Some time back I posted Dick Callum – Pioneer Mountain Biker? which referenced a passage in Pigeon Post about Dick’s wild ride downhill on a ‘dromedary’—alternatively “a girl’s bike two sizes too big for him”.
That was in 2014, before recent developments in off-road riding, especially the advent of the gravel bike. For the uninitiated, a gravel bike may superficially resemble a road bike but with space for fatter tyres and with adjustments to the setup to make it more forgiving on rougher trails. (For more see this link by my friend and colleague Chiz Dakin, or just Google ‘what is a gravel bike?’).
My partner and I acquired gravel bikes a few years ago and have had enormous fun exploring trails in the Lakes and elsewhere with them. They obviously aren’t as capable on really steep or rough trails as a genuine mountain bike (but I’d take my gravel bike over the average ‘supermarket special’ any day). Where they really shine is when you need use tarmac to link sections of trail, where a gravel bike really skims along compared to an MTB.
With years of mountain biking as well as riding various trails on cyclo-cross bikes and more recently gravel bikes, I felt I had something to contribute when I was approached by Out There Guides, an imprint of Northern Eye Books, who were branching out beyond their very successful walking books into cycling. After discussion with publisher Carl Rogers and series editor Tom Hutton, we decided to focus on what we later called “the often-overlooked gap between easy forest roads and hardcore mountain biking.”
While a modern gravel bike is ideal for these rides, they would also be possible on a range of other bikes. As I say in the book, “Any kind of mountain bike (MTB) will serve you well, though full-suspension bikes especially are heavier than gravel bikes. A good quality hybrid bike is also a possibility, but you might want to try it on one of the easier rides first.” I could also have mentioned cyclo-cross bikes and good solid old-school touring bikes, but space was tight.
Obviously there was a lot of exploring and route-checking to be done, but I already had a pretty good idea of where most of the rides were likely to be, and most of them were in or close to Ransome country. This isn’t bias on my part; geology and history have combined to create a richer network of trails in this southern quadrant of the National Park than elsewhere.
Most obviously, there’s a ride from Coniston around the Tilberthwaite area. With its extensive and fascinating old quarries, it’s rich in the atmosphere of Pigeon Post—but did Ransome have any of these trails specifically in mind when he wrote “the dromedary was jolting (Dick) 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”? Maybe, maybe not. I never felt like I was being ‘jolted almost to pieces’ on any of these trails, and I don’t think that’s all down to the superiority of modern bikes.
Another ride with a connection to AR’s life, though not obviously to the landscape of the books, takes you around the Cartmel valley. At one point it passes very close to Wall Nook, where AR stayed as a young man and from where he sometimes set out on epic walks to Coniston (and back) to call on the Collingwood family. However the real highlight of this ride is the trail along the flanks of Hampsfell before the end.
Deep in the heart of Ransome country, there’s also a ride along the west shore of Windermere and back via Hawkshead. In a much quieter corner a few miles to the west and south is the ride from Blawith over Subberthwaite Common. At one point this ride isn’t terribly far from Lowick Hall, where AR and Evgenia lived for a while, so he may have known the lanes, though by this stage in his life I’m sure he wouldn’t have been taking a dromedary over the tracks. There are steep climbs here, but on tarmac, while the off-road stuff is all pretty amenable, and takes you past some fascinating archaeological sites, both prehistoric and mediaeval.
I’d also like to mention the first volume in the ‘Great Bike Rides’ series, which has been out for some months already. This is ‘Family Cycle Rides in the Lake District’ by Alf Alderson, and does pretty much what it says on the tin. There’s partial overlap with a few of my rides but nothing to worry about. I had some editorial input into this one and provided quite a number of photos.
Either (or both!) of these books offer plenty of inspiration to explore the lake country by bike. It really is one of the best ways to see the district, and I don’t think Arthur Ransome would have had any quarrel with that.
