Category Archives: Sophie Neville

‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’ along with a letter from Mrs Ransome herself

Members of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook have alerted me to the fact that ‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’ is currently available for viewing on BBCiPlayer.

Griff Rhys Jones

This beautifully made documentary, presented by Griff Rhys Jones, examines Ransome’s life as a war correspondent in Russia from 1913 to 1919 when he was so close to the action, in dialogue both Lenin and Leon Trotsky, that the question has been raised as to whether he was a British spy.

Hugh Brogan, Ransome’s biographer explains that he’d originally ran off to Russia to escape from his melodramatic wife, Ivy Walker in 1913. After using his time to record Russian fairy stories, that can still be read today in his book, ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales‘, he was employed by a national British newspaper to report on events leading up to the Russian Revolution. Black and white archive footage, along with photographs Ransome took himself, illustrate this well.

The BBC’s erstwhile political correspondent John Sergeant, explains the significance of certain survival strategies Ransome used, such as using ‘his practical skill to outwit people’, over extracts from the feature filmSwallows & Amazons, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973.

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West, 1974

The scenes from the movie also show how the story Ransome wrote when back in the Lake District, was in many ways an outworking of feelings accumulated while he was working in Russia. By being away and concentrating on his writing, he neglected his daughter just as Uncle Jim was not around for the Blackett girls.

Captian Frlint with Nancy and Peggy

In the dramatised documentary, the beautiful actress Alina Karmazina plays Evgenia, the girl Ransome fell in love with while he was filing reports from Petrograd.  They later escaped over the border, trading her copper kettle for freedom of passage.

If the BBC had contacted Richard Pilbrow he would have been able to send them this letter. It was written to Neville Thompson, the online producer of the film, by Evgenia, who had become the second Mrs Ransome. It has never been published before. She gives the address as her retirement home near Banbury but it shows what kind of girl she was:

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Page two:

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When Mrs Ransome saw the finished film in 1974, her only comment was that the kettle was of the wrong period.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker camping on Peel Island, Conioston Water in Cumbria

Was Susan a portrayal of Evgenia? Here she is played by Suzanna Hamilton.

The story of the Ransome’s escape from Russian has been told by Hugh Lupton, Arthur Ransome’s great nephew, who gave us a rendition recently at The Arthur Ransome Society meeting near Bungay. It can be listened to on CD, available on CD from Burning Shed.

The Homing Stone by Hugh Lupton

The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome can be watched on BBC iPlayer

by clicking on the photo here

Griff Rhys Jones - BBC

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Filed under 1973, adventure, Arthur Ransome, Biography, British Film, Family Film, Film History, Lake District, Letters, Memoir, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, Travel, truelife story, Vintage Film

Why is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ so inspirational?

'John, Titty & Susan on the Swallow' by Fadi Mikhail

‘John, Titty & Susan on the Swallow’ by Fadi Mikhail

As you can see from these paintings, Fadi Mikhail, the artist famous in the UK for painting one of our Christmas stamps and being commissioned by the Prince of Wales, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was certainly inspired by the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in 1973. He has kindly let me publish this remarkable series of paintings.

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‘Look out! Another boat’ by Fadi Mikhail

Since my last post, comments have flooded in as to why the simple story is so popular:

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‘John and Susan coming about’ by Fadi Mikhail

‘…the Swallows don’t own ‘Swallow’ – they’re having a farmhouse holiday and the boat belongs to the farm, and that could just have happened to any of us. Norman Willis… used to rise up against critics who considered that children from poorer backgrounds should read books full of gritty reality related to their daily lives: he pointed out that they wanted to escape from their daily lives for a few precious hours, not always into a zone of dragons and princesses but into an alternative realistic world.’ Jill Goulder of The Arthur Ransome Society.

'The Swallows in the boat' by Fadi Mikhail

‘The Swallows in the boat’ by Fadi Mikhail

‘What I liked most about these stories was that the Swallows and Amazons and their friends behaved like real children, but lived in a completely different world from the one I inhabited. I’d camped with the Girl Guides, but the Swallows and Amazons had astounding freedom – camping alone on an island, going out at night and sailing wherever they liked without needing to ask permission.’ Emily Lock ‘…the books gripped my imagination forever’. Please click here to read Emily Lock’s full review.

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Titty and John eating apples by Fadi Mikhail

Christopher Tuft thought the enduring success is, ‘Because it’s a wonderful adventure story, with well rounded characters, played out in a beautiful setting, reminding us of a time now gone.’

