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Swallows and Amazons actress Sophie Neville explores Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland

Sophie Neville, President of The Arthur Ransome Society, explores Arthur Ransome’s Lake District…

Photo: Chris Routledge.

‘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.

Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon in Swallows & Amazons (1974).

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.

Map of Coniston and Rusland by Sophie Neville.

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”.

Steam Yacht Gondola Photo: National Trust/Tiree Dawson.

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.

Map of Derwentwater by Sophie Neville.

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.

Amazon at the Ruskin Museum, Coniston. Photo: Sophie Neville.

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.

Nick Owen and Sophie Neville at Elterwater Hostel in 2017.

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’.

‘Rio’, with George Pattinson, in 1973.

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.

Windermere, one of the lakes Arthur Ransome used as his model for the lake explored by the Swallows and Amazons. Photo: Westmorland Gazette.

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.

A scene from the 2016 film of Swallows and Amazons. Photo: Studio Canal.

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?

Crossed flags at Rusland Church where the Ransomes are buried. Photo: Sophie Neville.

You can read more in “The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)” by Sophie Neville, published by The Lutterworth Press, and available from our Swallows and Amazons Shop.

The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) by Sophie Neville. (Click to enlarge)

Interested in “Swallows and Amazons”? Here are some top tips and ideas by Sophie Neville:

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.