Themes of Exploration, Independence and Freedom in the novels of Arthur Ransome
A talk presented at Kendal Mountain Festival 2015
“Bother birds,” said Roger. “Adventures are much better.”
Some moments stay with you. I clearly 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 rapidly enthralled, in a world that was at once familiar and utterly new.
I already knew the Lake District, but now I saw it in new ways. I had never sailed, or camped on an island, or hunted for pirate treasure. The landscape I knew was transformed because the children in the story did all these things, and it was transformed further through their imagination, which made the lake into an ocean, oak-woods into jungle, Coniston Old Man into a Himalayan giant.
Over the next few years I worked my way haphazardly though the other books, liked some more than others. Returning to them as an adult I found new things to admire and enjoy and – uncomfortably close to fifty years later – I can still read them with great pleasure.
Of course it’s always hard to say how any of us would have turned out if things had been otherwise. If I hadn’t read these books at an impressionable age would it really have made a significant difference? It’s unanswerable. I can only say that I’m sure that they were part – only a part, but a significant one – of instilling in me a passion for the outdoors. And it’s clear, as we’ll see very shortly, that I’m in good company.
So after a short tribute to the influence of the books, I’ll give a very brief sketch of Ransome’s life and a quick outline of the twelve novels. However, my main purpose is to attempt to untangle themes of Exploration, Independence and Freedom. I’ll consider how they resonate with modern attitudes to childhood and ask whether today’s young people get enough of this.
Influence of the books
The fact that a new film of Swallows and Amazons is being made is one indicator of enduring popularity, and may well bring a lot of new readers to the books. As I understand it, filming was completed in the summer and the film is due for release next year. Which seems to make this talk very timely, if only by coincidence – when I first proposed it right after last year’s KMF, the new film was still only a rumour.
The books have also had an acknowledged influence on many notable people. For example, Dame Ellen MacArthur:
I kicked off my sailing library at a very young age with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. Mum and Nan had both been keen readers of these books and had passed them on to me.
I loved the spirit of adventure the books brought me, and dreamed of sailing on a lake to a secret island that had long been forgotten.
Authors who’ve mentioned AR as an influence include Philip Pullman, Tom Stoppard, Chris Townsend, and Robert Macfarlane.
Literary scholar Peter Hunt said he believes the series:
…changed British literature, affected a whole generation’s view of holidays, helped to create the national image of the English Lake District and added Arthur Ransome’s name to the select list of classic British children’s authors.
Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds in 1884. A formative experience was long summer holidays, spent at Nibthwaite by the southern end of Coniston Water. He would return to the ‘lake country’ regularly throughout his life and lived in the District for several lengthy spells, including periods when he wrote many of the novels.
He abandoned college before the end of his first year year and decamped, not yet 18, to London. He worked in publishing and soon started to earn a slender living from writing. He conscientiously studied the writer’s craft, and produced critical studies of several authors; a previously unpublished study of Robert Louis Stevenson has recently come to light (a name which will crop up again).
In 1909 he married Ivy Walker. In hindsight this seems to have been ill-advised. Possibly to escape the unstable Ivy and/or the disturbance of a small baby, Ransome went to Russia in 1913, though his motives were mixed; he was also fascinated by folk tales. He learned Russian rapidly and returned in 1914, producing a guidebook to St Petersburg in six weeks. Old Peter’s Russian Tales, a retelling of Russian stories, is often seen as his first mature book. He found himself in the midst of pre-Revolutionary ferment and almost by accident became a newspaper correspondent – one of the few trusted by the Bolshevik leaders. He also became close to Trotsky’s secretary (today we might say PA), a “tall jolly girl” called Evgenia Shelepina.
in 1919 he and Evgenia moved to Estonia. For the next four years they lived there and in Latvia. Ransome took up sailing again and explored the Gulf of Finland; Racundra’s First Cruise became a yachting classic.
After divorce, and marriage to Evgenia, Ransome returned to England late in 1924. In 1925 they bought Low Ludderburn (only about 10km as the crow flies from where we are right now) and came to live in the Lakes. Regular sailing with friends and their children on Coniston can be directly linked to the setting, plot and cast of Swallows and Amazons.
