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.

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.

Upon a peak in Darien

I’ve already looked at the way key locations from Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District are distributed; almost all of them are in the core area around Coniston Water and Windermere. This raises big question marks over the outliers. Some of them are fairly easily disposed of (see near the end of The ‘Real’ Ransome Country).

Two locations which deserve a bit more attention are Miterdale – which I’ll come back to – and Derwent Water, specifically Friar’s Crag.

Friar's Crag (a slightly dodgy scan from an old slide)

Friar’s Crag (a slightly dodgy scan from an old slide)

Friar’s Crag is often cited as the model for the Peak of Darien, which appears in the very early pages of Swallows and Amazons.  From here the Swallows gaze out down the lake and see the island for the first time. It gets its name from a sonnet by Keats, of which the final four lines are quoted at the head of Chapter 1. (Read the full poem, On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, here). The lines refer to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez (or Cortés), and imply that he and his men were the first Europeans to see the eastern shores of the Pacific Ocean. (Darien is a region, still wild and sparsely inhabited, on the borders of Panama and Colombia).

This is almost certainly wrong; Cortez may never have seen the Pacific at all, and the true credit for this ‘discovery’ goes to the expedition led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa. It’s quite possible that Keats simply made a mistake. But the point of the lines is that Columbus and many navigators who followed were looking for a short route to India and the ‘Indies’, which we now know lie to the west of the Pacific. It took some time for Europeans to realise that there were in fact two great oceans, not one, to the west, separated by the Americas. Keats’s poem hints at a first dawning realisation of this (‘a wild surmise’) – its magnitude underlined by the two lines preceding the ones which Ransome quotes:

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

“When a new planet swims into his ken”

Clearly the Swallows, or at least one of them (Titty ‘had heard the sonnet read aloud at school’), knew the poem and linked its sense of vast prospects opening up with the view down the lake to the island.

The ‘Peak of Darien’ in the story is one of the promontories enclosing the bay below Holly Howe (the ‘southern and higher’ one). It’s largely covered in ‘pinewoods’ but at the end is ‘a small open space of bare rock and heather’ from where it drops, ‘like a cliff, into the lake’.

None of this is very remarkable, and there are many promontories on Coniston and Windermere which more or less fit the bill. Why, then, is it often stated that the model for Darien is Friar’s Crag?

One reason – and quite a convincing one, on the face of it – is that Ransome actually sent a postcard of Friar’s Crag to the artist, Clifford Webb, who illustrated early editions of the book. I think, however, that this overlooks the fact that Friar’s Crag is one of the best-known landmarks in the Lakes and postcards were easily available.

In later editions of Swallows and Amazons, Webb’s illustrations were replaced with Ransome’s own, and the frontispiece, titled ‘Dispatches’, shows his own interpretation of Darien. The foreground may look superficially like Friar’s Crag, but not convincingly. The point of Friar’s Crag is actually quite low and certainly doesn’t drop ‘like a cliff’.

The second reason for the association between Friar’s Crag and Darien is that it was used as such in the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons. Sophie Neville, who played Titty in the film, records in her ebook, The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons, that Ransome’s widow Evgenia told the film’s producer, Richard Pilbrow, that the original of Darien is on Windermere, near Waterhead. This would certainly fit with the fact that, at the time he was writing the book, Ransome and Evgenia were living at Low Ludderburn and sailing regularly on Windermere, and probably points to Gale Naze Crag.

Gale Naze Crag

Gale Naze Crag

However, Pilbrow chose to use Friar’s Crag instead. One reason for this may well have been that it would be much easier to access with a film crew than most of the alternatives. Visit today and you’ll find a wide, easy track leading almost all the way to the point of the crag.

In any case, the most important thing about the Peak of Darien is not the detail of the promontory itself but the view it provides. In fact, the view from Friar’s Crag is used for just this purpose in the film, and it provides quite a thrilling moment, with a nice music sting, redolent of ‘wild surmise’. But it’s all wrong. The view in Ransome’s ‘Dispatches’ drawing looks nothing like the view from Friar’s Crag, and there’s also a very clear statement in that first chapter that ‘the island lay about a mile away towards the lower, southern end of the lake’.

