In the opening paragraph of Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District, I wrote:
I can vividly 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 quickly lost in a world that was at once familiar and utterly new.
Some people can remember where they were when they heard that JFK had been shot. I was just a bit too young for that, but I remember my first encounter with Arthur Ransome and the world of the Swallows and Amazons with that kind of clarity.
Most of the details of the occasion have faded. It was definitely a wedding and it was definitely in Warrington, probably the Penketh or Sankey Bridges area. I can just remember a big room with lots of people, but then that describes almost every wedding reception ever. But I clearly remember my Mum handing me the book, which must have been hidden in her handbag, and steering me to a quiet corner. I think there was some sort of alcove. But within a few minutes it didn’t really matter. I was hooked.
Of course I was already an avid reader and would devour just about anything that wasn’t too ‘grown-up’. This included lots of old books from Church jumble sales (my dad was a vicar in Altrincham). Many of them were those old hardbacks with no dust-jacket but with a cover illustration embossed on the front, sometimes with a gilded effect (I’m sure it wasn’t real gilding!). Many of them were pre-WW2 and some considerably older, printed on thick soft paper with edges that looked almost like they’d been torn rather than cut. I suspect quite a few of them embodied Imperialist, racist and/or sexist attitudes that wouldn’t go down too well today (but which fortunately don’t seem to have rubbed off on me).
Swallows and Amazons was different. For one thing, it wasn’t second-hand but a brand-new paperback; I don’t have that copy any more but a quick online search confirms that it would have been a Puffin book, cost 5 shillings.
I think I realised almost immediately that the setting was the Lake District, which I already knew, although Ransome never refers to it by that name in any of the novels: it’s always ‘the lake country’. Perhaps my mother gave me a hint. At that stage we had a static caravan near Skelwith Fold. We knew the immediate area pretty well; our favourite spot for walks was Loughrigg Fell and I can also remember fishing (possibly without a permit?) on Tarn Hows – which was a busy spot even then. I don’t recall catching anything, though.
Skelwith, Loughrigg and Tarn Hows are all just on the edge of what I, and many others before me, have called ‘Ransome Country’, but we would have explored southward into that area too. One vivid memory, possibly from around the time I first read Swallows and Amazons, perhaps from a year or two later, involves going for what should have been a short walk in Grizedale Forest. To cut a long story short, we got lost, and only blundered back to civilisation, tired and very thirsty, at nightfall. However, it clearly didn’t put me off walking, or exploring, or the Lakes. Maybe it even gave me a taste for adventure.
Although the spots we knew best weren’t exactly in the heart of Ransome Country, they were close enough that the elements of the landscape in Swallows and Amazons were all very familiar – the lakes and tarns, the small fields and stone walls, the narrow lanes, the white-washed farmhouses, the heather-clad moors and craggy fells. I had no difficulty in picturing Holly Howe or Dixon’s Farm. I’d never met charcoal-burners but I knew what the woods they worked in looked like. I’d been camping, though never without adult supervision, and we brewed up on a Camping Gaz stove, not an open fire.
However, the magic of Swallows and Amazons – or part of it, anyway – was that it blended the familiar with the exotic. It wasn’t like Narnia (somewhere around the same time we had The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe read to us at school). That fabulous land may have been as close as the back of a wardrobe – but it was also clearly somewhere completely other. Even at nine, I could spot a fantasy when I heard one.
Swallows and Amazons wasn’t like that. I think it’s a far better book than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, less preachy and less patronising, but that’s the judgement of the adult reader. The crucial difference about Swallows and Amazons, even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time, is that you didn’t have to step through a wardrobe or a wormhole to reach that other world. It was right here all along, embedded in and entwined with the world I already knew.
Some of the elements which made it different were simply things that I hadn’t experienced, but which were potentially accessible. I’d never sailed, for example, but I knew that people did and I’d seen boats on the lakes. (It would, however, be many years before I actually set foot on Wild Cat Island, and even then I got there by kayak, not under sail).
