This page gives very brief summaries of plot, characters and key locations. For much more detail see Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District – and of course Arthur Ransome’s books themselves!
Swallows and Amazons
Initially it seems a simple story about sailing on a great lake and camping on an island, but the active imaginations of the children (especially Titty) make it all seem more adventurous. And soon there are real adventures: encounters with the mysterious ‘houseboat man’, later dubbed Captain Flint, and with another small boat – Amazon – flying a pirate flag.
Having rudely rebuffed a warning passed on by the Swallows, Captain Flint gets his just desserts when his houseboat is burgled. Meanwhile, Swallow and Amazon are both at sea in the dark, each trying to capture the others’ vessel. In the end, Titty, left alone on the island, captures Amazon. Then, anchored a little way off, she hears what later turn out to be the burglars. As a result, they are able to retrieve Captain Flint’s ‘treasure’ (actually the manuscript of the book he’s been writing) and by the end of the book they are all firm friends.
The Swallows (Walkers): John, Susan, Titty and Roger. Live in the south, holiday at Holly Howe, borrow the Swallow and adopt her name.
The Amazons (Blacketts): Nancy and Peggy. Live at Beckfoot, far up the lake.
Adults: Captain Flint, actually the Amazons’ uncle.
Mrs Walker: mother of the Swallows.
Mrs Blackett, mother of the Amazons – a minor role in Swallows and Amazons.
The main ‘point of view’ characters are John and Titty, plus Roger in the opening chapters.
The Lake: Neither its far north nor extreme south are explored in Swallows and Amazons. Beckfoot lies on the Amazon river, which flows into the lake towards the north. The central reach of the lake is marked by several islands sheltering a small town, which the children call Rio.
Wild Cat Island: lies quite close to the eastern shore, towards the south end of the lake. An important feature is its secret harbour, concealed by high rocks.
Holly Howe and Darien: the story begins on the ‘Peak of Darien’, a promontory alongside the bay below Holly Howe, from where the children look out on the lake and first see the island.
On land: there isn’t much action on land (other than Wild Cat Island) but the Swallows do explore the steep woods which climb above the lake, where they meet two old charcoal-burners, Old Billy and Young Billy.
A year on, and nothing goes to plan at the start of the holidays. The Amazons’ tyrannical Great-Aunt has descended on Beckfoot and they have few chances to get away. Then John runs Swallow onto a rock and she sinks. While she is under repair the Swallows set up camp in a hidden valley high on the moors west of the lake, discovered by Titty and Roger and dubbed Swallowdale.
With Swallow out of commission, the action is almost entirely on land. The Swallows fish for trout in a tarn on the moors and later, as the Great-Aunt’s visit nears its end, they trek across the moors to camp half-way up the great peak they call Kanchenjunga. Next morning the Amazons, free at last, join them for the assault on the summit.
After this the captains and mates set off to sail back down the lake while Titty and Roger make the return trek across the moors. Fog rolls in, they get lost, and then Roger sprains his ankle and has to spend a night in the Billies’ hut. Finally, with Swallow repaired, there’s a sailing race.
The Swallows, Amazons and associated adults as before.
The Swainsons at the farm of the same name, especially Mary, a young woman.
Although a crucial figure, the Great-Aunt is only ever seen at a distance or in reports from the Amazons.
The main ‘point of view’ characters are again John and Titty, with one section from Roger’s point of view.
Swallowdale: a little hidden valley. The location of the original (if there is one) is the subject of great debate.
The Moors: a wide expanse of moorland. See this post.
Trout Tarn: a tarn on the moors above Swallowdale, usually equated with Beacon Tarn.
The Amazon River: first seen in Swallows and Amazons, the story takes us higher up the valley and a steep tributary as it leads towards…
Kanchenjunga: a great peak with steep and sometimes rocky sides, usually identified with Coniston Old Man.
Horseshoe Cove: scene of the shipwreck.
Swainson’s Farm: farm below Swallowdale, source of milk and darning.
Dick and Dorothea have come for a short winter holiday at Dixon’s Farm. They soon meet the Swallows and Amazons and are swept into their adventures, including the building of an ‘igloo’ in the woods and skating on a small tarn. There are plans for an expedition to the ‘North Pole’ but it doesn’t look as if the lake will freeze in time.
Then Nancy contracts mumps: quarantine rules mean no-one can return to school for a month. As winter deepens and the lake begins to freeze, Captain Flint’s houseboat becomes the ‘Fram’, named for the ship in Nansen’s great Polar expedition. Sledging expeditions explore the lake and the wild country of ‘High Greenland’.
