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Actually, first there was Arthur Ransome (1884–1967) and his twelve novels for children – or for young people, as we might say today. The first of these was Swallows and Amazons (published 1930).
Four more of the stories were also set in the English Lake District – Swallowdale (1931), Winter Holiday (1933), Pigeon Post (1936) and The Picts and the Martyrs (1943). The connection between the real landscapes of the English Lakes, which Arthur Ransome knew from an early age, and the fictionalised landscapes of the books, has fascinated many people and several books have been written about it.
These include my own Arthur Ransome’s Lake District, published in 2007 by Halsgrove. But I didn’t stop investigating or exploring when the book appeared and I’ve recently launched a ebook, Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District which builds on the basis of the earlier volume. There’s new insight, many new photos, and an extra walk among other new features. For more info on all three versions see this page.
This website will explore some of these themes and connections in greater detail, but to get the complete picture, you’ll need to get hold of the book.
I hope other lovers of Ransome’s books, and of the Lakes, will add their own thoughts and knowledge too as time goes on.
Some time back I posted Dick Callum – Pioneer Mountain Biker? which referenced a passage in Pigeon Post about Dick’s wild ride downhill on a ‘dromedary’—alternatively “a girl’s bike two sizes too big for him”.
That was in 2014, before recent developments in off-road riding, especially the advent of the gravel bike. For the uninitiated, a gravel bike may superficially resemble a road bike but with space for fatter tyres and with adjustments to the setup to make it more forgiving on rougher trails. (For more see this link by my friend and colleague Chiz Dakin, or just Google ‘what is a gravel bike?’).
My partner and I acquired gravel bikes a few years ago and have had enormous fun exploring trails in the Lakes and elsewhere with them. They obviously aren’t as capable on really steep or rough trails as a genuine mountain bike (but I’d take my gravel bike over the average ‘supermarket special’ any day). Where they really shine is when you need use tarmac to link sections of trail, where a gravel bike really skims along compared to an MTB.
With years of mountain biking as well as riding various trails on cyclo-cross bikes and more recently gravel bikes, I felt I had something to contribute when I was approached by Out There Guides, an imprint of Northern Eye Books, who were branching out beyond their very successful walking books into cycling. After discussion with publisher Carl Rogers and series editor Tom Hutton, we decided to focus on what we later called “the often-overlooked gap between easy forest roads and hardcore mountain biking.”
While a modern gravel bike is ideal for these rides, they would also be possible on a range of other bikes. As I say in the book, “Any kind of mountain bike (MTB) will serve you well, though full-suspension bikes especially are heavier than gravel bikes. A good quality hybrid bike is also a possibility, but you might want to try it on one of the easier rides first.” I could also have mentioned cyclo-cross bikes and good solid old-school touring bikes, but space was tight.
Obviously there was a lot of exploring and route-checking to be done, but I already had a pretty good idea of where most of the rides were likely to be, and most of them were in or close to Ransome country. This isn’t bias on my part; geology and history have combined to create a richer network of trails in this southern quadrant of the National Park than elsewhere.
Most obviously, there’s a ride from Coniston around the Tilberthwaite area. With its extensive and fascinating old quarries, it’s rich in the atmosphere of Pigeon Post—but did Ransome have any of these trails specifically in mind when he wrote “the dromedary was jolting (Dick) almost to pieces as it slipped and jumped and jibbed and skidded and bucked over the loose stones in the old path down the wood”? Maybe, maybe not. I never felt like I was being ‘jolted almost to pieces’ on any of these trails, and I don’t think that’s all down to the superiority of modern bikes.
Another ride with a connection to AR’s life, though not obviously to the landscape of the books, takes you around the Cartmel valley. At one point it passes very close to Wall Nook, where AR stayed as a young man and from where he sometimes set out on epic walks to Coniston (and back) to call on the Collingwood family. However the real highlight of this ride is the trail along the flanks of Hampsfell before the end.
Deep in the heart of Ransome country, there’s also a ride along the west shore of Windermere and back via Hawkshead. In a much quieter corner a few miles to the west and south is the ride from Blawith over Subberthwaite Common. At one point this ride isn’t terribly far from Lowick Hall, where AR and Evgenia lived for a while, so he may have known the lanes, though by this stage in his life I’m sure he wouldn’t have been taking a dromedary over the tracks. There are steep climbs here, but on tarmac, while the off-road stuff is all pretty amenable, and takes you past some fascinating archaeological sites, both prehistoric and mediaeval.
I’d also like to mention the first volume in the ‘Great Bike Rides’ series, which has been out for some months already. This is ‘Family Cycle Rides in the Lake District’ by Alf Alderson, and does pretty much what it says on the tin. There’s partial overlap with a few of my rides but nothing to worry about. I had some editorial input into this one and provided quite a number of photos.
Either (or both!) of these books offer plenty of inspiration to explore the lake country by bike. It really is one of the best ways to see the district, and I don’t think Arthur Ransome would have had any quarrel with that.
In most of the books the children camp, sail and climb with minimal supervision. In this context it’s worth reminding ourselves just how young they all are. In the books themselves, Ransome doesn’t give much detail about their ages, apart from the very first words in Swallows and Amazons – ‘Roger, aged seven…’.
However, from Ransome’s own notes, it’s clear that at the start of the series Roger is 7, Titty 9, Susan and Peggy 11, John and Nancy 12. The other main characters, whom we meet for the first time in Winter Holiday, are Dick and Dorothea – the D’s. Dick is about the same age as Titty, Dorothea maybe a year or so older.
The last of the books for which the chronology is clear isThe Picts and the Martyrs. The Swallows don’t appear in this, but by this time Nancy is 15, Peggy 14, Dorothea 13 and Dick 12.
Just to give a perspective, I looked at the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards, all of which involve overnight expeditions. The minimum age for Bronze is 14, for Silver 15 and for Gold 16. The Gold Expedition should take place in ‘wild country, remote from habitation, which is unfamiliar to participants.’ All expeditions ‘must be supervised by an adult who is able to accept responsibility for the safety of you and your team.’ Supervising adults are generally conspicuous by their absence in Ransome’s books.
From the start of Swallows and Amazons we see that the Swallows are allowed, once the famous telegram from their father arrives, to go off and camp on the island alone. They maintain contact with the adult world by rowing across to Dixon’s Farm each morning for milk, and have occasional visits from the ‘natives’, but still go long periods without any supervision and often without any adult having the slightest idea where they are.
Later, as the Swallows and Amazons get down to trying to capture each other’s ships, Titty is left on the island alone. She gets a visit from her mother – but then mother rows away and leaves her alone again. Leaving a nine-year-old alone on an island as night is falling: I wonder how many people would consider this good parenting today? And of course at the same time the rest of the children are sailing up and down the lake in the dark…
Almost at the start of Swallowdale Titty (now 10) and Roger (8) go off on their own:
After the Kanchenjunga climb, the same two are allowed to cross the moors back to the valley, but fog descends and they get lost, after which Roger sprains his ankle jumping across a stream. We see Titty taking her responsibility very seriously, working out whether to leave Roger in the care of an old charcoal-burner and hitch a ride with the woodmen to convey the news to the others.
Titty was not so sure, but after all the main thing was to let John and Susan know that Roger was all right, and of that she was sure enough.
Roger’s injury gives us one example where the children run genuine risks. There is a good deal of risk and hazard in the stories, and the parental attitude seems to be well enough summed up by the famous telegram in SwallowsandAmazons, ‘Better drowned than duffers if not duffers wont drown.’
Compare this with a report in the Washington Post in January 2015, that a couple in Maryland were being investigated for ‘neglect’ for allowing their children, 10 and 6, to walk home from a park about a mile from home. Their parents had prepared them for this and were quite happy about it but the kids only got about halfway before they were picked up by the police after a concerned citizen reported the sighting. And, as chronicled on the Free Range Kids website and elsewhere, this was just the start of their tribulations, even if they were ultimately cleared of all charges. It’s worth taking a look. I’ll just leave it with the observation that someone felt it necessary not only to call the police but to use the emergency number, 911, just because they’d seen two children walking, perfectly happily, along a suburban sidewalk. But it’s not something we in the UK can feel smug about – read some of the comments on the story.
In Ransome’s books, while hazard is common, genuinely life-threatening situations are rare, at least outside the metafictions Peter Duck and Missee Lee. While night sailing is obviously risky, there’s no real sense of imminent danger to life in SwallowsandAmazons. Early on in Swallowdale there is a shipwreck, although this happens very close to the shore and, though it’s shocking and dramatic, it never really seems as if anyone is about to drown. Roger’s fall on Kanchenjunga and Dick’s rescue of the sheep, already mentioned, look much more dangerous. This might be less clear to readers without a mountaineering background, although Dick himself recognises the danger:
The drop was not really so very great, but more than enough to break the back of a sheep, or a boy. He suddenly felt a little sick.
In PigeonPost, Roger and the D’s go into an old mine working and, after Titty follows them in, the tunnel collapses behind them. However Dick reasons that they’ve seen the stranger they call ‘Squashy Hat’ emerge, so the level must go through the hill, and they are able to escape at the other end. It’s a frightening episode, if not imminently life-threatening. Later, a wildfire on the moor puts the four older ones, plus the mysterious adult they call ‘Squashy Hat’, in some peril but they are able to hide in the cave.
In WinterHoliday the D’s skate/sail north up the lake in a blizzard and there is the fear that they could blunder onto bad ice at the mouth of a river. In Secret Water Titty, Roger and five-year old Bridget are threatened by a rising tide. However by far the most sustained level of genuine risk is portrayed in We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea; four children, the oldest only 13, crossing the North Sea at night in an unfamiliar yacht.
Interestingly, the adult presence is most constant in the two, possibly three, metafictions – Peter Duck, Missee Lee and Great Northern?, all of which involve the children sailing on a larger boat with Captain Flint. PeterDuck also has the eponymous old seaman, and in MisseeLee the title character – Chinese pirate chief and would-be classical scholar – is very prominent. In these stories, adults are villains too – Black Jake and his pirate crew in PeterDuck and the odious egg-collector Jemmerling in GreatNorthern?.
In Coot Club, the D’s sail with the kindly Mrs Barrable, referred to as The Admiral, but much responsibility falls on the shoulders of Tom Dudgeon, who seems to be be about 12 or 13. In The Big Six they conduct the investigation themselves. The vital central passage of We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea has no adult presence at all, and the Swallows are once again left largely to their own devices in Secret Water, albeit trying to fulfill a mapping assignment set by their father. However, we can still say that in general the East Anglian books show greater integration between the adult world and the children’s activities. It’s in the Lake District books that the youngsters seem to be most fully in charge of their own affairs.
Again, this might have a good deal to do with the different psychological significance of the Lake District for Arthur Ransome. It also may have a lot to do with the character of one particular protagonist – Nancy Blackett. I’ve a good deal more to say about Nancy shortly, but we should just note that in Winter Holiday she pulls the strings of the exploration even when she is confined to a sickroom. In Pigeon Post she determines that the business of the summer is prospecting for gold and in The Picts and the Martyrs it’s she who decides that the D’s must be Picts while she and Peggy will be Martyrs. And the central, often dominant, role played by Nancy leads me on to say a little about gender roles and the importance of female characters in Ransome’s books.
Perhaps I should have headed this section ‘liberation’.
Exploration – not to mention piracy and so on – are often associated with muscularity and masculinity but in Ransome’s stories there are some notable female figures. In Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale four of the six young leads are girls; in Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post it’s five out of eight. The story is often told from the point of view of one of them and they all, to different degrees and in different ways, display competence beyond traditional female roles. This is, perhaps, especially true of Nancy, but I’d like to pay due heed to a couple of the others before I say more about her.