There was another dimension, too; the one where these familiar landscapes and ordinary things were illuminated, even transmuted, by the power of imagination. Of course, I wouldn’t have put it in quite those terms at the age of nine, but I knew the feeling. A scrubby bit of ‘waste’ land became a vast prairie when we played Cowboys and Indians. Of course we still knew it was just a little patch of rough grass and brambles, within shouting distance when our Mums wanted us in for tea, but at the same time it was the prairie or the High Desert. In just the same way, the lake in Swallows and Amazons could become the Spanish Main or the Pacific. I understood instinctively that this was more than just ‘let’s pretend’; it was a parallel reality. In a way, I guess, all children are natural Method actors.
(Incidentally, I think one of Ransome’s strokes of genius is that he never names the lake. Bits of it become ‘The Arctic’ at times, but the lake as a whole is nameless, and therefore somehow limitless.)
At nine, the mingling of mundane reality and the more glamorous parallel reality of the imagination was enough. It was only later, coming back to Swallows and Amazons and Ransome’s other novels as an adult, that I fully appreciated that there are yet more levels where reality and imagination collide.
Above all, there is the obvious fact that the ‘lake country’ both is and is not the southern Lake District. This is the main theme of Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District, and it has fascinated many other authors too, including Christina Hardyment, Roger Wardale and Claire Kendall-Price, to name three who have actually published books on the subject.
As I observed in Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District, “Swallows and Amazons is the great sailing story among Ransome’s lake country books, and above all it is the book of the lake. Almost all the action takes place on the water, on islands in the lake, or along its shores. The wider geography of the lake country is only hinted at, to be fleshed out in later volumes.” Still, it’s already clear that the geography of Ransome’s lake country is not congruent with the geography of Cumbria. Ransome’s maps can’t be overlaid on an Ordnance Survey map.
However, there are many correspondences, and they go beyond just the overall character of the landscape, or that of components like woods and farms. The cluster of islands in the middle reach of the lake looks very like that in the middle of Windermere, with ‘Long Island’ in the place of Belle Isle. This makes it look very much as if ‘Rio’ is Bowness-on-Windermere, and there are many other references, in Swallows and Amazons and in the later books, which reinforce this impression. For instance, in Pigeon Post, Roger and Titty arrive by train and are then driven down a hill to ‘Rio’. Windermere station and the town which grew around it are indeed well above Bowness Bay – the station is at least 70 metres above the shoreline.
So Rio and the islands correspond very well to Bowness and the islands of Windermere, but it’s immediately obvious from a glance at the maps in Swallows and Amazons, or any of the other books, that the lake as a whole is not a replica of Windermere. Similarly, the ‘secret harbour’ on Wild Cat Island, which plays such an important role in Swallows and Amazons, is pretty exactly taken from that on Peel Island in Coniston Water – but the rest of the island is not such a good match. Wild Cat seems larger than Peel, and slightly different in shape; most obviously of all, there’s no convenient ‘landing place’ on its eastern shore.
And so it goes on. Some bits of the lake country seem to have been lifted almost exactly from the ‘real world’. Others seem like hybrids of more than one location. And some are considerably more elusive than that – above all, there’s Swallowdale. Authors, including myself, have identified at least half a dozen ‘models’ for the little valley at the heart of the second lake country novel, and none of us have got it right.
But that’s all part of the fascination. That’s why I wrote a book, and that’s why people bought it. It’s why several other people have written books – some of them have not stopped at one, and all have been read avidly by those who have the bug. Most of us – maybe not all, but most – know perfectly well that we’ll never find an exact counterpart for every spot in the books. We’ll never catch a whopper in Trout Tarn and we’ll certainly never take a photo of the ‘original’ Swallowdale.
These places don’t exist. And yet they do. When I read Swallows and Amazons, Wild Cat Island exists. When I read Swallowdale, the valley exists, complete with its waterfall and Peter Duck’s cave. And yes, when I read The Lord of the Rings, Rivendell and Gondor and Rohan all come into being too. When I read Iain M Banks, there are spaceships with a complement of millions, sardonic Minds far more powerful than any human brain, Dwellers in the atmosphere of a gas giant… They exist, and it is wrong to say they exist ‘only’ in imagination, because the human imagination is more powerful than that. But Ransome’s lake country exists somewhere even closer. Sometimes we can actually reach out and touch it.