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‘The Swallows in the wood’ by Faid Milhail

‘The combination of practical realism – everything that happens could happen – and the child’s viewpoint makes the story and it’s sister volumes almost unique even now,’ Andrew Craig-Bennett of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook.

'John and Susan hoisting the sail'by Fadi Mikhail

‘John and Susan hoisting the sail’ by Fadi Mikhail

The whole series of books clearly have a worldwide following popular from one generation to another. ‘I don’t find this surprising. I got my first Arthur Ransome book (Swallowdale) as a present, in 1948. At the time it was a copper-bottomed dead cert as a present for any child, couldn’t be criticised, known to be virtuous, and incidentally known to be good. All that is still true and has been for decades. I don’t think it could fail to be up there. Children may now prefer Star Wars, Lego books or Minecraft (my grandsons certainly do), but books are still *bought* by adults.’ Peter Ceresole Roger-In-The-Boat ‘The book has lasting appeal, particularly for children, because there is nothing in the adventures of the Swallows and Amazons that readers feel they could not do themselves. They felt they could sail a dinghy like the Swallows. I know, because when adults came aboard Ransome’s restored boat Nancy Blackett in recent years, many had tears in their eyes and said: ‘I learned to sail from the books; and Arthur Ransome was the biggest influence on my life.’ The story is not like so many others an unachievable fantasy. This must stem in part from the fact that the characters are based on real children and on Ransome’s observation of those real children. The quality of the plotting is superb. Ransome was utterly clear about the stories he wrote, sometime writing chapters in the middle of the book before writing earlier ones. His prose is spare and simple and very easy to read, and bears comparison with the writing of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels — another writer with appeal to both children and adults.’ Michael Rines Do add your own thoughts in the Comments below.

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‘The Swallows chasing the Amazons’ by Fadi Mikhail

Hugh Shelley wrote, in his Bodely Head Monograph of Arthur Ransome, that it is the joy with which the story is written that makes Swallows and Amazons a great book. In many ways it is a reflection of Arthur Ransome’s own childhood holidays with his brother and sisters on Coniston Water. And even today, children can discover the places mentioned for themselves. Holly, aged six, wrote to me recently saying, ‘My Mummy and Daddy took me to Wild Cat Island. It was my favorite day… When I am bigger I want to be like Titty.’

Roger-Ties-The-Swallow-Down

‘Roger ties the Swallow down’ by Fadi Mikhail

While ‘nearly all enduring books do so because of the writing,’ as another reader commented, children enjoy the camaraderie and the action that have been captured in these semi-abstract oils.

'Titty and John at Camp' by Fadi Mikhail

‘Titty and John at Camp’ by Fadi Mikhail

Some of these paintings have already sold, some are available from the Lawson Gallery in Cambridge, some from Gallery Rouge in St Albans, at Highgate Contemporary Art, the Aubrey Gallery in Great Dunmow and direct from Fadi Mikhail, the artist himself. You can see more here.

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‘John, Susan and Roger waving to Titty’ 60x50cms  by Fadi Mikhail depicting Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Simon West and Sten Grendon in a scene from ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

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Filed under 1973, adventure, Arthur Ransome, Bestseller, British Film, Cinema, Cumbria, Duchess of Cambridge, Family Film, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Lake District, Movie, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, Vintage Film

Why is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ still a bestseller?

An orange flag has been labelling the Vintage paperback edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ as a #1 Best Seller in the Amazon UK sales category ‘Sports for Young Adults’ this month and was also #1 in Children’s Sport Books.  Not bad for a book written 86 years ago.

On Friday 22nd of May, I was asked to give a talk at the International Annual General Meeting of The Arthur Ransome Society, when I was able to ask learned members, ‘What has made it such an enduring success?’

Is it that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ set in the Lake District where so many of us long to spend our holidays?

Or that we can buy a set of wooden postcards depicting Ransome’s inspirational illustrations?

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Is is because the stories are driven by the characters of the children themselves, as Jill Goulder has observed, and that adults are relegated to native status, featured as little as is possible? Do children relish the idea of independence and being in control of all they do, as John and Nancy seem to be? Is it that dressing up as pirates is cool?

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Swallows and Amazons is about the importance of listening to children. It’s about integrity. Do we love the fact that Titty, the lowly able-seaman comes out as the unexpected hero? It was after all a brave thing to capture the Amazon at night and perhaps even braver to return to Cormorant Island with Roger to look for the treasure no one believed was there.

Could it be because the story is about sailing, instructional on how to handle a simple dinghy? Claude Whatham, who directed the movie, recognised Ransome’s skill in describing how to make a camp was of huge appeal to children.Do we like to learn without the indignity of being taught?