First there’s Titty, clearly one of Ransome’s own favourite characters and a first choice for many readers too. (And if you remember the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons, you may well think that Titty, played by Sophie Neville, steals almost every scene in which she appears). Although the opening of Swallows and Amazons is told from Roger’s point of view, from then on the point of view is shared, almost exclusively, between John and Titty. She’s clearly a child with a very active imagination and a strong romantic streak – in the true sense of the word. This quality, I think, is often vital in bringing colour and excitement to many passages of the books.
In Swallows and Amazons Titty comes into her own when she’s left in charge of the island during the ‘war’ with the Amazons. After her mother’s visit, which we’ve already mentioned, she resumes her duties as sentinel. Having outwitted the other Swallows, the Amazons land on the island; thinking quickly, Titty captures the boat, paddles away from the island and anchors out on the lake. During the night, she hears another boat passing nearby; it runs onto another island and the two men in it hide something there. It later transpires that Captain Flint’s houseboat was burgled that same night and Titty concludes – rightly, as it turns out – that what she heard was the burglars stashing their loot. But since her siblings are familiar with her inventive nature, they take some convincing:
“How you do romance,” said Susan.
Eventually, however, Titty and Roger do find the chest containing Captain Flint’s ‘treasure’. This is actually his typewriter and manuscript of his memoirs, which fits well with the idea that Captain Flint is an avatar of Ransome himself. The book is clearly precious to him, and the experience of writing Swallows and Amazons was both delightful and terrifying. When Flint says,
“Never any of you start writing books. It isn’t worth it. This summer has been harder work for me than all the thirty years of knocking up and down that went before it,”
it could be Ransome himself speaking.
Titty takes an equally important role in Swallowdale, starting when she and Roger discover the secret valley which they soon give that name. Her imagination gets free rein at times; Peter Duck is a kind of imaginary friend and there’s also a scene (which I personally find uncomfortable) in which she makes a kind of voodoo doll of the Amazons’ tyrannical Great-Aunt. She hopes that by toasting it over the fire its magic will make the Great Aunt uncomfortable enough to seek a change of scene – but she drops it into the flames and it melts. Titty is at least half-convinced that she has killed the Great Aunt. However, we also see a more practical side, as when she takes charge of Roger on the return across the moors and, when he has his accident, reasons out what to do.
She is less prominent in Winter Holiday, which shifts focus onto the new characters, the D’s, but returns to centre-stage for some crucial passages in Pigeon Post. This is arguably the most complex of Ransome’s novels; the eight children all have significant parts to play, along with several adult characters. The plot has two main foundations; prospecting for gold and a severe drought with associated risk of fire, but there is also a strong theme of communication – the difficulties this poses in an age when many houses don’t even have telephones, the use of carrier pigeons to overcome this, as well as misunderstandings that can arise even when people meet face to face.
The lack of water is hindering the prospectors’ efforts, so they all try dowsing, but nothing happens until Titty attempts it and the twig moves in her hands. At first this is such a shock that she runs off and then begs not to do it again, but eventually, after a struggle with herself, she overcomes the fear and tries again.
“She knew very well what she meant to do, but she did not want the others to guess. She must try the thing again… But not with anyone to see. It would be too dreadful if the others were watching and at the last moment she could not bring herself to touch the twig.”
She also takes responsibility when she follows Roger and the D’s into the old mine working, which I’ve already mentioned. Here she’s very much helped by Dick, who seems absent-minded much of the time but can also think logically even in frightening situations.
While Titty’s character develops strongly through the first four Lake District books, she seems to grow less obviously in later volumes. Although We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea is a tremendous book, it is very heavily focused on John. John rises to the occasion – almost to the point of growing up overnight – and this is a fascinating piece of character development. By contrast, however, his brother and sisters all seem to regress, or at best to have stood still since the year before. The Titty of Secret Water, or Great Northern?, is no more mature than the Titty of PigeonPost. Which is a great shame, because she is a genuinely original, complex and endearing character – gentle and fanciful, but also, especially in the first four lake country books, determined, strong-willed and by no means a shrinking violet.
The other main female character to provide a point of view is Dorothea, whom we first meet, along with Dick, in Winter Holiday. Dorothea is also imaginative but, while Titty often seems to inhabit stories, Dorothea is consciously making them up and writing them down. Ransome has a good deal of fun with her somewhat florid prose style – it’s very much in the vein of, and no worse than, many well-known writers of the early 20th century, but it’s in marked contrast to the very direct, unadorned style which Ransome himself adopted in the 12 novels.
Dorothea spends much of her time in Winter Holiday wanting to be useful but, although she and Dick are better than the others at skating, she struggles at first to find an active role. However, as a kind of proxy narrator, she helps to open up the characters of all the others. The same might be said of her part in both PigeonPost and The Picts and the Martyrs. This latter book is almost entirely told from her point of view, with only brief episodes from Dick’s and Nancy’s, and her insight and ability to see things from others’ perspective makes her, at times, seem more mature than the (two years older) Nancy.
However, her role in The Picts and the Martyrs is largely domestic. When she and Dick are bundled off to live by themselves in a hut in the woods, it seems to be tacitly and unquestioningly assumed that she will take charge of housekeeping and cooking. On the other hand, Dick takes command when they sail their new boat, Scarab. Still, I think it’s an over-simplification to see her simply as adopting a submissive role. Her relationship with Dick is more complex than that, and I think it’s a good reflection of many healthy sibling relationships, being more of a partnership than anything.
In any case, we see another side of Dot in the two Norfolk Broads books, and especially in The Big Six. Here Ransome draws on another genre, the detective story. And it is Dorothea who largely orchestrates the investigation, even if her strategy is almost entirely based on stories she has read.
For me personally, Dorothea is one of Ransome’s more original and most fully-developed characters. I suppose she resonates particularly with me, as I too was a voracious and fairly promiscuous reader and an aspiring writer (I still am!), but of all Ransome’s creations she is the most empathic, the one who tries to see things from others’ point of view. Here she’s reflecting on the difference between stories and real life (another metafictional touch):
‘If only it had been a story, things would have been simpler. In a story, villains were villains and the heroes and heroines had nothing to worry about except coming out on top in the end. In a story black was black and white was white and blacks and whites stuck to their own colours. In real life things were much more muddled.’
And undoubtedly she is one of the characters who genuinely grows up during the span of time covered by the stories.
I’m not sure the same can be said of Nancy Blackett, for all that she is probably Ransome’s most famous character. On the one hand, she springs vividly to life almost from her first appearance; on the other, she seems much the same three fictional years later.
Perhaps this is a little unfair, as there are a few hints of maturity in The Picts and the Martyrs, though she seems to regress in Great Northern? (but then most of the children do). The Picts and the Martyrs is predicated on Nancy’s resolve that the dreaded Great Aunt must never learn that the D’s had been invited to stay at Beckfoot while Mrs Blackett was away – because if she did find out, she would make life miserable for Mrs B. And at the very end, she rescues an awkward moment by accepting responsibility for her actions (summoning rescuers to search for the ‘lost’ Great Aunt). In between, too, she and Peggy (the ‘martyrs’) go to great lengths, sacrificing their own freedom, to keep the Great Aunt happy.
However, being a dutiful great-niece is alien to Nancy’s nature, as she regularly makes clear. She’s also at her most domineering, first packing the D’s off to the hut in the woods to become ‘Picts’, then browbeating a string of adults, including the local doctor and postman, to play along and keep the secret.
Nancy is sometimes bossy and always boisterous, but still essentially good-hearted, apart from one lapse in a scene in Swallows and Amazons in which she is simply vile to the village policeman. I’m glad to say she is never quite so arrogant again. She regularly shows concern for the younger children as well as for the adults in her family – as well as being martyrs to protect her mother, the motivation for prospecting in PigeonPost is to find gold so her uncle, Captain Flint, will stay at home.
It’s harder to discuss Nancy’s character than Titty or Dot because, unlike them, we hardly ever see inside her head. It’s often said that she was Ransome’s favourite character, and she is certainly the only one after whom he named a boat but, perhaps paradoxically, the story is hardly ever told from her point of view. Even in Winter Holiday, when she sets out alone for the North Pole, we only see her point of view for a page or two.
There has been considerable discussion about Nancy’s character and whether she can be read as a feminist. Whereas the other main female characters, Titty, Susan and Dot, consistently wear skirts or dresses, Nancy and Peggy will always – given the choice – appear in shorts and shirts. Nancy’s reference in The Picts and the Martyrs to “these loathsome frocks” underlines the point.
The question of clothing may seem trivial today, but wearing shorts would have been much less usual, and more daring, in the 1930s. Many women of Nancy’s generation went through their lives without ever wearing trousers, or first did so under the duress of the Second World War (it’s an intriguing thought that Nancy would be 21 at the outbreak of the war…). It was equally unusual at the time for a girl to take the lead as she does, not only over the younger ones but often over John too. When first seen, she is described as being bigger than John, and may be some months older, but ostensibly they are equals, both captains of their own vessels. However, Nancy consistently drives the children’s activities, and the stories themselves, much more than any other character – even in Winter Holiday, when she is sidelined for most of the duration by mumps, she sets the agenda through coded messages.
When first seen in Swallows and Amazons, Amazon is flying the skull and crossbones. When they first meet the Swallows, a few chapters later, the Blackett sisters introduce themselves like this:
‘Terror’, ‘ruthless’, ‘pirates’; there’s a strong theme here. But there’s also a bit of a puzzle in the references to ‘Amazon pirates’, as they seem to conflate the Amazons of classical mythology – a tribe of female warriors who in some accounts live entirely without men and occasionally visit neighbouring groups for sexual purposes, or keep a few captive men as slaves – and the Amazon river of South America. There have been – and still are – pirates on or around the Amazon, but more specific stories that could be the basis of Nancy and Peggy’s assumed identity have eluded me. Perhaps this conflation is exactly what Ransome intended, as there’s a good deal of the classical Amazon in Nancy’s character, with its relish for war (at least in play). As Susan says in Swallowdale:
“‘That’s just Nancy . . . She always thinks there’s no fun without trouble..’”
To me, an even more intriguing glimpse into Nancy’s character comes in Peter Duck, when the eponymous old seaman observes of the schooner Wild Cat;
Consider those last few words again. “Some people don’t understand.” What, exactly, is it that they don’t understand? Some readers have speculated about Nancy’s sexuality but we should remember that, although PeterDuck is a metafiction, it still has a place of sorts in the chronology and Nancy at this time cannot be more than 12 or recently turned 13. That seems a little young, especially in the 1930s, to be a confirmed lesbian. It is not, however, too young to be aware of the contrast between her readiness to assume a leadership role, her sturdy independence, and her love of adventure (if not ‘trouble’), and the stereotypical female role of the time. She even rejects her own given name, Ruth, because Captain Flint said Amazon pirates were ruthless.
I see no reason to conclude that Nancy will grow up gay. But then again, neither do I see any reason to think she won’t. As critics like Peter Hunt have noted, the books coyly avoid any suggestion of sexual tension or even awareness of sex, even at the end of the series when both Nancy and John are at least fifteen. By comparison, at the same age, Harry Potter is fancying Cho Chang and Ron Weasley is riven with jealousy because Hermione goes to the ball with Viktor Krum. But bear in mind that there are 70 years between Swallows and Amazons and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Nancy is often cited as one of the most famous fictional tomboys – a term which perhaps seems a little dated nowadays, but may be in need of revival. But unlike the prototype tomboy character, Jo March in Little Women, we never hear Nancy complain, ‘I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.’ Similarly, another famous tomboy – George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books – seems to want to be a boy, answering to George rather than Georgina and appearing delighted when mistaken for a boy. There’s none of this with Nancy. She doesn’t so much transgress gender expectations as transcend them. Perhaps this is why it’s so shocking when – to placate the dreaded Great Aunt – she does conform to the norms of her time.