For most of the rest of his life they lived at times in The Lakes and in East Anglia. The last completed children’s novel is Great Northern?, published in 1947. He died in 1967, Evgenia in 1975 and they are buried at Rusland.
The Novels and their location in the real world and the world of the imagination
There are 12 complete children’s novels, around a million words in total – impossible to summarise in a few lines. I hope the chart will help a bit. Writing and publication were spread over 18 years, but most of them (9 out of 12) fit into a fictional chronology spanning just three years, from 1930 to 1933.
Much of what happens in most of the stories is quite simple – sailing, camping, fishing, skinning a rabbit – though of course it will still seem exotic to many readers. In any case, it is frequently lifted to another level as the children’s imagination invests simple acts with other meanings. They are often inspired by earlier adventure stories or tales of exploration: in particular, there are several explicit references to Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. They also give their own names to places. A good example is the renaming of a prominent peak (based on Coniston Old Man) as Kanchenjunga.
However, two (possibly three) of the twelve books are in a different mode, what academics call metafiction. To try and put this in plain English, even the protagonists of the stories – the Swallows, Amazons and their friends – would themselves recognise these as fiction. In fact we are told this explicitly in the case of Peter Duck, though we have to read Swallowdale to find out: “Peter Duck… had been the most important character in the story they had made up during those winter evenings in the cabin of the wherry with Nancy and Peggy and Captain Flint.”
Peter Duck is clearly a fantasy, partly inspired by Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson again), but drawing heavily for its locational detail on E F Knight’s The Cruise of the Alerte. This influence isn’t explicitly acknowledged, although in The Picts and the Martyrs Dick makes much use of Knight’s handbook on Sailing. The themes of treasure-hunting and piracy crop up elsewhere in the stories, but here – within the context of the metafiction – they become ‘real’ and very serious, with gunfire directed at the children more than once.
The other unambiguous metafiction is Missee Lee, set somewhere in the South China Sea. It’s even more exotic than Peter Duck, and Missee Lee herself, the female pirate who yearns for classical studies at Cambridge, is a highly original character.
A more ambiguous case is Great Northern?, the last of the 12 completed books. Its setting in the Outer Hebrides is less exotic and there is nothing blatantly fantastical about the story (Great Northern Divers were not known to nest in Britain at the time of writing, but they have been recorded since). However, it doesn’t fit tidily into Ransome’s clear chronology for the rest of the stories.
The children, especially the Swallows, often see themselves as explorers. This is particularly evident in the first four Lake District books, and also in Secret Water. At this point it’s worth highlighting a major difference between the Lake District books and the East Anglian ones. In the ‘lake country’ novels, Ransome creates a landscape which does not correspond to the real geography of the Lake District. Lots of people have investigated the correspondences – I’ve done so myself at some length – and Ransome did leave a number of clues, so it’s pretty clear that the lake in the stories is a hybrid of Windermere and Coniston Water, while the surrounding country mostly looks like the fells and moors around Coniston – but everything is jumbled up and rearranged, and almost every place and feature is referred to by names which the children have either invented or borrowed from other stories. The lake is simply ‘the lake’ but then we have Wild Cat Island, Rio, the Amazon River, Kanchenjunga, and so on. What might be genuine local names, like Holly Howe and Beckfoot, are limited – especially in Swallows and Amazons – to a few houses and farms, though you won’t find any of them in the ‘right’ place on OS maps.
In the East Anglian novels, on the other hand, the locations are taken directly from reality and real names are used extensively. Coot Club and The Big Six are set on the Norfolk Broads and give detailed descriptions of many real locations – Horning, Ranworth, Potter Heigham and so on. The partial exception is Secret Water, where – once they arrive at the ‘Secret Water’ itself, real names are quietly erased. However, it’s closely based on Hamford Water, near Walton-on-the-Naze in Suffolk (and, in a nice reversal, this is now sometimes referred to as Secret Water).