Arthur Ransome’s style of writing is certainly vivid, drawing you into the world he created having been inspired by reading ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ‘Treasure Island’ and exotic tales himself. Martin Smith, whose comments on this strand have been endlessly interesting, has observed that there is something of ‘The Tempest’ by Shakespeare in the adventures set on Wild Cat Island.

Ransome was able to draw on years of experience as a writer before he launched the Swallows & Amazons series and this shines through. Since really only six children and two adults appear in his first book we get to know them well and are ready to welcome others such as Dick and Dorothea when they come along in Winter Holiday.

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Is it because, ‘nothing happens in the books that couldn’t really have happened’, as Caroline Lawrence wrote recently in The Outlaw, a magazine written for children who readily identify with the characters. You can certainly enjoy looking for Ransome’s locations yourself. Those who do so are almost certain to buy the books for their own offspring.

Adults read the books, saying they bring great solace, evoking nostalgic memories and taking them back to a carefree childhood when summer days were spent devising camps and imaginary sailing adventures. Perhaps the traditional values act as an anchor in our stormy lives.

Are there other reasons? Do add ideas to the comments box below.

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Despatches?

One thing is for certain. While many of the forty-two books Arthur Ransome wrote are now seen as obscure, his series of twelve ‘Swallows and Amazons’ novels line the shelves of almost every bookshop in Britain and are ever popular overseas. The Arthur Ransome Society has a thriving membership, enabling families to live the adventures for themselves . You can find out about joining yourself by clicking here.

Hopefully the film of ‘Swallow & Amazons’, made in 1973 and yet repeated on television so many times, helped to keep the flags flying. It too has been labelled as ‘a timeless classic’ and ‘an enduring success’. StudioCanal have recently released a 40th Anniversary DVD with footage so beautifully restored that if it wasn’t for the extras package you might think it had been shot last summer. I have just found the original, official trailer made for the film in 1974. The commentary is so dated it’s hilarious, but the film itself seems fresh. Why is this?

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Filed under 1973, adventure, Arthur Ransome, Bestseller, British Film, Cinema, Cumbria, Family Film, Lake District, Movie, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, Vintage Film

Recent comments about ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

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‘The 1974 Swallows and Amazons film is a classic, and this is a really enjoyable look behind the scenes, written by the actress who (for me, at least) gave the stand-out performance as Titty Walker. If the film recaptured the lost world of 1929, then the book recaptures the lost world of 1973, when rules on child actors were strict (chaperones and schoolwork absolute requirements) but regulations on health and safety a bit more lax, even when on water. We even learn the truth behind that strange scene on the jetty in Rio where Roger is left minding Swallow. Highly recommended.’ P. Stevens, Bath, UK

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‘Every now and again in cinematic history a classic is born. It doesn’t have to be a multi-billion pound blockbuster featuring legendary names, sometimes something timeless and endlessly endearing is born and this is most definitely the case with ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

‘This film has become an old friend to me; I must have watched it a thousand times and I never tire of it! It brings back memories of a summer childhood spent in wonder-filled Cumbria, in particular Windermere, Ambleside, Derwent and Coniston Water; places we’d visit as a family before the fates would, sadly intervene.

‘Sophie Neville’s excellent book recaptures again the halcyon days of youth in a summer-land of mountains, fells and shimmering lakes. She writes beautifully and with an easy style that’s a joy to read. The love for her subject is very evident, as is her passion for the work of Arthur Ransome. She takes you behind the scenes of the making of the film and the realities of filming on the water; how the director and crew worked tirelessly to bring out the best in the young actors and the splendours of the landscape. So glad I made this purchase. Pride of place on the old bookshelf.’ Allen Fairhurst

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‘Sophie has lost none of her infectious enthusiasm and this shines through on every page.’  Julian Lovelock in Mixed Moss, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society.  ‘As well as using her own diary Sophie has mined the recollections and scrapbooks of a number of cast and crew.’

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‘The book itself is indeed a delight. I have long been a fan of Swallows and Amazons. I am delighted with the film which was made and Sophie’s account of the making of it adds a very charming and interesting dimension. I loved the account and I fully recommend any fan of Swallows and Amazons to get a copy for themselves.’

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Filed under 1973, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, British Film, Claude Whatham, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Vintage Film, Zanna Hamilton

Changes to the original screenplay of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

One of the questions asked by fans of the film Swallows & Amazons, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973, is whether any of the scenes  written by David Wood ever hit the cutting-room floor. Looking back through the original screenplay I can see that the answer is, not many.