‘…two girls in flounced frocks… It was a dreadful sight.’
By a curious coincidence, another famous fictional Nancy also made her debut in 1930. Nancy Drew, however, is a very different creation, who manages to age only slightly over the course of more than 300 books, which continues right up to the present day, with many different ghost-writers. In fact you would have to say now that Nancy Drew is more of a brand than a character.
And Nancy Drew, while she may be (especially in the earlier books) independent and assertive, is always a girl. To my reading what is so unique and fascinating about Nancy Blackett is the extent to which she transcends gender roles and gender expectations altogether and stands out simply as an individual. It seems to me that this makes her much more original and even futuristic than Jo March or Georgina Kirrin. And personally I think we need more such figures in children’s – and adult – literature.
Swallows and Amazons and its successors were unusual in the 1930s in being written not for boys or for girls but for both. It’s still true today that vast swathes of literature, both for children and for adults, are markedly and often explicitly, gendered. Can you imagine Nancy Blackett reading chick-lit? And of course it’s not just books: consider the difficulty of buying a ‘new baby’ card that isn’t blue for a boy or pink for a girl. Consider the extensive and oppressive gendering of children’s toys – far more prevalent now than in, say, the 1970s – highlighted and challenged by campaigns such as Pinkstinks and Let Toys Be Toys.
Is there a successor to Nancy Blackett in today’s literature? It’s good to see that there are many strong female characters – we’ve already mentioned Hermione Grainger in the Harry Potter books. Sadly, some of her character, particularly her unconventional looks, is toned down in the films – and Ginny Weasley’s even more so. Then we could perhaps cite Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart, Katniss in The Hunger Games, and my niece would never forgive me if I didn’t mention Meggie in the Inkheart books.
But in all the recent books I’ve read, albeit not specifically for children or ‘young adults’, I think the truest successor to Nancy is Arya Stark in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. This of course has been televised as A Game of Thrones, but as I’ve never seen it I’m basing my comments entirely on the books. And as we are still awaiting the conclusion to this epic series, it’s hard to know how Arya will turn out – or even, given the body-count so far, if she’ll survive. She’s only 9 when the saga begins and still only 11 in the latest volume to date, but she has a feisty, even fierce, nature that I’m sure Nancy would relate to – and endures some hair-raising scrapes that make anything in Ransome’s books look pretty tame.
Just as Arya is probably my favourite character in A Song of Ice and Fire, as a young reader I responded strongly to Nancy. I didn’t feel that my own gender meant I had to identify with John or Roger. In fact I tend to find John – until his blossoming in We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea – probably the least interesting of the main characters. I should put that in perspective – he is still written with far more depth than anyone in Enid Blyton, or Dan Brown for that matter – but he’s a bit too conventional and conscientious to engage me quite as fully as Titty, Dorothea or Nancy.
This might suggest that Ransome is better at writing female characters than male. However, we’re in danger of forgetting Roger, who does develop nicely beyond the comedy character he is in Swallows and Amazons. And then, of course, there’s Dick, who seems to me (and to many other observers) to have much in common with Ransome himself as a boy. The shortsightedness is an obvious physical parallel. John, on the other hand, seems much more like a projection of the boy he wanted to be.
But it’s beyond argument that the female characters, at the very least, stand equal to the male, and I’m very grateful that books like Swallows and Amazons were there for me – not least as I suffered the twin deprivations of not having sisters and then going to a single-sex grammar school.
But that, for me, is just one of the ways in which these books have helped to shape me – and, as we saw from one or two quotes at the beginning, I’m far from alone in this. At the very least, they planted seeds, even if their development was shaped by many other influences. They didn’t turn me into a sailor – it took something like 40 years before I experienced a proper journey under sail. However, they did, I am sure, help to nurture a broader love for the outdoors and adventure. As we await the premiere of the new film next year, we can reasonably expect that it will bring a wave of new readers to the original, so it’s fair to hope they will continue to play a part in doing the same for future generations.
Themes of Exploration, Independence and Freedom in the novels of Arthur Ransome
A talk presented at Kendal Mountain Festival 2015
“Bother birds,” said Roger. “Adventures are much better.”
Some moments stay with you. I clearly remember the first time I read Swallows and Amazons. I must have been about nine and I’d been dragged along to a wedding. To stop me expiring from boredom during the speeches, dancing and so on, my mother handed me a paperback. I sat in a corner out of the way and was rapidly enthralled, in a world that was at once familiar and utterly new.
I already knew the Lake District, but now I saw it in new ways. I had never sailed, or camped on an island, or hunted for pirate treasure. The landscape I knew was transformed because the children in the story did all these things, and it was transformed further through their imagination, which made the lake into an ocean, oak-woods into jungle, Coniston Old Man into a Himalayan giant.
Over the next few years I worked my way haphazardly though the other books, liked some more than others. Returning to them as an adult I found new things to admire and enjoy and – uncomfortably close to fifty years later – I can still read them with great pleasure.
Of course it’s always hard to say how any of us would have turned out if things had been otherwise. If I hadn’t read these books at an impressionable age would it really have made a significant difference? It’s unanswerable. I can only say that I’m sure that they were part – only a part, but a significant one – of instilling in me a passion for the outdoors. And it’s clear, as we’ll see very shortly, that I’m in good company.
So after a short tribute to the influence of the books, I’ll give a very brief sketch of Ransome’s life and a quick outline of the twelve novels. However, my main purpose is to attempt to untangle themes of Exploration, Independence and Freedom. I’ll consider how they resonate with modern attitudes to childhood and ask whether today’s young people get enough of this.
Influence of the books
The fact that a new film of Swallows and Amazons is being made is one indicator of enduring popularity, and may well bring a lot of new readers to the books. As I understand it, filming was completed in the summer and the film is due for release next year. Which seems to make this talk very timely, if only by coincidence – when I first proposed it right after last year’s KMF, the new film was still only a rumour.
The books have also had an acknowledged influence on many notable people. For example, Dame Ellen MacArthur:
I kicked off my sailing library at a very young age with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. Mum and Nan had both been keen readers of these books and had passed them on to me.
I loved the spirit of adventure the books brought me, and dreamed of sailing on a lake to a secret island that had long been forgotten.
Authors who’ve mentioned AR as an influence include Philip Pullman, Tom Stoppard, Chris Townsend, and Robert Macfarlane.
Literary scholar Peter Hunt said he believes the series:
…changed British literature, affected a whole generation’s view of holidays, helped to create the national image of the English Lake District and added Arthur Ransome’s name to the select list of classic British children’s authors.
Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds in 1884. A formative experience was long summer holidays, spent at Nibthwaite by the southern end of Coniston Water. He would return to the ‘lake country’ regularly throughout his life and lived in the District for several lengthy spells, including periods when he wrote many of the novels.
He abandoned college before the end of his first year year and decamped, not yet 18, to London. He worked in publishing and soon started to earn a slender living from writing. He conscientiously studied the writer’s craft, and produced critical studies of several authors; a previously unpublished study of Robert Louis Stevenson has recently come to light (a name which will crop up again).
In 1909 he married Ivy Walker. In hindsight this seems to have been ill-advised. Possibly to escape the unstable Ivy and/or the disturbance of a small baby, Ransome went to Russia in 1913, though his motives were mixed; he was also fascinated by folk tales. He learned Russian rapidly and returned in 1914, producing a guidebook to St Petersburg in six weeks. Old Peter’s Russian Tales, a retelling of Russian stories, is often seen as his first mature book. He found himself in the midst of pre-Revolutionary ferment and almost by accident became a newspaper correspondent – one of the few trusted by the Bolshevik leaders. He also became close to Trotsky’s secretary (today we might say PA), a “tall jolly girl” called Evgenia Shelepina.
in 1919 he and Evgenia moved to Estonia. For the next four years they lived there and in Latvia. Ransome took up sailing again and explored the Gulf of Finland; Racundra’s First Cruise became a yachting classic.
After divorce, and marriage to Evgenia, Ransome returned to England late in 1924. In 1925 they bought Low Ludderburn (only about 10km as the crow flies from where we are right now) and came to live in the Lakes. Regular sailing with friends and their children on Coniston can be directly linked to the setting, plot and cast of Swallows and Amazons.
For most of the rest of his life they lived at times in The Lakes and in East Anglia. The last completed children’s novel is Great Northern?, published in 1947. He died in 1967, Evgenia in 1975 and they are buried at Rusland.
The Novels and their location in the real world and the world of the imagination
There are 12 complete children’s novels, around a million words in total – impossible to summarise in a few lines. I hope the chart will help a bit. Writing and publication were spread over 18 years, but most of them (9 out of 12) fit into a fictional chronology spanning just three years, from 1930 to 1933.
Much of what happens in most of the stories is quite simple – sailing, camping, fishing, skinning a rabbit – though of course it will still seem exotic to many readers. In any case, it is frequently lifted to another level as the children’s imagination invests simple acts with other meanings. They are often inspired by earlier adventure stories or tales of exploration: in particular, there are several explicit references to Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. They also give their own names to places. A good example is the renaming of a prominent peak (based on Coniston Old Man) as Kanchenjunga.
However, two (possibly three) of the twelve books are in a different mode, what academics call metafiction. To try and put this in plain English, even the protagonists of the stories – the Swallows, Amazons and their friends – would themselves recognise these as fiction. In fact we are told this explicitly in the case of Peter Duck, though we have to read Swallowdale to find out: “Peter Duck… had been the most important character in the story they had made up during those winter evenings in the cabin of the wherry with Nancy and Peggy and Captain Flint.”
Peter Duck is clearly a fantasy, partly inspired by Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson again), but drawing heavily for its locational detail on E F Knight’s The Cruise of the Alerte. This influence isn’t explicitly acknowledged, although in The Picts and the Martyrs Dick makes much use of Knight’s handbook on Sailing. The themes of treasure-hunting and piracy crop up elsewhere in the stories, but here – within the context of the metafiction – they become ‘real’ and very serious, with gunfire directed at the children more than once.
The other unambiguous metafiction is Missee Lee, set somewhere in the South China Sea. It’s even more exotic than Peter Duck, and Missee Lee herself, the female pirate who yearns for classical studies at Cambridge, is a highly original character.
A more ambiguous case is Great Northern?, the last of the 12 completed books. Its setting in the Outer Hebrides is less exotic and there is nothing blatantly fantastical about the story (Great Northern Divers were not known to nest in Britain at the time of writing, but they have been recorded since). However, it doesn’t fit tidily into Ransome’s clear chronology for the rest of the stories.
The children, especially the Swallows, often see themselves as explorers. This is particularly evident in the first four Lake District books, and also in Secret Water. At this point it’s worth highlighting a major difference between the Lake District books and the East Anglian ones. In the ‘lake country’ novels, Ransome creates a landscape which does not correspond to the real geography of the Lake District. Lots of people have investigated the correspondences – I’ve done so myself at some length – and Ransome did leave a number of clues, so it’s pretty clear that the lake in the stories is a hybrid of Windermere and Coniston Water, while the surrounding country mostly looks like the fells and moors around Coniston – but everything is jumbled up and rearranged, and almost every place and feature is referred to by names which the children have either invented or borrowed from other stories. The lake is simply ‘the lake’ but then we have Wild Cat Island, Rio, the Amazon River, Kanchenjunga, and so on. What might be genuine local names, like Holly Howe and Beckfoot, are limited – especially in Swallows and Amazons – to a few houses and farms, though you won’t find any of them in the ‘right’ place on OS maps.
