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.

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.

Naming It

I’m delighted to welcome a guest contributor to this blog. Norman Hadley is a man of many parts – among other things he’s a mountain biker and one of the main men behind pedalnorth. And he is another lover of Arthur Ransome’s work. And he just happens to be a near neighbour of mine. What are the odds of two mountain biking Ransomephiles living within a few dozen pedal-strokes of each other in a small Lancashire town?
He’s also a very fine poet. Here’s an example, reproduced by very kind permission.

Naming It

A man called Ransome

showed me how it’s not enough

to teeter out to the furthest rock

in the rush of river, that you had

to name it, had

to own it,

so when you crouched

where the wagtails pirouetted

and the river splashed your sandals

you would, making sure that

noone else could hear you, whisper,

‘Finisterre,

Finisterre.’

Stepping Stones, Eskdale. Not really Ransome country, but sometimes it's the spirit that matters...

Stepping Stones, Eskdale. Not really Ransome country, but sometimes it’s the spirit that matters…

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.