There are several possible explanations for this distinction. One, I think, is the contrasting place of the Lake District and East Anglia in Ransome’s own life and psychology. He knew the Lake District from a very early age – he records, for instance, that he was carried “to the top of Coniston Old Man at such an early age that I think no younger human being can ever have been there.”
It’s very clear from the Autobiography that the regular holidays at Nibthwaite were hugely important to the young Arthur and sowed the seeds of a lifelong love-affair with the Lakes. At times the Lake District in the stories is not really the Lake District of the early 1930s but that of the 1890s and 1900s, both in specific detail but also in the sense that it is so vividly seen, as if through the eyes of a child and an impressionable young man.
In both temporal and spatial terms, then, the landscape of the lake country novels is a landscape of the imagination. In an Author’s Note to later editions of Swallows and Amazons, Ransome wrote. ‘No matter where I was, wandering about the world, I used at night to look for the North Star and, in my mind’s eye, could see the beloved skyline of great hills beneath it.’
East Anglia, on the other hand, is a region which Ransome only came to know as an adult, no doubt guided from the start by railway timetable, road-atlas or sailing chart. He came to know it well, and to love it, but the roots of the relationship are different. It’s also worth mentioning that for those youngsters who appear only in the Norfolk Broads books (Tom Dudgeon, the Farland twins and the ‘Death and Glories’), the area is home and they are deeply embedded there. The Lake District is home only to the Amazons; for the Swallows and the D’s, it’s discovered on holidays.
In any case, exploration is a strong theme from the start in Swallows and Amazons. In fact, the book opens with a quote from Keats’s sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer:
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The ‘Peak of Darien’ thus becomes the first exotic name to be applied to a part of the lake country landscape:
“Where are the others?” asked mother.
“In Darien,’ said Roger.
“On the peak, you know. Titty called it that. We can see the island from there.”
Ironically, Keats was almost certainly mistaken in using Cortez to exemplify Europeans seeing the Pacific’s eastern shores for the first time. Cortez probably never saw the Pacific at all and it’s much more likely that Keats should have used the name Balboa. But it hardly matters. What counts is the striking image of the party coming unexpectedly upon a view of a vast ocean and gazing at each other with a wild surmise.
The story begins some days after the children first see the lake and the island, but they have been waiting for permission from their absent father to set sail. “..with a lake as big as a small sea, a 14ft dinghy with a brown sail waiting in the boathouse, and the little wooded island waiting for explorers, nothing but a sailing voyage of discovery seemed worth thinking about.”
The answer comes in the form of a cryptic telegram – possibly one of the most famous telegrams in all fiction. (Although even the concept of the telegram itself now has to be explained to younger readers.) “Better drowned than duffers if not duffers wont drown.”
“And now, suddenly, it was real. It was to be their island after all… The news was so good that it made them solemn. They ate their bread and marmalade in silence. The prospect before them was too vast for chatter.”
Exploration in Swallows and Amazons is mostly limited to the lake itself, and even then they never reach either of its extremities. However, it’s a good-sized lake for four young children in a small wooden dinghy. Ransome is pretty sparing with specific details of size and distance but scatters a few clues. Together with the maps in the various books, these suggest that it is around the same length as the real Windermere – 17km or 10 1/2 miles. There is some variation in the shape and proportions of the lake on the different maps, but it always looks wider than Windermere; it looks as if the area of the fictional lake is at least equal to Windermere and Coniston Water combined. “A lake as big as a small sea” indeed.
Serious exploration is somewhat derailed once the Swallows meet the Amazons. Both crews, of course, take these names from their respective boats. The name Swallow does hark back to a real boat in which Ransome learned to sail, but the choice of the name Amazon is less clearly explained, and does raise some interesting questions – to which I will return later. However, near the end, they return to their roles as explorers:
“There’s one thing we must do now,” said John, “And that’s make our chart. The Amazons will be there tomorrow and they’ve got their own names for everywhere. We must make our chart today.”