Throughout the story, various signalling systems play important roles, but a mix-up with signals means that at the end the D’s set out for the North Pole alone, sailing their sledge into the Polar night. When they are found to be missing, the rest set out on rescue expeditions and the story ends with all of them at the Pole.
Dick and Dorothea Callum (‘The D’s’)
The Swallows and Amazons as before.
Captain Flint and Mrs Blackett.
Mr & Mrs Dixon.
The story is nearly all told from Dorothea’s point of view, with short sections from Nancy’s.
The Lake: As before, but transformed by ice, and we see a little more of its northern end, though it’s reached in a blizzard.
North Pole: An old summerhouse above a bay at the very head of the lake.
High Greenland: another area of high moorland, east of the lake, above Holly Howe and Dixon’s Farm. In many ways it appears similar to the Swallowdale moors, but there are some significant crags.
Igloo, Observatory and Tarn. All lie on the fellside below High Greenland. The igloo is developed from a ruined hut in the woods, the observatory is an old barn. The tarn is small, but big enough for skating.
The houseboat (‘Fram’).
Captain Flint has been away on a fruitless hunt (the children believe) for gold, so Nancy determines to find gold close to home. The old miner Slater Bob tells them of gold found years ago on High Topps. However camping close to the Topps is impossible because of severe drought, restricting water supplies and creating the risk of fire. Instead they must camp at Tyson’s Farm and climb a steep hill to the Topps each day. They keep in touch with Mrs Blackett at Beckfoot using carrier pigeons.
To add to their worries, a mysterious stranger, ‘Squashy Hat’ also appears to be after the same thing. Fortunately, Titty discovers water by dowsing, allowing the camp to be moved to the edge of the Topps. Then Roger, sloping off alone, discovers a vein of what appears to be gold. The children set to work to extract the ore and then to smelt it into gold. During this period the younger ones become trapped in an old mine level and have to escape by going all the way through the hill.
At the climax, Dick descends to Beckfoot to perform a test on the ‘gold’ while the others, exhausted, sleep in the camp or in the mine. But fire sweeps across the tops and only the despatch of one of the pigeons brings help in time. Final twists abound as we discover whether the ore really was gold, and learn the true identity of ‘Squashy Hat’.
The Swallows, Amazons and D’s as before.
Captain Flint (at the very end).
The main ‘point of view’ characters are Dick, Titty and Roger.
High Topps: another area of broadly level moorland above the valley of the Amazon. It’s bounded on the west by a hill called Grey Screes and on the north by Ling Scar, a spur of Kanchenjunga. High Topps is generally agreed to be based on Yewdale Fells, above Coniston village and Grey Screes roughly corresponds with Wetherlam.
Golden Gulch: a small ravine on High Topps, with a cave or old working where Roger finds the gold. There are many old workings on and around Yewdale Fells.
Beckfoot: we get a much more detailed picture of the house and its outbuildings.
The upper valley of the Amazon.
Slater Bob’s Mine.
The Picts and the Martyrs
The D’s arrive at Beckfoot to stay with the Amazons, under the supervision of the cook while Mrs Blackett is away. Unfortunately the dreaded Great-Aunt hears of this and decides that Nancy and Peggy need better supervision. Nancy decides that the GA should not know that Dick and Dot were also there and bundles them off to a hut in the woods, known as the Dogs’ Home.
Here they largely have to fend for themselves, while also learning to sail their new boat Scarab. Dick is also due to help Captain Flint’s friend Timothy with tests on samples from the mine at Golden Gulch. It repeatedly seems as if the Great-Aunt must find out about them and there are several narrow escapes, none more hair-raising than when Dick, a Nancy’s instigation, ‘burgles’ Beckfoot at night to get some of Captain Flint’s things for Timothy.
Setting off to pursue her own theories about who conducted the burglary, the Great-Aunt goes missing. By an unfortunate chain of events she meets the D’s at the houseboat while an extensive search is going on on land. The D’s sail her back to Beckfoot and then manage to slip away, having avoided detection by the skin of their teeth, as she confronts her would-be rescuers.
The Amazons and D’s.
Jacky, a boy from a nearby farm.
Mary Swainson (briefly, but crucially to the plot).
Almost entirely told from Dorothea’s point of view, with brief episodes from Dick’s and Nancy’s.
The Dogs’ Home and surrounding woods. The original Dogs’ Home, recently restored, can be seen in woods above Coniston Water.
The valley of the Amazon.
The northern half of the lake.
High Topps and Golden Gulch.