The shots of finding Swallow in the boatshed, bringing her out and raising her flag were moved forward, under the Voice Over of the Walker children reading out the letters to their father. Claude Whatham at the Boathouse with Simon West and Sophie Neville

Simon West talking to director Claude Whatham with Sophie Neville

There is a scene in the book set at Holly Howe when medical supplies are being packed for the voyage. This was shot with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water, but must have slowed down the pace of the film as it was replaced by a montage of shots, which are much more exciting. Virginia McKenna and Sophie Neville

Virginia McKenna as Mother with Sophie Neville as Titty making Swallow’s flag

Making patterans on the way to the charcoal burners, was a lovely scene from the book that was recorded but never included in the film.  Captain John can been seen explaining how gypsies use them as secret markers in this black and white still from the film. It was shot on a mossy bank in oak woodland so very characteristic of the Lake District. BW The Swallows make Patterans It was at this dramatic location, high above Derwentwater that this behind-the-scenes shot of the director, Claude Whatham was taken. You can see Cat Bells in the background. Claude Whatham and his cast of Swallows

Claude Whatham talking to his cast: Sten Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville & Suzanna Hamilton

Mrs Ransome, who worked closely with the screenwriter agreed that the storm scene on Wild Cat Island would not to be included in the screenplay, which we all thought a great pity as children.  Such a violent gale blew in one day when we were filming on Peel Island that we would have had the right weather conditions, but you can not include everything. Jane Grendon, whose son Sten played Roger wrote to tell  me that before filming began, ‘…one of the very first things we were asked was, ‘can Sten swim?” ‘I know he could doggy paddle,’ she continued. ‘ Neville (Thompson, the online Producer) organised swimming lessons at Pitville Pool, Cheltenham which included jumping off the diving boards.  At the time I didn’t know why and I don’t think Sten is a natural in the water and the swimming lessons didn’t prove very successful.  Claude (Whatham) told me – at the end of filming I think, when he gave me a copy of he original script – these lessons were because in the original script Roger was to jump in the water after Uncle Jim walked the plank.’ Jane sent me a copy of the page in question. I had not seen it before: A page of David Wood's original screenplay: 'Swallow & Amazons' (1974) It was a page of the script we never had the time or enough fine weather to shoot. I am so glad.

Readers often ask if any scenes involving the Amazons were cut, but none were left out. Nancy and Peggy simply do not appear in the book as much as one might remember. Amazon Boathouse

Please leave any questions about the making of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in the comments below.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Film production, Filmaking, Lake District, Landscape Photographs, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Zanna Hamilton

Sophie in Suffolk ~

11015906_10202996212506899_2127206965502510144_nQ&A with Sophie Neville at the Riverside Cinema ~ photo: Claudia Myatt

The screening of Swallows & Amazons on Sunday was sold out. 250 tickets. They were endlessly turning people away. ‘We should have shown it again in the 6.00pm slot,’ I told the manager. ‘Oh, we have American Snipper on then.’ It stars Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. ‘How many have booked to see it?’ ‘Three.’

Cromer Crab

Delicious lunch served at the Riverside Restaurant 

~ photo: Pandora Doyle ~

All age groups were represented in the audience who came to the event – a fundraiser in aid of the Nancy Blackett Trust. About 70% had seen the film of Swallows & Amazons before. Some knew it well.

Swallow, the clinker built dinghy, originally built by William King and Sons at Burnham-on-Crouch and used in the 1974 film, was rigged up outside the cinema for everyone to meet. She is going to be at a number of The Arthur Ransome Society’s events in Suffolk and Essex this summer. We used the best photo of Swallow under sail for the cover of the paperback on how the film was made, which was on display in the cinema lobby after the film. It is now available online or from the Aldebrugh Bookshop in Suffolk.

The Making of SWALLOWS & AMAZONS

Someone asked if we had any disasters while making the film.

Swallow’s mast broke, we nearly sailed under the Windermere steamer and we were often rained off,’ but I couldn’t think of anything utterly disastrous from my perspective. I’ll have to ask Richard Pilbrow who produced the film back in 1973. I can list other questions asked by the audience in the next post. Do add any you might have to the comments box below.

The Riverside Cinema in Woodbridge are thinking of showing Swallows & Amazons again in September to help them celebrate their centenary ~ ‘100 Years of Film’. Do add a comment in the box below if you would like to organise a screening of the film at a cinema near you.