He then copies the outline of the lake from a guidebook map onto a double page of a big exercise-book and they spend time marking it up, but using their own names for most of the features. There’s more filling in of the blanks in Swallowdale, and Ransome returns to this theme with a vengeance in SecretWater, where the Swallows are given by their father the task of filling in the map of the complex, tidal, islands, creeks and channels. This is quite serious mapping, involving bearings and measurement.
Blank on the Map is of course a famous and resonant title. I guess most of us would associate it with Eric Shipton, though Wikipedia reminded me that it was also used for a TV documentary by David Attenborough in 1971.
Explicit themes of exploration are much less evident in some of the other books, such as CootClub and The Big Six. In We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, too, the drama is very real and needs no embellishment by the children’s imaginations. PeterDuck and MisseeLee have exotic settings but other preoccupations take precedence over exploring.
The theme of exploration is arguably at its strongest in Winter Holiday. Bearing in mind that it was published in 1933 (and set in the early weeks of 1932), it may seem odd that there is never a mention of Scott, Shackleton, or the greatest of them all, Amundsen, who reached the South Pole little more than 20 years earlier, in December 1911.
Instead, Ransome’s model is the great Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen. This is fairly logical because the story centres on a journey to the ‘North Pole’, and because Captain Flint’s houseboat can play the part of Nansen’s legendary ship, the Fram – also used, incidentally, by Amundsen’s successful South Pole expedition. There’s a more personal connection, too, as Arthur Ransome met Nansen on more than one occasion and described him as ‘a hero since my childhood’.
These meetings occurred in 1921, when Ransome was living in Rīga in Latvia. At the time Nansen was engaged in humanitarian work, concerned with the repatriation of prisoners of war and then with wider refugee issues (very resonant today!), for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. Ransome called him ‘the most civilised person of his generation’. It’s little wonder, then, that ten years later Ransome was keen to honour Nansen in one of his novels.
Winter Holiday does not mention Nansen’s humanitarian work, but explicitly references his earlier career as an explorer, mentioning his two classic books, The First Crossing of Greenland (first published 1890) and Farthest North (1897). Remember, Ransome was born in 1884. Again we see a certain harking back to the Victorian age.
The First Crossing of Greenland describes a pioneering venture in every sense, taking the use of skis to a new level, developing other equipment such as lightweight sledges, and displaying an almost unprecedented willingness to learn from the indigenous people of the Arctic. Several aspects of this approach are emulated by the children in Winter Holiday.
Farthest North describes how Nansen deliberately planned for the Fram to be frozen in the Polar ice and to be carried northward by the drifting of the pack. Eventually Nansen, with Hjalmar Johansen, left the Fram to make a lightweight 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 would be over a year before they encountered another human being.
This is the background to the exploits of the eight children in WinterHoliday. As the lake freezes, they colonise the houseboat and turn it into the Fram. They make their own hats and mittens (admittedly not from reindeer hide) and experiment with sailing sledges. In one of the most specific homages to Nansen, before the lake freezes, one of Nancy’s messages urges the others to ‘cross Greenland’.
‘I know where she means,’ said Peggy. ‘It’s the country on the fells above the tarn. It’s as wild as wild.’
It all culminates in an exciting dash in darkness to the ‘North Pole’. Carefully-laid plans crumble when a signal is misread and instead of an orderly and united daytime journey, it all ends up with three separate parties making their own nighttime journeys.
At Kendal Mountain Festival, I can hardly fail to mention the mountain aspects, though Ransome – despite his early ascent of Coniston Old Man – was not a mountaineer. This is fairly evident when we look at the ascent of Kanchenjunga recounted in Swallowdale.
There’s plenty of evidence to show that Ransome based the fictional Kanchenjunga on Coniston Old Man, which is so prominent from almost anywhere on the waters of Coniston, or the moors which flank its southern end.