In the East Anglian novels, on the other hand, the locations are taken directly from reality and real names are used extensively. Coot Club and The Big Six are set on the Norfolk Broads and give detailed descriptions of many real locations – Horning, Ranworth, Potter Heigham and so on. The partial exception is Secret Water, where – once they arrive at the ‘Secret Water’ itself, real names are quietly erased. However, it’s closely based on Hamford Water, near Walton-on-the-Naze in Suffolk (and, in a nice reversal, this is now sometimes referred to as Secret Water).
There are several possible explanations for this distinction. One, I think, is the contrasting place of the Lake District and East Anglia in Ransome’s own life and psychology. He knew the Lake District from a very early age – he records, for instance, that he was carried “to the top of Coniston Old Man at such an early age that I think no younger human being can ever have been there.”
It’s very clear from the Autobiography that the regular holidays at Nibthwaite were hugely important to the young Arthur and sowed the seeds of a lifelong love-affair with the Lakes. At times the Lake District in the stories is not really the Lake District of the early 1930s but that of the 1890s and 1900s, both in specific detail but also in the sense that it is so vividly seen, as if through the eyes of a child and an impressionable young man.
In both temporal and spatial terms, then, the landscape of the lake country novels is a landscape of the imagination. In an Author’s Note to later editions of Swallows and Amazons, Ransome wrote. ‘No matter where I was, wandering about the world, I used at night to look for the North Star and, in my mind’s eye, could see the beloved skyline of great hills beneath it.’
East Anglia, on the other hand, is a region which Ransome only came to know as an adult, no doubt guided from the start by railway timetable, road-atlas or sailing chart. He came to know it well, and to love it, but the roots of the relationship are different. It’s also worth mentioning that for those youngsters who appear only in the Norfolk Broads books (Tom Dudgeon, the Farland twins and the ‘Death and Glories’), the area is home and they are deeply embedded there. The Lake District is home only to the Amazons; for the Swallows and the D’s, it’s discovered on holidays.
In any case, exploration is a strong theme from the start in Swallows and Amazons. In fact, the book opens with a quote from Keats’s sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer:
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The ‘Peak of Darien’ thus becomes the first exotic name to be applied to a part of the lake country landscape:
“Where are the others?” asked mother.
“In Darien,’ said Roger.
“On the peak, you know. Titty called it that. We can see the island from there.”
Ironically, Keats was almost certainly mistaken in using Cortez to exemplify Europeans seeing the Pacific’s eastern shores for the first time. Cortez probably never saw the Pacific at all and it’s much more likely that Keats should have used the name Balboa. But it hardly matters. What counts is the striking image of the party coming unexpectedly upon a view of a vast ocean and gazing at each other with a wild surmise.
The story begins some days after the children first see the lake and the island, but they have been waiting for permission from their absent father to set sail. “..with a lake as big as a small sea, a 14ft dinghy with a brown sail waiting in the boathouse, and the little wooded island waiting for explorers, nothing but a sailing voyage of discovery seemed worth thinking about.”
The answer comes in the form of a cryptic telegram – possibly one of the most famous telegrams in all fiction. (Although even the concept of the telegram itself now has to be explained to younger readers.) “Better drowned than duffers if not duffers wont drown.”
“And now, suddenly, it was real. It was to be their island after all… The news was so good that it made them solemn. They ate their bread and marmalade in silence. The prospect before them was too vast for chatter.”
Exploration in Swallows and Amazons is mostly limited to the lake itself, and even then they never reach either of its extremities. However, it’s a good-sized lake for four young children in a small wooden dinghy. Ransome is pretty sparing with specific details of size and distance but scatters a few clues. Together with the maps in the various books, these suggest that it is around the same length as the real Windermere – 17km or 10 1/2 miles. There is some variation in the shape and proportions of the lake on the different maps, but it always looks wider than Windermere; it looks as if the area of the fictional lake is at least equal to Windermere and Coniston Water combined. “A lake as big as a small sea” indeed.
Serious exploration is somewhat derailed once the Swallows meet the Amazons. Both crews, of course, take these names from their respective boats. The name Swallow does hark back to a real boat in which Ransome learned to sail, but the choice of the name Amazon is less clearly explained, and does raise some interesting questions – to which I will return later. However, near the end, they return to their roles as explorers:
“There’s one thing we must do now,” said John, “And that’s make our chart. The Amazons will be there tomorrow and they’ve got their own names for everywhere. We must make our chart today.”
He then copies the outline of the lake from a guidebook map onto a double page of a big exercise-book and they spend time marking it up, but using their own names for most of the features. There’s more filling in of the blanks in Swallowdale, and Ransome returns to this theme with a vengeance in SecretWater, where the Swallows are given by their father the task of filling in the map of the complex, tidal, islands, creeks and channels. This is quite serious mapping, involving bearings and measurement.
Blank on the Map is of course a famous and resonant title. I guess most of us would associate it with Eric Shipton, though Wikipedia reminded me that it was also used for a TV documentary by David Attenborough in 1971.
Explicit themes of exploration are much less evident in some of the other books, such as CootClub and The Big Six. In We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, too, the drama is very real and needs no embellishment by the children’s imaginations. PeterDuck and MisseeLee have exotic settings but other preoccupations take precedence over exploring.
The theme of exploration is arguably at its strongest in Winter Holiday. Bearing in mind that it was published in 1933 (and set in the early weeks of 1932), it may seem odd that there is never a mention of Scott, Shackleton, or the greatest of them all, Amundsen, who reached the South Pole little more than 20 years earlier, in December 1911.
Instead, Ransome’s model is the great Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen. This is fairly logical because the story centres on a journey to the ‘North Pole’, and because Captain Flint’s houseboat can play the part of Nansen’s legendary ship, the Fram – also used, incidentally, by Amundsen’s successful South Pole expedition. There’s a more personal connection, too, as Arthur Ransome met Nansen on more than one occasion and described him as ‘a hero since my childhood’.
These meetings occurred in 1921, when Ransome was living in Rīga in Latvia. At the time Nansen was engaged in humanitarian work, concerned with the repatriation of prisoners of war and then with wider refugee issues (very resonant today!), for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. Ransome called him ‘the most civilised person of his generation’. It’s little wonder, then, that ten years later Ransome was keen to honour Nansen in one of his novels.
Winter Holiday does not mention Nansen’s humanitarian work, but explicitly references his earlier career as an explorer, mentioning his two classic books, The First Crossing of Greenland (first published 1890) and Farthest North (1897). Remember, Ransome was born in 1884. Again we see a certain harking back to the Victorian age.
The First Crossing of Greenland describes a pioneering venture in every sense, taking the use of skis to a new level, developing other equipment such as lightweight sledges, and displaying an almost unprecedented willingness to learn from the indigenous people of the Arctic. Several aspects of this approach are emulated by the children in Winter Holiday.
Farthest North describes how Nansen deliberately planned for the Fram to be frozen in the Polar ice and to be carried northward by the drifting of the pack. Eventually Nansen, with Hjalmar Johansen, left the Fram to make a lightweight dash for the pole over the ice. This was ultimately unsuccessful, although they did set a record northing of 86d 14m, and was followed by a desperate retreat – it would be over a year before they encountered another human being.
This is the background to the exploits of the eight children in WinterHoliday. As the lake freezes, they colonise the houseboat and turn it into the Fram. They make their own hats and mittens (admittedly not from reindeer hide) and experiment with sailing sledges. In one of the most specific homages to Nansen, before the lake freezes, one of Nancy’s messages urges the others to ‘cross Greenland’.
‘I know where she means,’ said Peggy. ‘It’s the country on the fells above the tarn. It’s as wild as wild.’
It all culminates in an exciting dash in darkness to the ‘North Pole’. Carefully-laid plans crumble when a signal is misread and instead of an orderly and united daytime journey, it all ends up with three separate parties making their own nighttime journeys.
At Kendal Mountain Festival, I can hardly fail to mention the mountain aspects, though Ransome – despite his early ascent of Coniston Old Man – was not a mountaineer. This is fairly evident when we look at the ascent of Kanchenjunga recounted in Swallowdale.
There’s plenty of evidence to show that Ransome based the fictional Kanchenjunga on Coniston Old Man, which is so prominent from almost anywhere on the waters of Coniston, or the moors which flank its southern end.
We might wonder why Titty chooses the name Kanchenjunga rather than Everest. At the time of writing, and when the stories are set, the great early attempts on Everest, which of course culminated in the loss of Mallory and Irvine in 1924, were fresh in the memory. But then, Kanchenjunga was also extremely well-known – probably, in relative terms, much more so than today. Search Amazon for books with Everest in the title and you get over 3000 hits. Search for Kangchenjunga and you get 78.
Unlike Everest and K2, Kanchenjunga is highly visible from relatively populous areas, notably from Darjeeling. It had seen a strong German attempt in 1928 and an international team including Frank Smythe attempted it in 1930. Despite their lack of success, Smythe’s book The Kangchenjunga Adventure was widely read and did much to establish his reputation. It was one of very few books in my own grandparents home. This may explain the choice of the name, or it might just be that – as John says – ‘Kanchenjunga’s a gorgeous name anyhow.’
As so often, Nancy takes charge for the ascent of Kanchenjunga, but she seems to have only a vague notion of rope-work in climbing.
This dubious method is tested when Roger falls:
The rope tautened with a jerk and pulled Titty half back over the edge. Susan and even Nancy herself were almost jerked off their feet on the grassy slope above the rock. It was lucky that they had moved back from the edge and had the rope almost stretched between them.
I suspect Nancy’s lack of expertise in climbing technique mirrors that of Ransome himself. There’s also an episode in Winter Holiday, during the crossing of Greenland, where Dick rescues a cragfast sheep by traversing a narrow, icy ledge, secured only by the rope in the hands of Titty, Roger and Dot.
‘Lower away,’ said Titty, in command on the top of the cliff. With their feet well dug into the snow, they let the rope go slowly down, hand over hand.
The word ‘belay’ occurs several times in the books, but in its maritime sense. There’s no indication that Ransome knew anything of its application in climbing.
The Great Outdoors
Hand in hand with the theme of exploration is the simple fact that the children in the stories spend most of their time out of doors. In WinterHoliday, Nancy explicitly links the outdoors with freedom and adventure: ‘dark at teatime and sleeping indoors: nothing ever happens in the winter holidays.’
Swallows and Amazons is almost entirely an outdoor book. There are a few pages of indoor preparations in Chapter 2, but thereafter, apart from the cabin of the houseboat, there are only the briefest of visits to the indoor world. In Swallowdale, the shipwreck scuppers plans to camp once more on Wild Cat Island, so one of the main priorities for the Swallows is to find an alternative campsite on the mainland. The very last words of the book are, ‘Isn’t it a blessing to get home?’ – the home in question being not a house but Wild Cat Island.
There is also a strong sense of the Amazons’ frustration in being cooped up indoors during the visit of the Great Aunt. Similar frustration is manifest in Pigeon Post, when the children are initially required, by lack of water, to camp at Tyson’s Farm:
(Mrs Tyson) rattled on, friendly and kind, making them at home. And with every word she said their spirits sank deeper and deeper.
To be camped within hearing of the house and its natives, no matter how friendly… To draw water from the farm pump instead of dipping it from lake or neck… To have the tents not in a wood, or on the fell, or even in an ordinary field, but in an orchard, with apple and damson trees in their neat rows (…) Dick and Dorothea, perhaps, felt nothing of this, because, poor things, they hardly knew what camping was.
