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The boats used for making the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Sophie Neville explores the stories of some of the boats that appeared in the original “Swallows and Amazons” film…

I went on BBC Radio Cumbria recently, to ask if I could meet anyone involved in filming the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the summer of 1973, since it was made on location in the Lake District with a young crew.

Nick Newby of Nicole End Marine

Nick Newby of Nichol End Marine in Portinscale came to find me when I was helping at the Keswick Convention. As a young man in the 1970s, he provided boats for a number of films and was contacted by Graham Ford, the production manager of “Swallows and Amazons” in the Spring of 1973. Graham had began working with Mike Turk who had started building boats for TV and films at his family firm, Turk’s Launches, but this was based on the Thames in London. They needed help from someone in the Lake District who knew about traditional boats.

Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat
Ronald Fraser being transported by dory to The Lady Derwentwater in 1973

Arthur Ransome had clearly based Captain Flint’s houseboat on the Esperance, originally a steam launch cruising on Windermere. You can read more about her and see photos here. ‘Since she was sitting on the bottom of Whitecross Bay at the time,’ Nick told me, ‘the film crew decided to use the Lady Derwentwater.’

This was a launch licensed to carry 90 passengers that Nick had worked on and knew well. ‘She is about 58 foot long and quite a rigid boat, having four full length steel RSJs set inside her. She was built the Lakes in 1928.

We moored her at Brandelhowe in Great Bay for the filming. You need to be careful getting in, as there is a rock shelf.’ The advantage of using her was that you could see the view over the lake from her large cabin windows, which enhanced interior scenes. The Lady Derwentwater, whose nick-name is Dishy, has since been re-built with a different stern, but you can book a passage and go out on the lake in her yourself.

Lady Derwentwater 2018
The Lady Derwentwater today

Nick told me that Captain Flint’s eight foot Wright’s dinghy, the houseboat’s tender, had been made by Wright’s Brothers of Ipswich. The Jackson’s ‘native canoe’, rowed out to Peel Island by Virginia McKenna was ‘a family fourteen’ Wright’s sailing dinghy with a centre case.

He knew many of the traditional boats in the Lakes, and said “I served me time as a yacht and boat builder at Shepherd’s in Bowness Bay.” This company was based the green double-story boat sheds featured in the ‘Rio’ scenes. He added “During the winter we used to have to break the ice on the buckets of water when we were rubbing down boats. The sail lofts had a square panel in the apex so we could poke the 8 to 10 metre masts inside. A boom could go up the stairs but a mast certainly couldn’t.”

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville on Wild Cat Island - contact sheet
Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville and DoP Denis Lewiston

Amazon belonged to a chap called Vosey who was rather reluctant to let her be used for the filming,” Nick said. “We did her up a bit after the filming.’ I gather she had been used in the black and white BBC serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ made in 1962 when Susan George played the party of Kitty.”

Swallow sailing towards the filming pontoon in 1973

I believe Swallow had been found at Burnham-on-Crouch as she was built by Williams King and Sons. Mike Turk, who had built a shallop for the 1966 movie “A Man For All Seasons”, purchased her for the film and brought her up to the Lakes. She had no added buoyancy. Nick claims that being a wooden boat she would never sink, but I reminded him that we came close to hitting the MV Tern on Windermere when loaded with camping gear, which was a bit scary.

MV Tern of 1891 on Windermere
MV Tern on Windermere today

Swallow was later used at Elstree Studios when the sound was dubbed onto the finished film. Mike kept her out of the water in his store at Chatham until Sail Ransome bought her at auction in 2010. She was sensitively restored by Pattersons, has a new sail, added buoyancy bags and is now available for anyone to sail in Cumbria.

Swallow and the pontoon
Mike Turk’s filming pontoon with Swallow attached in 1973

“Mike already had the flat-bottomed filming pontoon. It had originally been used for carrying a vehicle. We added twin outboard engines and rigged scaffold under the water so that either Swallow or Amazon could be attached to it but still keel over naturally as they sailed. When the dinghy went about, I would turn one outboard and thrust the other into reverse so that the pontoon went about with them,” said Nick.

I remembered that the first time they tried this Swallow’s mast footing broke. Amazon’s mast-gate broke on another occasion. Nick had to persuade a friend to let him borrow his welding workshop and managed to mend it over night, so that she could be ready on set first thing the next day.

Behind the scenes while filming Swallow fromthe pontoon
The camera pontoon, Capri and one of the Dorys used behind-the-scenes

Nick went on to say the pontoon leaked a bit: “We would have to pump out the hull every morning.” The Capri used behind the scenes was Nick’s equivalent of a marine Land Rover. “It had a reinforced glass fibre hull for increased capability and a 55-horse power engine that had been used for the Olympics. We used it for Ken Russell’s film ‘Tommy‘, the rock opera with Roger Daltry and The Who”.

Once, when we were using it for “Swallows and Amazons”, Clive Stuart shoved it into gear with rather too much gusto. Someone only just managed to grab the director, Claude Whatham, before he was flung over the back. “Claude was spitting feathers after that,” recalled Nick.

BW Wearing Life Jackets in the Safety Boat - trimmed
Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Sten Grendon with David Stanger at the helm of the Dory in 1973

Mike Turk provided two Dorys, built at his yard, to use as run-around boats. One was driven by David Stanger who is now skipper of a launch on Ullswater. It was a stable boat but you needed to watch how it was not overloaded. Water came over the bows one day giving my mother rather a shock.

Nick Newby with Sophie Neville in Keswick
Nick Newby at the Alhambra cinema in 2018. Photo: Marc Grimston.

“The boating world is a small world,” Nick assured me. This July, forty-five years after making the film, he brought his grand-daughter to watch “Swallows and Amazons” at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick and gamely came up on stage for a Q&A to explain how some of the sailing scenes were achieved.

In his time, Nick Newby has worked a number of films made in the Lake District including “Mahler” – a Ken Russell film starring Robert Powell, a movie called “Gothic” (1986) starring Julian Sands and Natasha Richardson, “Julia” (1977) starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, “Brazil” (1985), “Planet of the Apes”, a couple of episodes of “Sherlock Holmes” with Ben Kingsley, and a number of adverts.

Mike Turk, Swan Upper and Queen’s Waterman, who provided boats for numerous films from “Moonraker” to “Hornblower”, sadly passed away aged 78. You can read his obituary here. He went on to work on a number of James Bond movies. You can see his film credits here.

Swallow on the Alde
Swallow on the Alde

A group of Arthur Ransome enthusiasts clubbed together to buy Swallow from Mike’s collection in 2010. She is currently kept on a trailer at Kendal in the Lake District. If you would like to sail her, please visit SailRansome.org.

For Nicol End Marine, about two miles outside Keswick on Derwentwater please click here.

Originally published by Sophie Neville in August 2018.