We might wonder why Titty chooses the name Kanchenjunga rather than Everest. At the time of writing, and when the stories are set, the great early attempts on Everest, which of course culminated in the loss of Mallory and Irvine in 1924, were fresh in the memory. But then, Kanchenjunga was also extremely well-known – probably, in relative terms, much more so than today. Search Amazon for books with Everest in the title and you get over 3000 hits. Search for Kangchenjunga and you get 78.
Unlike Everest and K2, Kanchenjunga is highly visible from relatively populous areas, notably from Darjeeling. It had seen a strong German attempt in 1928 and an international team including Frank Smythe attempted it in 1930. Despite their lack of success, Smythe’s book The Kangchenjunga Adventure was widely read and did much to establish his reputation. It was one of very few books in my own grandparents home. This may explain the choice of the name, or it might just be that – as John says – ‘Kanchenjunga’s a gorgeous name anyhow.’
As so often, Nancy takes charge for the ascent of Kanchenjunga, but she seems to have only a vague notion of rope-work in climbing.
This dubious method is tested when Roger falls:
The rope tautened with a jerk and pulled Titty half back over the edge. Susan and even Nancy herself were almost jerked off their feet on the grassy slope above the rock. It was lucky that they had moved back from the edge and had the rope almost stretched between them.
I suspect Nancy’s lack of expertise in climbing technique mirrors that of Ransome himself. There’s also an episode in Winter Holiday, during the crossing of Greenland, where Dick rescues a cragfast sheep by traversing a narrow, icy ledge, secured only by the rope in the hands of Titty, Roger and Dot.
‘Lower away,’ said Titty, in command on the top of the cliff. With their feet well dug into the snow, they let the rope go slowly down, hand over hand.
The word ‘belay’ occurs several times in the books, but in its maritime sense. There’s no indication that Ransome knew anything of its application in climbing.
The Great Outdoors
Hand in hand with the theme of exploration is the simple fact that the children in the stories spend most of their time out of doors. In WinterHoliday, Nancy explicitly links the outdoors with freedom and adventure: ‘dark at teatime and sleeping indoors: nothing ever happens in the winter holidays.’
Swallows and Amazons is almost entirely an outdoor book. There are a few pages of indoor preparations in Chapter 2, but thereafter, apart from the cabin of the houseboat, there are only the briefest of visits to the indoor world. In Swallowdale, the shipwreck scuppers plans to camp once more on Wild Cat Island, so one of the main priorities for the Swallows is to find an alternative campsite on the mainland. The very last words of the book are, ‘Isn’t it a blessing to get home?’ – the home in question being not a house but Wild Cat Island.
There is also a strong sense of the Amazons’ frustration in being cooped up indoors during the visit of the Great Aunt. Similar frustration is manifest in Pigeon Post, when the children are initially required, by lack of water, to camp at Tyson’s Farm:
(Mrs Tyson) rattled on, friendly and kind, making them at home. And with every word she said their spirits sank deeper and deeper.
To be camped within hearing of the house and its natives, no matter how friendly… To draw water from the farm pump instead of dipping it from lake or neck… To have the tents not in a wood, or on the fell, or even in an ordinary field, but in an orchard, with apple and damson trees in their neat rows (…) Dick and Dorothea, perhaps, felt nothing of this, because, poor things, they hardly knew what camping was.
‘Camping’ here clearly means what today we would call wild camping. It might be interesting to explore when that distinction first came into common use. And we might speculate what they would make of ‘glamping’…
In several other of the books – Peter Duck, We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea and Great Northern? – almost the only ‘indoor’ setting of any significance is below decks on a sailing vessel, and in both CootClub and TheBigSix much more time is spent on boats than in houses.
Many of us who are over a certain age tend to think that we played outdoors as kids much more, and more freely, than today’s youngsters do. And there’s plenty of solid research that says we aren’t just imagining it. Famously, the American writer Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods identified ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, and directly linked it to many issues such as childhood obesity. Recently, a Position Statement developed by a group of Canadian experts representing 14 organisations opened with this sentence:
Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development.