‘Camping’ here clearly means what today we would call wild camping. It might be interesting to explore when that distinction first came into common use. And we might speculate what they would make of ‘glamping’…
In several other of the books – Peter Duck, We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea and Great Northern? – almost the only ‘indoor’ setting of any significance is below decks on a sailing vessel, and in both CootClub and TheBigSix much more time is spent on boats than in houses.
Many of us who are over a certain age tend to think that we played outdoors as kids much more, and more freely, than today’s youngsters do. And there’s plenty of solid research that says we aren’t just imagining it. Famously, the American writer Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods identified ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, and directly linked it to many issues such as childhood obesity. Recently, a Position Statement developed by a group of Canadian experts representing 14 organisations opened with this sentence:
Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development.
Here in the UK, the National Trust has published a report, Natural Childhood, written by Stephen Moss. This is full of what most of us here would surely consider to be alarming statistics – for instance, Fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places, compared to almost half a generation ago.
The report links this decline to serious issues in not only physical but mental health among today’s children. A UNICEF report in 2007 placed the UK bottom of 21 industrialised countries (17 EU nations plus USA, Canada, Norway and Switzerland) for childhood well-being.
The National Trust report also quotes eminent child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron: The less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with the risks and challenges they will go on to face as adults… Nothing can replace what children gain from the freedom and independence of thought they have when trying new things out in the open.
Another concerning statistic:
Everybody active, every day An evidence-based approach to physical activity Public Health England, Oct 2014
I suspect that few in this audience would dissent from these conclusions; the question of course, is how we address the issue. And surely the continuing appetite for Ransome’s books suggest that many of today’s children feel the pull of the outdoors even if they are deprived of opportunities to realise it. Certainly the Swallows, Amazons and the rest face their share of ‘risks and challenges’, and display plenty of ‘freedom and independence of thought’.
This seems to be a suitable moment to acknowledge that Ransome’s books are sometimes criticised for being ‘middle-class’, or because the children are ‘privileged’. You can argue the point, of course. The Swallows borrow the boat they sail, but the Amazons, and later the D’s, have their own. Even today, owning your own sailing dinghy isn’t exactly commonplace.
On the other hand, they don’t have computers or mobile phones, getting a penknife or a torch as a birthday present is a big deal, and most of their camping gear now looks primitive in the extreme. The Swallows’ tents are made by their mother, they leak when it rains, and the children sleep on sacks stuffed with straw. They gather their own firewood to boil water and cook: no fancy Jetboil stoves here. It strikes me that what really distances them from most of today’s kids is not their level of social privilege or material wealth, but their level of freedom and their unfettered access to the outdoors.
The books are also full of close, precise and engaging observations of nature, especially birds: from dippers and cormorants in Swallows and Amazons to the Coots and Great Northern Divers which give their names to two of the later books.
This is allied to a strong undercurrent of what we would now call environmentalism. This is most obvious in CootClub and Great Northern?, both of which have a central theme of bird protection. In Great Northern?, the villain is an egg-collector. Egg-collecting wasn’t illegal at the time – it was only outlawed for most species by the Protection of Birds Act 1954, seven years after the publication of Great Northern? One wonders whether the book contributed in some small way to the debate and shift in public opinion which led to this legislation.
In both CootClub and Great Northern?, the villains drive motor-boats while the heroes sail. There are various other unflattering references to motor-boats, especially fast ones, though in some of the later books Roger is allowed to become interested in engines. We also regularly that see the children are concerned to tidy up their campsites and fireplaces and dispose of any litter, although sometimes in ways we wouldn’t entirely approve today.
In a recent essay for The Guardian, Robert Macfarlane quotes a list of ‘nature’ words which have apparently been expunged from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to make room for new ones and because they are “no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood.”
I wondered how many of these are mentioned in Arthur Ransome’s novels. I haven’t quite got time to check on all of them… Most of the novels are set in summer so mentions of, say, bluebells, aren’t likely. Nor do I recall mistletoe cropping up in Winter Holiday. But here are a few which definitely do occur. For example:
I might think it’s sad if fewer of today’s children are reading Ransome, but if words like these aren’t ‘relevant’ it rather suggests that there’s a more serious issue, i.e. that other authors aren’t filling the gap and helping to give children a rich, realistic and detailed acquaintance with the natural world.
‘We must have one of them for Kanchenjunga,’ said Titty.
We might wonder why Titty chooses the name Kanchenjunga rather than Everest. At the time of writing, and when the stories are set, the great early attempts on Everest, which of course culminated in the loss of Mallory and Irvine in 1924, were fresh in the memory. But then, Kanchenjunga was also extremely well-known – probably, in relative terms, much more so than today. Search Amazon for books with Everest in the title and you get over 3000 hits. Search for Kangchenjunga and you get 78.
Unlike Everest and K2, Kanchenjunga is highly visible from relatively populous areas, notably from Darjeeling. It had seen a strong German attempt in 1928 and an international team including Frank Smythe attempted it in 1930. Despite their lack of success, Smythe’s book The Kangchenjunga Adventure was widely read and did much to establish his reputation. It was one of very few books in my own grandparents home. This may explain the choice of the name, or it might just be that – as John says – ‘Kanchenjunga’s a gorgeous name anyhow.’
Smythe’s book has been republished as an ebook by Vertebrate Publishing and what follows is my review of it. It’s quite long, but then it’s quite a long book, and quite a significant one.
There weren’t many books in my grandparents’ home. One of the few that I remember was The Kangchenjunga Adventure by Frank Smythe. Sadly they died while I was still quite young, before I discovered mountaineering for myself, and I never had the chance to ask how they came by it. Nor do I know what happened to the book. Given their age it could well have been an early edition (and might now be quite collectable).
I was too young to make a serious go at reading the book, but I certainly looked through it in search of pictures. Anyway, however it came to be there, it left some kind of mark on me and predisposed me to the impression that it was one of the classics of mountain literature, certainly of the prolific period between the wars, if not of all time. So I was both intrigued and delighted to see that Vertebrate has digitally republished The Kangchenjunga Adventure, as part of its outstanding effort to keep such classics available to new generations of readers. And I was both intrigued and slightly nervous to see how the real thing stood up to my misty conception of it.
The short answer is that it stands up pretty well. The long answer is, as you’d expect, slightly more nuanced. The title may raise expectations that the book is all about a bold but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to climb the world’s third highest peak. In fact what it delivers is either lessthan that – if you’re only interested in the glamour of what we now call the 8000-metre peaks – or more, if you are interested in a wider story of exploration and exploratory mountaineering.
In 1930 Frank Smythe joined a German-led expedition to the Kangchenjunga region. Within the time constraints of the pre-monsoon period – especially bearing in mind that the monsoon tends to strike Kangchenjunga earlier and with more force than Everest – the full list of its achievements is impressive, with several peaks climbed and cols crossed for the first time. Two assaults on Kangchenjunga itself were not very successful, and sadly one saw the death of the Sherpa Chettan in an avalanche.
The crowning achievement was the first ascent of Jonsong Peak (now officially spelled Jongsong). Smythe records its height as 24344ft but it is now given as 7,462 metres (24,482 ft). At the time, this was the highest summit yet reached, though climbers had been considerably higher on Everest. As such, it is an underrated achievement, for several reasons. One is because Jon(g)song Peak was not the primary objective of the expedition. Another is that the record was short-lived, being broken the following year when a team (also including Frank Smythe) climbed Kamet.
As Smythe himself notes, “The ascent of Jonsong Peak proved that four men backed up by good porters are capable of overcoming a great peak.” The expedition may have started from Darjeeling with around 400 porters and 85 mule loads, yet Jongsong Peak was climbed in something approximating to what we’d now call Alpine style.
All this is related, for the most part, in a very straightforward manner. Naturally some elements will seem dated to us now, almost 90 years on. To me, Smythe is a decent writer but not in the same class as his near contemporary Tilman. Some of the descriptive passages may seem florid to modern tastes: “Most fine mornings see the cloudy galleons sweeping up from the steamy Plain of Bengal. Slowly they sail over the green foothills or float in lazy stateliness on the blue hazes of the deep valleys, their keels in shadow, their sails of massive cumuli bellying thousands of feet aloft in the sunlight. As they advance, they are augmented by the warm, moist air currents from the valleys. Magically they grow larger; their girth and height increases every moment; they are sifted by the upward breezes, broken and distorted into all manner of queer forms by vagrant winds; momentarily dissipated by unexpected blasts. They become a mighty fleet and pass in splendid line ahead towards the huge wall of the Himalayas, where they assault in misty surges the snowy bastions of Kangchenjunga.”
It’s also undeniable that some observations will grate on modern sensibilities: “Narsang waved a hand with characteristic native vagueness.” “The native, of course, lives only in the present; the future holds no interest for him.” And so on; but this apparently patronising attitude does not extend to the Sherpas and there is genuine grief at the death of Chettan: “So died a genuine lover of the mountains, a real adventurer at heart, and one whom members of several Himalayan expeditions will mourn.”
The text is scattered with idiosyncrasies of punctuation. I had to read these sentences more than once: “Suffice to say that Mont Blanc is little more than half the height of Mount Everest, 29,002 feet, Kilimanjaro, 19,700 feet and Mount McKinley, 20,454 feet. The highest peaks of Africa and North America would rank as minor peaks in the Sikkim Himalayas…” Without access to the original, it’s impossible to know whether these errors are down to Smythe and his editors or have crept in during the preparation of the digital edition.
Above all what I will retain from this book is a renewed sense of how much mountaineering techniques and technology have changed. Frequent references to step-cutting are just one example. Smythe describes the ‘official’ expedition boots like this: “They weighed six and a half pounds a pair and each was nailed with sixty clinker and tricouni nails. The soles were built up of layers of felt, rubber and leather and the uppers, which came halfway to the knee, were felt-lined. Crampons supplied with these boots were proportionately heavy and weighed four pounds a pair.” He wore them once, as an experiment, and never again.
As a photographer (with my own memories of taking 25 rolls of 35mm film for a six-week trip to the Karakoram), I was struck by the note that, “I do not think that less than fifty porters were utilised in carrying our cinematographic and photographic apparatus and materials.” I did, however, find the following entirely familiar: “The principal advantage of taking photographs on a mountain is that the mountaineer is thus enabled to stop at frequent intervals and recover his breath. That is why most elderly mountaineers carry cameras. Taking a photograph is a much more convincing excuse for a halt than a bootlace or braces that need adjusting.”
Expeditions like this certainly paved the way for later success on the highest peaks, but Smythe’s power of prediction leaves something to be desired: “Curiously enough, Everest is the only great Himalayan peak which can definitely be said to be accessible to mountaineers. Other great peaks may defy all comers for many generations, and among these I would number Kangchenjunga.” Kangchenjunga was first climbed 25 years later.
In the same vein, he suggests, “The only route offering any hope would appear to be that attempted in 1929 by the Munich Expedition.” This was the NE spur, not climbed until 1977; the first ascent was made on the opposite side of the mountain.
Still, the expedition achieved a great deal and added significantly to understanding of the topography of the region as well as to thinking on best practice in climbing high mountains – though I don’t think the concentrated liver pills ever caught on.
There was recently a good deal of indignation on Facebook’s The Arthur Ransome Group about a Guardian online essay by Julia Eccleshare under the titleBest sisters in children’s books. After quite an outcry, the offending passage has been removed and I’m told a revised version may be inserted – though it’s been a few weeks now and there’s no sign of it.