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Filed under 1973, Arthur Ransome, British Film, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Dinghy sailing, Family Film, Film, Film History, Movie, Movie disasters, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Vintage Film

Lucy Batty of Bank Ground Farm

Virginia McKenna and Lucy Batty

at Bank Ground Farmhouse, 15th May 1973

We were sad to hear that Lucy Batty has passed away. She was 87. Our thoughts are with her family. She will be fondly remembered by visitors from all over the world who were made so welcome at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District, which she ran as a guest house for many years. It was also used as a film location, becoming known as ‘Holly Howe’ in Richard Pilbrow’s movie, Swallows & Amazons.

Bankground Farm

Bank Ground Farm in the Lake District

I first met Mrs Batty when we filmed in her home back in 1973 and returned to stay with her in 2003 when the BBC asked Suzanna Hamilton and myself if we would appear in Countryfile, which they were filming at Bank Ground Farm with Ben Fogle. It was then that she had time to show me her photo albums. What a life she led! She was very proud of having brought up seven children on the farm, “Two of my own and five that came with my husband,” she explained. “Getting them all off to school in the mornings was such hard work that my in-laws came to help on my first day.They all wanted bread and dripping for breakfast, with sugar sprinkled on top.”

Sophie Neville with Lucy Batty at Bank Ground Farm, Westmorland in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

~ Sophie Neville with Lucy Batty  in 1973~

“A magistrate once asked me what running a B&B entailed. ‘It’s much like looking after cattle,’ I told him. ‘You bring ‘um in, feed ‘um, see they’re bedded down, turn ’em out and muck’um out.’ He flung back his head and roared with laughter.”

She had a great sense of humour. I have a cutting from an article in The News written by Brenda Colton and published on 25th May 1973. It reads:

‘When Mrs Lucy Batty was asked if her house could be used for the setting of the film Swallows and Amazons, with guest star Virginia McKenna, she was delighted. After all, her home, Bank Ground Farm on the east side of Coniston Water, near Brantwood, was the setting chosen by Arthur Ransome for his children’s book Swallows and Amazons.

Mrs Batty thought it a good idea that the story should be filmed in an authentic location, and she felt she should be able to put up with a few cameras and film men for a while. But she just did not realise the scale of a “medium budget” film like this one, or what the production staff could do to her house. It was not the two double-decker buses coming down the path and parking on the farm that she minded, nor the numerous vans, lorries, cars and caravans. It was not even the difficulty of having 80 men and women wandering round the farmhouse carrying equipment here, there and everywhere. But when art director Simon Holland started tearing up her lino and carpet in the kitchen to get to the bare stone floor, she did get a little annoyed. Especially when he removed all the electric sockets, lights and switches, pushed all the kitchen furniture into the larder and whitewashed the newly papered walls.

Have you seen the kitchen?” Mrs Batty said to me. “The larder is piled high with my furniture; and you would not believe the tip my lounge is in. But they are a funny lot. I asked if I could wash the beams in the kitchen for them, and they said ‘Oh no, we want them to look old.’ I have even had to hunt out a lot of old pottery from the cellar for them.

But I have given up now. I have just left them to it.”

What she never knew was that Ian Whittaker the set dresser went on to win an Oscar for set design and received Academy Nominations on three other classic movies.

The News article on Swallows

What I really did not know, until I watched the BBC documentary ‘Country Tracks’, was that Mrs Batty reached the point when she locked out the crew. She explained that when she was originally asked if we could film on her property she did not quite realise the scale of operations and only asked for – or accepted – a location fee of £75. She said that she decided that £75 was not enough, padlocked her front gate and wouldn’t let them back in until they agreed to pay her £1,000. It was a lot of money, more than double the fee I received for acting in the whole movie.

To read a little more about filming of Swallows & Amazons at Bank Ground Farm, please click here.

Sophie Neville holding the horses

Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville & Simon West with Mr Jackson at Holly Howe

For the amusing clip of Lucy Batty being interviewed by Ben Fogle about hosting the film company please click here and fast forward.

Bank Ground Farm the location used for Holly HoweFor Bank Ground Farm’s website please click here

I am looking forward to returning to Bank Ground Farm for the Coniston Regatta on 1st & 2nd August

I am sure many people reading this have their own memories of Mrs Batty who was such a great character. Please do add them to the Comments box below. I feel it would be a tribute to all the hard work and love she put into making Bank Ground available over the decades for so many to enjoy.

Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville, trying not to look as tall as she was in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The farmhouse as Holly Howe in 1973

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Filed under 1973, Arthur Ransome, Biography, Cumbria, Film History, Lake District, Memoir, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Zanna Hamilton