Here in the UK, the National Trust has published a report, Natural Childhood, written by Stephen Moss. This is full of what most of us here would surely consider to be alarming statistics – for instance, Fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places, compared to almost half a generation ago.
The report links this decline to serious issues in not only physical but mental health among today’s children. A UNICEF report in 2007 placed the UK bottom of 21 industrialised countries (17 EU nations plus USA, Canada, Norway and Switzerland) for childhood well-being.
The National Trust report also quotes eminent child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron: The less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with the risks and challenges they will go on to face as adults… Nothing can replace what children gain from the freedom and independence of thought they have when trying new things out in the open.
Another concerning statistic:
Everybody active, every day An evidence-based approach to physical activity Public Health England, Oct 2014
I suspect that few in this audience would dissent from these conclusions; the question of course, is how we address the issue. And surely the continuing appetite for Ransome’s books suggest that many of today’s children feel the pull of the outdoors even if they are deprived of opportunities to realise it. Certainly the Swallows, Amazons and the rest face their share of ‘risks and challenges’, and display plenty of ‘freedom and independence of thought’.
This seems to be a suitable moment to acknowledge that Ransome’s books are sometimes criticised for being ‘middle-class’, or because the children are ‘privileged’. You can argue the point, of course. The Swallows borrow the boat they sail, but the Amazons, and later the D’s, have their own. Even today, owning your own sailing dinghy isn’t exactly commonplace.
On the other hand, they don’t have computers or mobile phones, getting a penknife or a torch as a birthday present is a big deal, and most of their camping gear now looks primitive in the extreme. The Swallows’ tents are made by their mother, they leak when it rains, and the children sleep on sacks stuffed with straw. They gather their own firewood to boil water and cook: no fancy Jetboil stoves here. It strikes me that what really distances them from most of today’s kids is not their level of social privilege or material wealth, but their level of freedom and their unfettered access to the outdoors.
The books are also full of close, precise and engaging observations of nature, especially birds: from dippers and cormorants in Swallows and Amazons to the Coots and Great Northern Divers which give their names to two of the later books.
This is allied to a strong undercurrent of what we would now call environmentalism. This is most obvious in CootClub and Great Northern?, both of which have a central theme of bird protection. In Great Northern?, the villain is an egg-collector. Egg-collecting wasn’t illegal at the time – it was only outlawed for most species by the Protection of Birds Act 1954, seven years after the publication of Great Northern? One wonders whether the book contributed in some small way to the debate and shift in public opinion which led to this legislation.
In both CootClub and Great Northern?, the villains drive motor-boats while the heroes sail. There are various other unflattering references to motor-boats, especially fast ones, though in some of the later books Roger is allowed to become interested in engines. We also regularly that see the children are concerned to tidy up their campsites and fireplaces and dispose of any litter, although sometimes in ways we wouldn’t entirely approve today.
In a recent essay for The Guardian, Robert Macfarlane quotes a list of ‘nature’ words which have apparently been expunged from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to make room for new ones and because they are “no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood.”
I wondered how many of these are mentioned in Arthur Ransome’s novels. I haven’t quite got time to check on all of them… Most of the novels are set in summer so mentions of, say, bluebells, aren’t likely. Nor do I recall mistletoe cropping up in Winter Holiday. But here are a few which definitely do occur. For example:
I might think it’s sad if fewer of today’s children are reading Ransome, but if words like these aren’t ‘relevant’ it rather suggests that there’s a more serious issue, i.e. that other authors aren’t filling the gap and helping to give children a rich, realistic and detailed acquaintance with the natural world.
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
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
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!).
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Many thanks to Jonathan Westaway for pilot/navigator/rescue services and to Julia for lending me her kayak.
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 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
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
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
‘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)
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 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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
This is a ‘sticky post’ so it stays at the top. Flip down to see what’s new!
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).
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.