What was the fuss all about? Two sentences. After referencing books in which girls play a leadership role, Eccleshare wrote that this is:
…in contrast to Arthur Ransome’s four-child Blackett family in the Swallows and Amazons stories or CS Lewis’s Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In both of these, written when tradition dictated that boys led and girls followed, it is the boy who is the oldest and therefore the leader with the girls playing important but distinctly submissive roles.
Cue jaws on floors from Ransome afficionados everywhere. Leaving C S Lewis aside (I’m no great fan, and anyway this is a Ransome blog), there are multiple errors here in relation to Ransome:
1: The Blacketts (Amazons) were two girls. Maybe she’s mixing them up with the Walkers. But…
2: The Walkers (Swallows) are a family of five, not four, children. This is a more forgivable error, as the youngest, Bridget, has a very minor role in Swallows and Amazons (when she is just two) and Swallowdale and is absent altogether in WinterHoliday and PigeonPost. It’s only in SecretWater that she really becomes an active protagonist.
3: “the boy … is … the leader with the girls playing … distinctly submissive roles”. This, of course, is a whopper.
No-one who has actually read all the way through Swallows and Amazons, let alone the rest of the books, could write this. It’s simply inconceivable to cast Nancy Blackett’s role as a submissive one. She is, consistently, a leader, not a follower.
This much is indisputable (at least if you’ve actually read the books). However, I’d go further. I’d argue that it’s also a mistake – or, at best, a very superficial reading – to brand the other young female characters in Ransome’s books as ‘submissive’. All of them are – at the very least – more complex than that.
We should of course remember that Ransome wrote the books between 1929 (Swallows and Amazons was published in 1930) and 1947. Just for context, 1929 was also the year in which women first voted in a General Election on equal terms with men. It was regularly and disparagingly called the ‘flapper election’. The idea of females in leadership roles was widely viewed as daring and often ludicrous. In this context, it seems to me that Ransome does something noteworthy and forward-looking in creating female characters who are as strong and independent as they undoubtedly are. And it’s not just Nancy. It’s also worth noting that in Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale, the main cast consists of two boys and four girls. WinterHoliday introduces two additional characters, Dick and Dorothea Callum.
There’s a whole array of other young protagonists in the two novels set on the Norfolk Broads, Coot Club and The Big Six, as well as in Secret Water, although I’d argue that most of them are of secondary importance to the series as a whole. The major female characters are all in place by the time we reach Winter Holiday. And there’s no real question which of them we should consider first.
‘I am Nancy Blackett, master and part owner of the Amazon, the terror of the seas. This is Peggy Blackett, mate and part owner of the same.’
This is how Nancy introduces herself – and her sister – to the Swallows. Even before this – though details only become clear later – Nancy and Peggy have played a prank with a firework on the cabin roof of the houseboat belonging to their uncle (later dubbed Captain Flint) and then challenged the Swallows by unfurling a pirate flag. These are not the actions of a shrinking violet. And at the time, according to Ransome’s own notes, she is 12.
Nancy appears in four more of Ransome’s novels apart from the five ‘lake country’ titles, but these will serve as primary exemplars. As time goes on, she regularly takes charge. In Swallowdale, her style (and Peggy’s) is cramped during the visit of their domineering Great-Aunt, but she still manages to set the agenda much of the time – even sending a message by bow and arrow almost under the Great-Aunt’s nose. In the next of the ‘lake country’ books, Winter Holiday, she is again sidelined much of the time; this time it’s because of mumps. Quarantine regulations mean none of the children can return to school and this gives time for the lake to freeze and the story to develop – and Nancy continues to call the shots, even from her sickbed, through coded messages. At the end, though still not quite fully recovered, she sets out in search of the missing D’s – on ice-skates, quite alone, as a snowy night draws in. By this point she’s 13 or just turned 14.
Again, in Pigeon Post, Nancy sets the agenda – the story this time revolves around prospecting for gold (though, in the end, they find something else) – and drives the action forward, not only acting as the principal leader among the children but pushing against restrictions emanating from the adult world. In the last of the ‘lake country’ books, The Picts and the Martyrs, she is again sidelined to a degree by the unexpected and highly unwelcome arrival of the dreaded Great-Aunt. In any case, this story revolves mainly around Dick and Dorothea. Still, Nancy plays a decisive role, determining that Dick and Dot must hide away as ‘Picts’ while she and Peggy do their utmost as ‘Martyrs’ to keep the Great-Aunt happy. Still only 15, she also proves very effective in enlisting (browbeating) other adults into keeping the secret and even aiding the Picts.
There’s a kind of paradox about Nancy’s place in Ransome’s books. On the one hand, it’s often said that she was his favourite character, and she is certainly the only one for whom he named one of his own boats. On the other, the story is hardly ever told from her point of view. Across the whole series, the most important point of view characters are Titty and Dorothea, whose inner worlds are therefore laid open to us. Unlike them, we hardly ever see inside Nancy’s head. It only really happens when the plot requires her to act alone – for example, in Winter Holiday, when she sets out on her own for the North Pole. It’s intriguing to speculate why this might be so, but maybe that’s for another time.
Nancy is often cited as one of the most famous fictional tomboys. The term perhaps seems a little dated nowadays, but may be in need of revival. However, unlike the prototype tomboy character, Jo March in Little Women, we never hear Nancy complain, ‘I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.’ Similarly, another famous tomboy – George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books – seems to want to be a boy, answering to George rather than Georgina and appearing delighted when mistaken for a boy. There’s none of this with Nancy. She doesn’t so much transgress gender expectations as transcend them. And maybe this is why it’s so shocking when – to placate the dreaded Great-Aunt – she does conform to the norms of her time. When they see her and Peggy in ‘flounced frocks,’ even the somewhat more conventional Swallows consider it ‘a dreadful sight.’
At these times we might indeed say that Nancy is playing a submissive role – but it’s abundantly clear that she does so with great reluctance and very much against her nature, and mainly to protect her mother.
At first reading the opposite of Nancy, Susan is second-oldest of the Walker children and Mate of the Swallow. Susan (often along with Peggy) is the one who principally organises stores, manages campsites and does most of the cooking. She is probably the most conventional of all the main child characters. And yet, to dismiss her as a submissive or domesticated character is too glib and superficial.
For a start, the domestic role adopted by Susan and Peggy is explicitly linked to their position as Mate in their respective crews (John regularly addresses his sister as ‘Mister Mate’). It is clear, to be sure, that she is comfortable with this role, but she is also quite capable of taking the helm of Swallow or pulling on an oar. And I think there’s more to her than dutiful homebody. She is also the practical and pragmatic member of the crew.
“I put all my trust in you, Susan,” said Mrs Blackett. “And you too, John,” she added. John grinned. It was kind of her to say it, but he knew she didn’t mean it. On questions of milk and drinking-water and getting able-seamen to be on time, Susan was the one the natives trusted. (From Pigeon Post.)
The focus on practical issues makes Susan – often an underrated or overlooked character – a vital element in the stories, balancing Nancy’s wildness and Titty’s imagination. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this: what makes Ransome’s stories special is the interplay of imagination and reality. Susan, more than any other character, grounds the stories in solid reality.
Unlike Nancy or Susan, Titty is one of the main ‘point of view’ characters in almost every book in which she appears. Although Roger gets the opening chapters in Swallows and Amazons, from then on the point of view is mostly shared between John and Titty. The same is largely true in Swallowdale. She is less prominent in Winter Holiday, which shifts focus onto the new characters, Dick and Dot (‘the D’s’), but she returns to centre-stage for some crucial passages in Pigeon Post.
Titty is a sensitive child with a very active imagination and a strong romantic streak – in the true sense of the word. This quality brings colour and excitement to many passages of the books. Titty, more than any of the others – in fact, more than any but a handful of characters in literature – vividly embodies the capacity of the child to inhabit real and imaginary worlds at the same time.
As one of the younger members of the cast, she has fewer chances to play a leadership role, but when they arise she doesn’t shy away. In Swallows and Amazons, she’s left alone on the island during the ‘war’ with the Amazons and when they in turn make a nocturnal raid, she slips past them, captures their boat, paddles it out onto the lake and drops anchor, thereby capturing the prize and winning the war. It’s worth noting that she is nine at the time. (And that her mother visits the island, finds Titty alone and, after asking a few questions, rows off and leaves her!)
She’s often put in charge of Roger, who’s a couple of years younger. In Swallowdale the two of them trek back to the valley across the moors while the older ones sail down the lake. They get lost in mist and Roger twists his ankle, and Titty has to decide what to do. In Pigeon Post she has to master her own fears after an experiment with dowsing, and later takes charge after Roger and the D’s venture into an old mine working, which then collapses behind them – although here she’s very much helped by Dick’s rational mind.
After Nancy, Titty may well have been Ransome’s favourite and she is a favourite of many readers too. While she’s certainly not in the buccaneering mould like Nancy, she is a genuinely original, complex and endearing character. She may be gentle and fanciful, but she is also, especially in the first four lake country books, very much a child with a mind of her own.
Dorothea, or Dot, is also one of the most important point of view characters. She, too, is highly imaginative but, while Titty often seems to inhabit stories, Dorothea consciously makes them up – and writes them down. Ransome has a good deal of fun with her somewhat florid prose style – very much in the vein of some well-known writers of the early 20th century, but in marked contrast to the very direct, unadorned style which Ransome himself developed.
For the most part, Dot is a follower rather than a leader, spending much of her time in Winter Holiday wanting to be useful but struggling to find an active role. However, as a kind of proxy narrator, she helps to open up the characters of all the others. Of all Ransome’s creations she is the most empathic, the one who tries to see things from others’ point of view. Here she’s reflecting on the difference between stories and real life:
If only it had been a story, things would have been simpler. In a story, villains were villains and the heroes and heroines had nothing to worry about except coming out on top in the end. In a story black was black and white was white and blacks and whites stuck to their own colours. In real life things were much more muddled. (From The Picts and the Martyrs.)
Again, in Pigeon Post, she is primarily an observer – albeit a perceptive and sympathetic one – not a leader. The Picts and the Martyrs is almost entirely told from her point of view, with only brief episodes from Dick’s and Nancy’s, and her insight and ability to see things from others’ perspective makes her, at times, seem more mature than the (two years older) Nancy. However, her role in the story is largely domestic. When she and Dick are bundled off to live by themselves in a hut in the woods, it seems to be tacitly and unquestioningly assumed that she will take charge of housekeeping and cooking, while Dick takes command when they sail their new boat, Scarab. Domestic, yes, but submissive? Perhaps, but who – apart from the Great-Aunt – does not at least occasionally submit to the will of Nancy Blackett?
However, we see another side of Dot in the two Norfolk Broads books, and especially in The Big Six. This is, in essence, a detective story – and it is Dorothea who largely orchestrates the investigation, even if her strategy is almost entirely based on stories she has read.
One might argue that, if there is a genuinely ‘submissive’ character in the stories, it’s not Susan but Peggy. However, she’s subordinate not to a male leader but to her own older sister, and with a sister like Nancy it would be well-nigh impossible not to be overshadowed. It’s precisely for this reason that Peggy seems to me the hardest of the eight key characters in the ‘lake country’ books to pin down.
Still, when she gets a chance to lead she’s quite capable of taking it. This is most apparent in Winter Holiday, when Nancy is sidelined by mumps, and Peggy becomes effectively a joint leader with John, though he is both a boy and a bit older. Of course, you can argue that she is acting as Nancy’s proxy, but there is certainly no sense that command of the seven left ‘in the field’ falls automatically to John. Indeed, there are several references to the ‘three leaders’, i.e. including Susan as well.
