One of the favourite controversies among Ransome devotees is the location of the ‘real’ Swallowdale – if, indeed, there ever was one. Attached to this is the argument about which area of moorland should be taken as the original for the mile upon mile of green and purple moorland within which the secret valley lies.
Given the tremendous role Roger Wardale has played in Ransome studies, I’m reluctant to disagree with him, but I certainly didn’t find his nomination for Swallowdale – Long Scars – convincing (see Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District, Chapter 3). Nor do I think the moors where it lies, Blawith Fells, fit the bill, either in character or in extent – as discussed elsewhere, they’re no more than 5km/3miles long and the Swallowdale moors should be around twice that. This is borne out both by the area they occupy on some of Ransome maps, and by the length of time the Swallows take to traverse them on their way to the Amazon preparatory to climbing Kanchenjunga (Swallowdale, Ch 23, Overland to the Amazon).
I’ve always felt that the moors east of Coniston Water are a better bet, certainly in terms of character, but there isn’t really that much more open ground there today as the northern part of this bit of upland has been enveloped by the conifers of Grizedale Forest.
However, as I wrote in Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District, ‘Grizedale Forest has not always been there; in Ransome’s time there was much more open country east of Coniston Water.’
When I first wrote those words, I checked against a reproduction of an OS one-inch map from 1924–25 – just a few years before Ransome began writing the stories – as well as an original Bartholomew one-inch map ‘for Motorists and Cyclists’. This is probably from 1930, the very year in which Swallows and Amazons was published. Both of these show far less extensive forest cover on the uplands east of Coniston Water.
And now I have discovered an excellent source of earlier OS mapping – the National Library of Scotland has scanned OS 6” maps of the whole of England and Wales as well, including dates relevant to Ransome studies. I’ve just looked at maps of the relevant area for 1912. This isn’t a prefect date – Ransome was mostly living in the south at the time, trying to come to terms with marriage and fatherhood, but in 1913 he decamped (some have said ‘fled’) to St Petersburg, with consequences neither he nor anyone else could have predicted (see Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District, Chapter 6). However, it sits neatly between the formative years of his boyhood holidays at Nibthwaite and visits as a young man to Bank Ground and Lanehead, and the writing of Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale in 1929–31.
These maps very clearly show that large areas of what is now forest were open ground at the time. It appears that there may have been scattered trees in places, but no dense plantations or woods. The image below shows 1912 tree cover in dark green and the contemporary extent (not allowing for temporary areas of clear-felling) in a paler shade.
One thing that leaps out at me is how close open moorland was to Bank Ground and Lanehead. It also appears that the area further south, Bethecar Moor, has not been covered in trees at any time in the last couple of centuries, if ever; it’s also clear in a map of 1846–8. Bethecar Moor is right above Nibthwaite, where Ransome spent many blissful holidays as a child; and it still, today, seems to me to have more of the right atmosphere for the Swallowdale moors than any other candidate.
You can explore Bethecar Moor, and many other key locations, on Walk 3 in Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District. And, yes, I’ve called it High Greenland, because it could be that too. But that’s another story. Either way, there’s some fabulous walking to be had, and some of the paths are quite faint, so it can feel like real exploring. The walk also passes some of the best views in the Lake District.