Windermere and Coniston Water both have lower hills towards their southern ends. Derwent Water doesn’t. In fact it doesn’t really have a low end at all; the River Derwent escapes through a low gap to the northwest, not Bassenthwaite Lake, but views straight down the lake are dominated by the bulk of Skiddaw, one of the Lake District’s major peaks.

Skiddaw dominates the view down Derwent Water

Skiddaw dominates the view down Derwent Water

The celebrated view from Friar’s Crag is in the other direction, to the head of the lake, taking in the craggy ‘Jaws’ of Borrowdale and beyond them the fells rising towards the high core around Scafell Pike (although the Pike itself is barely visible).

The other problem with Friar’s Crag today is that it’s an immensely popular spot and you’ll be lucky, unless you go very early in the morning, to have it to yourself. It’s worth visiting, of course –and if you’re in Keswick it couldn’t be easier – but it isn’t the Peak of Darien.

'Towards the lower, southern end of the lake’. This is Coniston Water

‘Towards the lower, southern end of the lake’.
This is Coniston Water

The ‘Real’ Ransome Country

Having looked at the extent of the ‘lake country’ in Ransome’s books, I thought it would be interesting to compare it with the real world, i.e. the places we can actually visit on foot, on bike, by train, boat or car, rather than in our imagination.

The first map covers the full extent of the Lake District National Park. The background map is OS 1:250,000, under the OS OpenData Licence. All additions are © Jon Sparks.

Don’t worry too much about the detail yet; just notice how nearly all the purple blobs and dots are concentrated into a fairly small area of the southern Lake District. We’ll deal with the odd outliers later.

All Lakes

Now let’s look more closely at the core area.

Core

A little explanation: the purple dots are places mentioned in Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District. Diffuse blobs are areas, such as Morecambe Bay or Claife Heights, rather than ‘point’ locations. Purple lines are walks in the book and black ones are railways mentioned.

What I hope stands out here is that there is rather a large ‘void’ in the middle of the map. Neither Hawkshead (a very popular tourist village) nor Esthwaite Water get a mention. Ransome must have known them, and I’m sure he fished on Esthwaite, but nothing that I’m aware of ties them to any location in the stories.

Actually we could take out even more of the locations that I’ve marked in the middle. Rusland Heights, beside the southern end of Windermere, is only marked because I put in a bonus walk there, not because of any specific tie to the stories but for its atmosphere. The same could be said of Claife Heights, further up the west side of Windermere.

Take these out and the picture becomes even clearer:

CoreCore

What I hope is really obvious is how most of the locations around Windermere are on the shoreline or in the lake itself (bays, islands, etc). There are some of these in/around Coniston too, but there’s a much wider spread of locations on land around the lake, ranging up to the tops of the Coniston Fells.

Part of the key to this lies in the few red dots. The two slightly larger ones are Low Ludderburn, east of Windermere, and The Heald, part-way up Coniston Water. Ransome lived at Low Ludderburn from 1925–35. This period saw the writing of Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, and the start of Pigeon Post. The Heald was home from 1941–1945 and The Picts and the Martyrs was published in 1943.

The smaller red dots are Nibthwaite, at the foot of Coniston, and Lanehead, near the head of the lake. Nibthwaite was the base for many idyllic holidays in Ransome’s boyhood and Lanehead, home of the Collingwoods, was central to many visits as a young man. For more on the background see Chapter 7 of Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District.

Let’s just return quickly to those outliers that I mentioned.

Outliers

U is Ulverston – only mentioned because Arthur’s family would change trains here on the way to those holidays at Nibthwaite.

C is Cartmel, where Ransome stayed as a young man, and at least once walked up to Lanehead and back.

A is Arnside, beside the Kent Estuary, which opens into Morecambe Bay. At least one of Ransome’s own boats, Coch-y-Bonddhu (the model for the D’s Scarab) was built here.

M is Miterdale, touted by some as the original for Swallowdale, though I don’t buy this at all (see Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District, Chapter 3). B is Burnmoor Tarn, just above.

F is Fairfield. The Fairfield Horseshoe is surely the original for the ‘ring of great hills around the head of the lake’. Ransome mentions this, with slight variations, several times.

W is Derwent Water and D is Friar’s Crag. Friar’s Crag has been suggested as the model for the Peak of Darien, where Swallows and Amazons opens, and both lake and crag were used for some scenes in the 1974 film. However, I’m pretty sceptical about their real significance and I’ll return to this before long.