Peggy was doing her best. She knew what had been in Nancy’s mind when she had first planned the expedition to the Pole. None of the others had been born on the shores of the lake and now, with Nancy ill, Peggy was trying to fill her place. (From Winter Holiday.)
Minor female characters
It may seem dismissive to tag these as ‘minor characters’, but in the context of the series as a whole they are of much less importance than those we’ve already discussed.
Port and Starboard. The Farland twins (aka Nell and Bess) only appear in Coot Club. They have a lively enough role in that book, sailing and having other adventures of their own, but don’t appear again; in The Big Six they’ve been despatched overseas. I suspect this is because Ransome found, as many readers do, that it was hard to tell the two apart.
Daisy. Daisy appears only in Secret Water. She’s another feisty child in the Nancy mould, seemingly dominating her (apparently older) brothers. The problem is, in what we see of her, she seems altogether too much like a slightly watered-down imitation of Nancy herself.
Missee Lee. Not a child character, of course, but worth a mention, not least as she gives her name to one of the books. The book itself is usually read as a fantasy or metafiction, a story invented by the children, but Missee Lee is still a vivid and highly original character: a female pirate who dominates male rivals mainly by force of character, yet yearns for classical studies at Cambridge.
Ransome the Sexist?
In discussing whether Ransome’s books are sexist or not, we must again remember that they were written between 1929 and 1947 – and they are all, as far as we can tell, set in the early 1930’s. This was not a world of equal opportunities. The Second World War, for all its horrors, did create many new opportunities for women and it’s possible to imagine some of the characters – all of whom would have been young adults by 1939 – grasping these with both hands. But then it’s possible to imagine many futures for the Blackett, Walker and Callum children. Very little is said about what any of the girls are likely to do when they grow up. John, and possibly Roger, seem destined to follow their father into the Navy. Apart from this, little is said about the expectations of any of them. They live, quite naturally for children, largely in the present. At the end of a lake country summer, they look ahead to next year, not to the misty prospects of adulthood. And this seems fine to me. Ransome doesn’t close doors for them or limit what their futures might be.
I know it’s not the Lake District, but I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the place of the Baltic region in Ransome’s life, and maybe wonder whether it had any particular influence on the novels, and the ‘lake country’ books in particular. It’s also a region where I’ve spent a fair bit of time.This wasn’t on specifically Ransome-related business but I did seek out a couple of significant locations along the way.
Ransome first went to Russia in 1913. He was four years into an ill-advised marriage, and had a young daughter. While he adored her, he coped poorly with disturbed sleep and the other trials of having a new baby in a small household. He had also faced a libel case brought by Lord Alfred Douglas, arising from his book on Oscar Wilde. Though acquitted, he found the experience traumatic.
Among more positive reasons for the visit, he was interested in folk tales and was keen to explore Russia’s rich literature. He learned Russian mainly by devouring children’s books. He reckoned to gain the equivalent of a year’s reading level in a week.
A year later he returned, now with a commission to write a guidebook to St Petersburg. He attacked this with gusto, finishing in a couple of months. Having written guidebooks myself, I find this impressive but not outrageous. Having written guidebooks myself, there’s a big difference between how much you can see and how much info you can amass if you approach it as a full-time job rather than as a tourist. For example, I spent four days in St Petersburg in 2008, while working on a Thomas Cook Guide to Baltic Cruising (incidentally, I hadn’t then and still have never spent a single day on a cruise ship. The guide was really all about the ports that cruise ships visit. I reached most of these by air but travelled from Rīga to Tallinn and then to St Petersburg by bus.) In those four days I had a good look at all the main sights and a good sampling of restaurants and bars (it’s a tough job).
During Ransome’s second visit, Europe was lurching into the Great War. His short-sightedness made him ineligible for military service and he remained in Russia. He soon began work on Old Peter’s Russian Tales. Then he was offered the position of Russian correspondent for the Daily News, initially as stand-in for an ailing incumbent.
Thus, almost accidentally, Ransome found himself in the thick of things as Russia spiralled towards Revolution. Now a good Russian speaker, he enjoyed better access to the Revolutionary leaders than any other Western correspondent. He played chess with Lenin, but most significantly, Trotsky’s secretary was a ‘tall jolly girl’ called Evgenia Shelepina, with whom Arthur soon became close.
St Petersburg’s Smolny Institute, where Arthur and Evgenia met
Ransome’s relationship with the revolutionary leaders has been widely examined, with some accusing him of complicity and even espionage. I don’t propose to go into this here; there’s a thorough discussion in Roland Chambers’s book The Last Englishman.
During the war, travel to and from Russia was difficult and Ransome also visited cities such as Stockholm and Helsinki to meet significant individuals. He spent most of the years 1916-1918 in Russia. In 1918 he returned via Estonia to Moscow, now the headquarters of the Reds. During this journey he crossed through the front lines of both opposing armies on foot. He approached the Red lines carrying his typewriter and puffing on his pipe: “Nobody, I reasoned, was going to shoot at a man walking slowly across and obviously enjoying his tobacco”. It obviously worked.
When he next left Russia, he took Evgenia with him. It’s thought that messages he carried on these hazardous journeys helped Estonia to achieve independence. (It was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, regained its independence in 1991 and is now a member of the European Union).
Ransome was still married and his wife Ivy was refusing to divorce him. He and Evgenia set up home in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, then mostly called Reval. Later they moved to Rīga in neighbouring Latvia. Ransome was still an active journalist but had more free time and in these ports on the shores of the Baltic he resumed his acquaintance with sailing.
His prior experience consisted of little more than dinghy sailing on Coniston Water, and Evgenia was a complete novice. However, his enthusiasm was irresistible. In 1922 they had a new boat built, which they christened Racundra. With an elderly seaman, Carl Sehmel, they undertook a cruise around the island-strewn Gulf of Finland to Helsinki (then generally called by its Swedish name, Helsingfors). The resulting book, Racundra’s First Cruise, became a yachting classic. Carl Sehmel is regarded as the original of PeterDuck in the novel of that name.
While living in Rīga, Ransome also had several meetings with the great Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen’s exploits as an explorer had made him, for Ransome, ‘a hero since my childhood’, but by 1921, when these meetings took place, Nansen was engaged in humanitarian work. He was concerned with the repatriation of prisoners of war and then with wider refugee issues, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. Ransome called him ‘the most civilised person of his generation’. It’s no wonder, then, that Nansen, not Shackleton, Scott or Amundsen, is the inspiration for Winter Holiday.
In 1924, Ivy finally agreed to a divorce. Arthur and Evgenia were married at Tallinn, and they arrived in England in November. And that was really the end of Ransome’s Baltic period. He was also now trying to break away from journalism, which he had stumbled into – but which certainly helped to hone the clear and economical prose style which is one of the great strengths of the twelve novels. Within five years he and Evgenia were settling into Low Ludderburn, in the southern fringes of the Lake District, and Arthur was settling down to write Swallows and Amazons.
The Baltic years, then, stretch from1913 to 1924. Ransome was 29 at the start of this period, and already 40 by the end. This was a significant chunk of his life – as it would be for anyone. Apart from, presumably, general life-experience and maturity, he drew several specific influences from this period, which find expression in the books.
For a start, there was Evgenia. Not just a loyal companion for the rest of his life, she was the first reader of each book as it developed – and by no means a sycophantic one. Her influence as ‘critical friend’ and pre-editor must have been substantial.
But Evgenia is important in another way. Many people think she provides at least part of the inspiration for the character of Nancy Blackett. In a letter to his daughter, Arthur described Evgenia and her sister Iraida as ‘huge young women… who prefer pistols to powder puffs and swords to parasols’ – that certainly sounds like Nancy! And they were young, about 20 and 18 at the time.
Nor is it fanciful to suggest that the Baltic period gave Ransome another of his major characters – Captain Flint. Flint, of course, is an avatar of Ransome himself; when we first meet him in Swallows and Amazons, he appears to be much the same age (around 45) as Ransome was at the time, and is tall, stout and bald, also much like Ransome. He doesn’t appear to have followed a conventional career path and has spent much of his life knocking around the world, getting into various scrapes along the way. And he, too, is writing a book, albeit a memoir of his wandering life (Mixed Moss) rather than a novel.
Of course, there is also Carl Sehmel/’Peter Duck’ – and one can’t help wondering if any of Ransome’s revolutionary friends and acquaintances also fed into any of his other characters. Is there a well-disguised Lenin or Trotsky lurking in the pages?
Finally, it was in the Baltic that Ransome extended his experience of sailing beyond the Lakes (plus a little in the Kent Estuary and Morecambe Bay). Racundra’s First Cruise was his first, too. His time among these waters, with their virtually uncountable islands, and in the historic ports of the region, coloured his views on ships and sailing. Tallinn and Rīga had both been important ports of the great trading alliance, the Hanseatic League. So, to a lesser extent, was Great Yarmouth, which features in The Big Six. Ransome was just in time to see some of the last of the great sailing trading vessels. Peter Duck decries their disappearance and replacement by steam, and near the end of We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, the Swallows and their father catch sight of one of the last of them all – the great 4-masted barque Pommern, built at Glasgow in 1903. ‘They listened to Daddy telling them of the tidal harbour of Mariehamn in the Baltic to which the barque belonged’. Pommern doesn’t get about so much these days, but she still resides at the lovely port of Mariehamn, capital of the Åland Islands.
Very cogent summary of the problems photographers face in making a living. If you value the work photographers and other creative professionals do, please think about what the ‘culture of free’ really means.
I am lucky, very lucky! I have a life and business that allows me to travel to amazing places documenting a sport that I love. It’s a dream job and one that I throw myself into 100% each minute, of each hour of everyday.
It’s a job that not many can do. It requires long hours, an ability to handle stress and you need to be fit. Well, you need to be fit if you do the job in the way that I do it!
I have built a business out of hard graft and my commitment has been rewarded. For example, in 2014 I travelled and worked on over thirty races. In 2015, I will work on a similar quantity.
I do have a ‘USP.’ I am not only a photographer. I offer a one stop package for a race with writing, podcast and a website that generates thousands…
In this month’s Lakeland Walker magazine (Jan/Feb 2015) there’s a fine piece by Ronald Turnbull on looking for Swallowdale.
He starts by looking on Blawith Fells and concludes that Swallowdale isn’t there. If you’ve read Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District you’ll know that I agree. This sets us both in opposition to Roger Wardale, one of the leading Ransome researchers, who thinks the original is Long Scars, on the edge of Blawith Fells nearest to Coniston Water. I’ve also explored the whole question further in a previous post: see Mile upon Mile of green and purple moorland.
Ice in Tarn Beck
For the second day of his explorations Ronald turns his attention to the Tilberthwaite fells, commenting that, “Some members of the Arthur Ransome Society believe that Swallowdale is to be found at the top of Tilberthwaite Gill.”
This may be so, although most people associate these fells much more with High Topps in Pigeon Post. This isn’t proof of anything, of course: Ransome played around with the geography to the nth degree and could easily have used the same area as source for more than one of the fictional locations. There is certainly a nice little old mine-level near the top of the steep part of Tilberthwaite Gill which is a pretty good match for Peter Duck’s cave in Swallowdale. However, the area around is pretty wide and open.
Upper reaches of Tarn Beck – no Swallowdale here
My feeling is that if Swallowdale ‘exists’ at all, it has to be somewhere much closer to Ransome’s childhood holiday haunts around Nibthwaite at the other end of Coniston Water. Tilberthwaite probably isn’t within a small boy’s roaming range, but Blawith Fells are. However, even closer to Nibthwaite we have the expanse of Bethecar Moor, which I discussed in Mile upon Mile of green and purple moorland.
