, which appeared in those books as the Goblin.
- For more information see Sophie Neville’s website.
The original version of this article was first published in the December 2017 edition of “Living”, a magazine published by The Westmorland Gazette, and also here on the Gazette’s website, and is reproduced with permission.