'A ring of great hills around the head of the lake': the Fairfield Horseshoe from a boat on Windermere.

‘A ring of great hills around the head of the lake’: the Fairfield Horseshoe from a boat on Windermere.

How big is Ransome Country? Part 2

NB: As the maps are, of course, copyright, I can’t reproduce any of them here and can only hope that readers have their own copies of the books to refer to.

Looking closely at maps of the ‘lake country’ in Ransome’s books throws up some interesting observations. In terms of published maps, there are four main sources: Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, and The Picts and the Martyrs. The maps in Pigeon Post cover a much smaller area – the valley of the Amazon and High Topps.

Perspectives on perspective

A note on the map in Winter Holiday, attributed to Capt. Nancy Blackett, warns that, ‘Future explorers must not rely on this map in calculating distances.’ In fact, like most of the others, it doesn’t entirely look like a ‘proper’ map at all. The question of what constitutes a proper map is a huge one, and though fascinating I can’t go into it here in any depth. However, what is obvious from even a glance at the Winter Holiday map is that, while most of it looks like an overhead or plan view, the area at the top – including ‘Mountains’ and ‘High Greenland’ – looks more like a perspective drawing.

We can say the same of most of the others. The lake is always drawn more or less as an aerial view, even if the lighthouse tree on Wild Cat island tends to appear in profile. However, in the Swallowdale map, Kanchenjunga is seen as if from below. In Spurrier’s map for Swallows and Amazons, almost everything bar the lake itself appears as if we are looking from some high point away in the west. Only the map in The Picts and the Martyrs looks as if it’s all drawn from an overhead view – and even here, a few features, mostly houses, are shown in elevation, not in plan.

There’s nothing intrinsically ‘wrong’ with this mixing of plan and elevation views and something similar can be seen in many classic maps, especially ones which predate the Ordnance Survey. They also invite comparison with another, more recent, Lakeland icon – the Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells of Alfred Wainwright (published between 1955 and 1966). In this, while each chapter (one per fell) includes a plan-view map, the illustration for each individual route is a hybrid map/elevation drawing. This malleable perspective has been widely emulated since.

As Wainwright’s guides show, this kind of perspective drawing can be extremely useful, and the Ransome maps also demonstrate that it can be both charming and evocative. However, as Nancy says, it makes the maps rather unreliable in ‘calculating distances’.

However, if we are going to make the effort, then the map in The Picts and the Martyrs would appear to be the most reliable. It also comes from the last of the completed ‘lake country’ books,  which may suggest that the landscape it portrays is the most – for want of a better word – mature.

On the other hand, it is incomplete. The country east of the lake, including High Greenland, is almost entirely missing, and so is the summit of Kanchenjunga – although by cross-referencing to the map in Pigeon Post we can get a sense that this isn’t far outside the confines of this map.

The changing lake

There’s another problem too. I’ve said that the one element which appears to be drawn in plan in all these maps is the lake. However, it changes shape. Clearly Ransome didn’t do what he had his explorers do in Secret Water, and make tracings of a base map to which detail could then be added over time.

The closest agreement in terms of the shape and proportions of the lake is between the maps in  Swallows and Amazons (even though this is Spurrier, not Ransome) and Winter Holiday. In Swallowdale the lake is considerably broader in proportion to its length. The Picts and the Martyrs map makes it equally wide around Rio Bay but the difference is less marked elsewhere. The Beckfoot promontory also shifts position quite markedly; in Swallowdale it’s much farther north.

Varying outlines of the lake from the four sources referred to.

Varying outlines of the lake from the four sources referred to.

These variations, along with others already noted in Part 1, mean that even deriving the length of the lake, let alone extrapolating from this to other features, is full of pitfalls. But we took the plunge in Part 1 and concluded that it is about as long as Windermere, i.e. approx. 10 miles/16km. Based on this, is there anything we can say about the scale of other features?

Well, there is some other firm data, not about lengths but about heights. The map in Pigeon Post gives the height of Kanchenjunga as 2600 feet. This agrees very well with the height of Coniston Old Man, today given as 803m: 2634ft in old money. Of course there’s more to be said about whether the Old Man is the sole model and there’s quite a bit about that in my book, but that doesn’t really concern us here.