More recently I took a look at another aspect of this area, again following a hint from Ronald Turnbull (in email correspondence this time) that Tarn Beck (Selside Beck lower down) looked promising. There’s a permitted path up through the woods from a car-park about 1.4km north of Nibthwaite (the first fully off-road parking if you’re heading north). Of course the Roger-and-Titty way to do it would be to follow the beck straight up but this would involve climbing over several walls, which isn’t on, so I stuck with the track. (It’s easier too!).
Emerging from the woods the path joins the well-worn track that runs down from High and Low Parkamoor to Nibthwaite – popular with mountain bikers but badly damaged in a couple of places by 4x4s. The beck lies beside the track for a short way. When they diverged I followed the beck. It crossed a couple of other paths but it looks like few people have ever gone up alongside it, though faint paths could have been hidden by the snow.
The beck itself has many of the same qualities of the one Titty and Roger followed, with some nice little cascades, and it does deliver you onto the top of the moor, but there’s no compact little secret valley, just a wide hollow between Arnsbarrow Hill and Top o’Selside. What it does do is lead on nicely to Arnsbarrow Tarn. This has hints of Trout Tarn about it, but most people agree that Trout Tarn is based on Beacon Tarn, on the Blawith Fells. In fact both are a bit too easy to get to: Trout Tarn is supposed to be ‘nearly a mile beyond Swallowdale’. Neither Beacon nor Arnsbarrow are more than a mile, as the crow flies, from the shores of the lake
If I’d hoped to ‘solve’ the ‘mystery’ of Swallowdale, this outing got me no nearer. But was it a wasted day? Hardly. There was plenty to see and photograph along the way, and no day which tops out at Top o’Selside can be called wasted, let alone one with sunshine and snow.
Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man (‘Kanchenjunga’) from Top o’Selside
We’re properly into Winter Holiday season now. Of all Ransome’s books it’s the one in which the theme of exploration is strongest. It pays clear homage to true stories of exploration, but it’s striking that there is no mention of two men who would have been household names when Ransome was writing, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, or of the great Norwegian Roald Amundsen.
I know where she means,’ said Peggy. ‘It’s the country on the fells above the tarn. It’s as wild as wild.’
Winter Holiday was published in 1933, and set in the early weeks of 1932. Amundsen and his Norwegian companions reached the South Pole a little over two decades before, in December 1911. Scott’s party, of course, reached the Pole just a few weeks later, and perished on the return trip; it’s a well-known story which has entered British folklore. Shackleton’s story is not quite so widely known today. He had led a previous attempt on the Pole and turned back. In 1914 he returned, aiming to cross the Antarctic via the South Pole, but the ship Endurance was crushed by the ice. Shackleton led a desperate retreat to Elephant Island and then with five crew members set out on an extraordinary voyage in a small boat, crossing 1300km of the Southern Ocean to South Georgia. This is often considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, small-boat voyage in history. Three of the six, including Shackleton, then crossed the fierce mountains of South Georgia to a whaling station to secure rescue for their companions. Every single one of Shackleton’s crew survived.
Amundsen, meanwhile, is often, and with ample justification, called the greatest polar explorer ever. That he and his party were the first to the South Pole is well-known. He had already become the first to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage, and in 1926 reached the North Pole by airship during a crossing from Spitzbergen to Alaska. As previous claims by both Cook (1908) and Peary (1909) to have reached the Pole were disputed, this may well be one of the first genuine visits.
There is no doubt that Ransome would have known all about Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, but he mentions none of them in Winter Holiday. For him the inspiration is the other great Norwegian explorer of the times, Fridtjof Nansen.
Statue of Nansen below the Fram
There may be several reasons why Ransome made Nansen the model rather than any of the others. I think one is that Ransome often draws on influences from his own childhood. Look at the dates. Ransome was born in 1884. Nansen’s first great journey was a crossing of Greenland in 1888, a pioneering venture in every sense, taking the use of skis to a new level, developing other equipment such as lightweight sledges, and displaying a new willingness to learn from the indigenous people of the Arctic (in fact two of his companions on this journey were Sami).
Nansen’s book The First Crossing of Greenland was published in 1890. He then began planning for an attempt on the North Pole. From observation of polar currents he envisaged that a ship could be frozen in the ice and carried close to the Pole by the drift. That ship became the Fram, specially constructed and said to be the strongest wooden ship ever built. The expedition departed in 1893 and after almost a year had passed 81 degrees North. Realising that it would take many years to reach the Pole this way, if it was possible at all, Nansen then set out on skis with one companion, Hjalmar Johansen, towing sledges, to make a dash for the Pole over the ice. This was ultimately unsuccessful, although they did set a record northing of 86d 14m, and was followed by a desperate retreat – it was over a year before they encountered another human being. The book Farthest North was published in 1897.
The Fram now resides permanently in a museum in Oslo
Both books are on the bookshelf in Captain Flint’s houseboat and we can be sure that they were on Ransome’s own shelves too. He almost certainly read them when he was young – he would have been 13 when Farthest North was published – and they made a deep impression on him. In fact, he later described Nansen as ‘a hero since my childhood’. All this, of course, predates the exploits of Shackleton, Scott or Amundsen. It’s therefore completely logical for someone of Ransome’s generation to focus on Nansen rather than the following generation. It would perhaps be less logical for the Swallows, Amazons and D’s – none, probably, born before 1918 – to think only of Nansen. But they are Captain Flint’s books and Flint is in many ways a surrogate for Ransome himself.
On a simpler reading, using Nansen as the model is logical because the story centres on a sledge journey to the ‘North Pole’, and because Captain Flint’s houseboat can play the part of the Fram.
On board the Fram
In fact, there is a more personal connection between Ransome and Nansen, as the two men met on more than one occasion. These meetings occurred in 1921, when Ransome was living in Rīga in Latvia. By this time, Nansen had turned his back on exploration and was deeply engaged in humanitarian work, concerned with the repatriation of prisoners of war and then with wider refugee issues, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.
It is worth mentioning that Nansen was also a notable scientist, conducting pioneering work on the nervous systems of marine invertebrates which attracted international attention. His first forays into diplomatic activity came during the first years of the 20th century as Norway moved to full independence from Sweden. Nansen opposed the most belligerent of the nationalists and was instrumental in inviting a Danish prince to assume the throne of Norway. (And as the new Queen was British by birth, this helped to cement strong links between Noway and the UK).
Even this only scratches the surface of Nansen’s life and it was with good reason that Ransome called him ‘the most civilised person of his generation’. It’s interesting to picture the two of them, both tall and walrus-moustached, deep in discussion by the shores of the Baltic. It’s no wonder that little more than ten years later Ransome was keen to honour Nansen in one of his novels – and the exploits detailed in The First Crossing of Greenland and Farthest North inform almost every aspect of the efforts of the Swallows, Amazons and D’s in Winter Holiday.
One of the key locations in Swallows and Amazons is the secret harbour on Wild Cat Island. It’s also one of the relatively few cases where the real-world original is easily and unambiguously identifiable; it’s on Peel Island in Coniston Water.
Peel Island from the shore at High Peel Near.
I wrote in Exploring Arthur Ransome’sLake District that: ‘To see the harbour properly you need to approach from the water. For many fans of the books, this is the most thrilling moment in their explorations of Ransome country.’ However, despite many years (decades, if I’m honest) of exploring the southern Lakes, this particular thrill was one I hadn’t experienced until I was already working on the book.
I suppose it’s interesting, if not surprising, that my early and enduring love for Swallows and Amazons and the rest of Ransome’s lake country novels never turned me into a sailor. Opportunities didn’t exactly fall into my lap but I could have tried harder… however, up until 2007, my only experiences on the actual waters of Windermere and Coniston had been on commercial services – the Coniston launch and the Gondola, Windermere Lake Cruises and the ferry. You can see pretty much all of both lakes that way, but you don’t get to set foot on any of the islands.
And I knew that I couldn’t do an honest job on the book without at least setting foot on Peel Island. Time was running out and I hadn’t located a friendly seafarer with a dinghy. But I did have some friends who owned sea kayaks.
So there we were one bracing day at the end of January 2007, unloading kayaks from the roof of Jonathan Westaway’s car in the car-park just north of Brown Howe on the west shore of Coniston. (Brown Howe itself was used as Beckfoot in the 1974 film). There was a brisk breeze and the waters of the lake were distinctly choppy. For some odd reason no-one else seemed to be out on the lake…
From there to the harbour on Peel was only about a kilometre. Not far to paddle, but I’m no expert. And as soon as we moved out of the shelter of the trees, it became clear that the wind was stronger than we’d realised, and also almost exactly side-on – on the beam, I guess the proper sailors would say. Sea-kayaks are long, but quite narrow. In spite of this they are allegedly stable. But put me in one and the combination is rather less stable. We were just about opposite Low Peel Near when the inevitable happened and I capsized.
My first thought was to be extremely glad that I’d got my camera in a waterproof case (I’d actually imagined beforehand that I might take a few shots from the water). My second thought was … well, not exactly ‘shiver my timbers’, but all the letters of what I did think are in there and in the right order.
Surprisingly, I actually remembered being taught to roll when I was in the Scouts, a very long time ago. I say I remembered it, but I couldn’t put it into practise, so it was time for Plan B: exit the boat. I did at least stay calm and executed this manoeuvre in an orderly manner, and with a good deal of help from my expert adviser I was fairly soon back in the boat.
Of course I was now wet through. Paddling did help to warm me up a bit and we got to the harbour without further ado, but I must admit my thoughts as we slid onto the little beach were not so much about what a great thrill it was finally to be there and more along the lines of, “better not hang around too long.” Still, we were there and we needed to explore and get a few photos.
Kayaks in the secret harbour
The harbour itself is exactly right, even if narrower than it appears in Ransome’s drawing in Chapter 4 of Swallows and Amazons. The rest of the island, however, was more of a surprise and not particularly like I’d imagined it. It’s smaller than it should be, for a start; once you imagine a few tents somewhere in the middle there isn’t a lot of space for all the other things that happen there.
As the photo below shows, there’s a ridge of rock along each side of the island with a low, fairly open space in the middle; there are a few scattered trees but very little undergrowth. Of course the vegetation may have been significantly different when Ransome was writing Swallows and Amazons 75 years ago, or when he first visited the island either as a boy or as a very young man, certainly more than a century back. There certainly isn’t the nice little sheltered bay with a shingle beach that became the ‘landing place’ (as distinct from the harbour) – check the map at the front of Swallows and Amazons.
The middle of Peel island
Apparently when they made the film of S&A in 1974 the crew created a landing place of sorts by dumping a load of shingle – this is related in Sophie Neville’s The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons. It must have been at the northern end of the east side of the island, where the rock wall peters out, not in the middle as shown in the book. Even with this artificial aid, the landing place in the film is much smaller than the one suggested in the book.
Of course it’s no secret that Wild Cat Island as a whole is one of Ransome’s composite creations. It’s generally recognised that the other main model is Blake Holme in Windermere. However, Blake Holme is even smaller (in length if not in area) than Peel Island, and is also extremely close to the shore – where there is now a busy caravan site.
On Peel, that chilly January day, we soon found our way to the northern end of the island. There’s no lighthouse tree, but it does provide a good lookout up the length of Coniston Water. It was also very open to the north-west wind and in my wet clothes I really felt it. Timbers properly shivering, it was time to go.
Fortunately the return trip went smoothly and I was soon changing into dry clothes in the toilet block at the car park. After loading up the kayaks onto the car we set off in search of Americanos and bacon butties.
Kayaks ready to leave the secret harbour
Many thanks to Jonathan Westaway for pilot/navigator/rescue services and to Julia for lending me her kayak.