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

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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.

Reading Swallows and Amazons

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.

Evening on Coniston Water, looking towards Peel Island

Evening on Coniston Water, looking towards Peel Island

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.

Loughrigg Fell is in the middle ground, with mist both in front and behind

Loughrigg Fell is in the middle ground, with mist both in front and behind

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.

The islands in the middle of Windermere, with Bowness ('Rio') behind.

The islands in the middle of Windermere, with Bowness (‘Rio’) behind.

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.