Apart from this and a few other heights on the Pigeon Post map, Ransome is generally very careful not to specify measurements exactly. (It’s different in the East Anglian books, but then they use the real landscape, not an imaginary one). For example, as noted in Part 1, Wild Cat Island is ‘about a mile’ from Darien. Even before this, very early in Swallows and Amazons, he mentions looking out ‘…over mile upon mile of water’.

The same formula recurs in the first description of the Swallowdale moors: ‘mile upon mile of green and purple moorland’.

This stretch of moorland appears in the maps in both Swallowdale and The Picts and the Martyrs. In both, it appears about the same length in relation to the lake: from Swallowdale to the descent into the Amazon valley is about 60% of the lake’s length, which would make this about 6 miles/10km. And of course the moors don’t end immediately south of Swallowdale so their overall length is even greater.

This immediately casts doubt on the claims that some people have made that the Swallowdale moors are based on the Blawith Fells, west of Coniston Water. These aren’t much more than 5km or 3 miles long. The scale of the maps fits much better with the upland east of Coniston Water; from Brock Barrow, just above Nibthwaite, to the road at High Cross, a trek of at least 8km/5 miles is certainly possible. Today, much of this land is enveloped in conifers as part of Grizedale Forest, but far more of it was open moor when Ransome came here as a boy and as a young man. For more about this, see Mile upon Mile of green and purple moorland.

Even so, 8km is not 10km. But maybe this is the place to remind ourselves that the ‘lake country’ exists in the imagination, and that not only are Ransome’s main protagonists children, many of his formative experiences, especially on land, took place when he was a child too. (Sailing, for the most part, came a little later). There is a difference in the way that children perceive the scale of the world, especially when it serves as a seedbed for the imagination.

We should also remember that the Swallows and Amazons are almost entirely reliant on small sailing vessels or their own feet to get around. Bicycles figure in Pigeon Post and cars and buses crop up occasionally, while trains are how they get to and from the lake country.  Ransome, as child and young man, was in the same position. It would take well under an hour to get from, say, Nibthwaite to Ambleside by car. On foot, it would be at least a half-day’s walk even for an adult.

And really this is the key to answering our question: How big is Ransome Country? It’s the sort of area that a group of children can get around under their own steam. And we should remember that at the start of Swallows and Amazons, Roger is just seven. In Swallowdale, he is eight. This makes the trek across the moors take on a slightly different magnitude, not to mention the return trip by Roger and Titty alone – and she is no more than ten.

We can say, baldly, that the lake is about 10 miles long. We can infer that the country on either side spreads rather less than ten miles from Kanchenjunga to High Greenland. But the mere mention of Kanchenjunga and High Greenland takes us to a different dimension. The lake is ‘as big as a small sea’ (Swallows and Amazons, Chapter 1) – or a very large one, since it also has Arctic and Antarctic regions, and in Winter Holiday there’s a North Pole to be found.

On the maps, the lake country is small enough. In the imagination it’s far, far bigger.

Dick Callum – Pioneer Mountain Biker?

‘Meanwhile the dromedary was jolting him 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. You never would have thought it was possible to get so hot going down hill.’

Pigeon Post, Chapter XXXIII

Dick's trail might have looked a bit like this (and that's High Topps, or Yewdale Fells, in the background)

Dick’s trail might have looked a bit like this (and that’s High Topps, or Yewdale Fells, in the background)

It’s fair to say that bikes don’t have a major role in the Swallows and Amazons stories, but they do play their part – as ‘dromedaries’ in Pigeon Post. They’re also, incidentally, quite significant in the East Anglian-set The Big Six.

Still, Ransome’s description of Dick’s progress down the track suggests he (Ransome) had some experience of riding over rough terrain, long before the term ‘mountain biking’ was invented (see below) and even before the birth of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship. Of course, when he was a young man, many roads were unsealed and more like what we would call rough tracks nowadays. And people certainly took their bikes over hill tracks and even mountain passes.

Some may remember an episode of Nicholas Crane’s BBC2 series Map Man based on the Bartholomew’s Cycling Map of England and Wales (1896-1903), in which he took a period steed over a couple of Lakeland passes – Black Sail and Scarth Gap, I believe. These are in the western fells, well away from Ransome Country.

