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.

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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.