Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District

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First…

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).

Peel Island on Coniston Water – probably the main original for Wild Cat Island in the stories

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.

Ransome the Sexist?

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 title Best 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:

Windermere autumn morning1: 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 Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post. It’s only in Secret Water 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. Winter Holiday 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.

Nancy Blackett

‘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.

Ice on Tarn Hows, Lake DistrictAgain, 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.

Susan Walker

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.

Titty Walker

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.

ransome61Dorothea Callum

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.

Peggy Blackett

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.

Arthur Ransome in the Baltic

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).

_DSC9742St Petersburg

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.

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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).

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Tallinn

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 Peter Duck in the novel of that name.

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Rīga

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.

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Helsinki

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.

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The mighty Pommern at Mariehamn

Don’t worry, we will give you a credit!

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.

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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…

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Still looking for Swallowdale

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

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

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!).

Arnsbarrow Tarn.

Arnsbarrow Tarn.

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

Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man (‘Kanchenjunga’) from Top o’Selside

The Influence of Nansen

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.’

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

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

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

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.

On the deck of the Fram

On the deck of the Fram

First steps on Peel Island

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.

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

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

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.

Lookout place

Lookout place

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

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.

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

This is the full text of the sonnet whose final four lines are quoted at the head of the first chapter of Swallows and Amazons. For more about its importance, and the possible location of the ‘Peak of Darien’ in the story, see my previous post.

The poem was written by John Keats in October 1816, when he was just 20 or 21 years old (his birthday was on the 31st of the month), and is full of the sense of possibilities and prospects unfolding. Sadly, much of the promise was unfulfilled as he died, from tuberculosis, early in 1821 when he was still only 25.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

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.

Morning, Coniston Water; Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man on the skyline

Morning, Coniston Water; Dow Crag and Coniston Old Man on the skyline