It’s certainly possible that Ransome, born in 1884, and a map-lover from an early age, would have been familiar with and perhaps used those Bart’s cycling maps. He might also have come across the writings of Walter MacGregor Robinson, better known as ‘Wayfarer’. One of Robinson’s best-known exploits was a crossing of the bare and lonely Berwyn Mountains in north-east Wales in March 1919. Wayfarer and his companions crossed in deep snow, pushing their heavy fixed-gear bikes far more than they could ride and taking four hours to cover ten miles. On a modern mountain bike, and without the snow, it’s possible in an hour or so: I know, because I’ve done it. The pass itself is now known, and not solely by cyclists, as ‘The Wayfarer’ and there’s a memorial to him at the top. I think, however, it’s fair to say that ‘Wayfarer’s prose style seems far more dated than Ransome’s.

The author starting the descent from the Wayfarer monument

The author starting the descent from the Wayfarer monument

The suggestion that Ransome knew of these exploits is conjecture, of course, but we do know that he did cycle, sometimes over long distances, as a young man, and the distinction between ‘road’ and ‘off-road’ was rather more blurred in those days. Certainly there were really no such things as specialised bikes for different types of terrain – unlike today, when even mountain bikes have many sub-categories, like ‘cross-country’, ‘trail’, ‘enduro’, ‘all-mountain’ and ‘downhill’.

And what this ultimately suggests to me is that bikes are an entirely appropriate as well as a versatile and enjoyable way of exploring Ransome’s lake country. Despite the growth of car traffic there are still some delightfully quiet lanes and there are also easy tracks, especially around Grizedale Forest. With a bit of effort, some of these lead out to some great views – the forest does, after all, lie between Coniston and Windermere, bang in the middle of Ransome Country.

If you’re up to some rougher going, like Dick, then try a ride over Claife Heights. Claife has never, as far as I know, been nominated as the model for any of Ransome’s locations (it’s more Beatrix Potter country), but it’s oozing with the right atmosphere and the tracks are great fun. Most people will tackle them on a mountain bike but if you want to get closer to the Dick Callum experience you might try crossing Claife, as I have, on a cyclo-cross bike. Of course only you can decide what your fitness and skills are up to…

Beyond that, there are many full-on mountain bike routes in the area, from the famed (or infamous) Walna Scar Road to the purpose built North Face Trail at Grizedale. Some of the bridleways in and around Grizedale, and elsewhere, are steep, rocky and decidedly (in modern parlance) gnarly. Even on a modern full-suspension bike, and with considerable experience, I treat them with respect. If Dick got down something like this on a 1930’s steel ‘girl’s bike two sizes too big for him’ – and with a pigeon basket strapped to the handlebars as well – I take my hat off to him.

A bit more gnarly (but not very): one of the descents off Claife Heights. There are easier routes – and harder ones too.

A bit more gnarly (but not very): one of the descents off Claife Heights. There are easier routes – and harder ones too.

Watch these pages for some specific suggestions of (not too gnarly) dromedary trails.

The Rough-Stuff Fellowship and the birth of mountain biking

Pigeon Post is set in 1932. The Rough-Stuff Fellowship was founded in 1955, but the term had been around for decades. As tarmac – the ‘smooth stuff’ – spread, the contrast between it and the unsealed tracks became more significant. (As the RSF’s own website says, ‘…in the very early days of cycling everything was rough stuff’.) The rapid growth in motor traffic in the 1950s was a major factor in encouraging more and more cyclists to seek out quiet byways and bridleways.

Clearly, then, off-road biking is nothing new. However, the line of descent leading to the modern mountain bike really begins in California in the 1970s. Here a group of riders began staging informal – but definitely competitive – events, speeding down mountain fire–roads and other trails on whatever bikes seemed most suitable. A key location was 784m (2571ft) Mt Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, close to San Francisco in Northern California.

Road bikes were lethal on the loose, high-speed descents; the bikes that seemed to work best were old fat–tyred ‘cruiser’ machines, affectionately referred to as ‘Klunkerz’. The first purpose–built ‘mountain’ bikes were custom–built by Joe Breeze in 1978. By 1982, mountain bikes that we would just about recognise today, like the original Specialized Stumpjumper, were appearing.

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.

Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District

This is a ‘sticky post’ so it stays at the top. Flip down to see what’s new!

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.