Tag Archives: Virginia McKenna

‘Man Friday!’ found in the pages of an old copy of Lancashire Life

Virginia McKenna rowing

The 2014 Blu-ray of  ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (c) StudioCanal

Forty two years ago, this shot was taken of Virginia McKenna valiantly playing Man Friday, rowing away from what I had decided was a desert island. We were filming on Coniston Water in the Lake District. She was playing my mother, concerned about leaving a small girl alone as the evening drew in. I’ve been set a copy of Lancashire Life, published in 1974, which describes the filming at length. Quite fun. You can see a still of Man Friday and I cooking Pemmican cakes for supper on the camp fire, top right.

Lancashire Life May 1974 - S&A2 - lr

Being awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to wildlife and the arts, Virginia has since become a national treasure. She will quickly deny this but you will find photographs of her at the National Gallery, along with Suzanna Hamilton, who played her daughter – and my sister, Susan in Swallows & Amazons (1974).

NPG x126895; Stars of the British Screen by Norman Parkinson

‘Stars of the British Screen’ by Norman Parkinson. Virginia McKenna sits bottom centre, Suzanna Hamilton bottom right, either side of Susannah York.

Having just celebrated her 84th birthday Virginia has also been heralded as one who inspires others. I concur. ‘Do one thing at a time,’ was her advice to me, ‘Otherwise you can’t do anything well.’

Virginai McKenna with an Oscar

Virginia has appeared in over thirty feature films, numerous television dramas and many fascinating documentaries. She won a  BAFTA Award for Best British Actress in ‘A Town Like Alice’ and was nominated Best Actress by BAFTA for playing Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride.’. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Joy Adamson inBorn Free’ , which won the composer John Barry two Academy awards. She is still happy to work as an actress, soon to appear in ‘Golden Years’ with Simon Callow and her granddaughter, Lily Travers.

Virginin McKenna with Born Free composer John Barry

Virginia McKenna with ‘Born Free’ composer John Barry

If you interview her now, Virginia is more likely to talk about wildlife than acting. She uses her name to promote kindness. And to stop the slaughter of elephants. One of her latest missions is to urge schools to teach children about conservation. She has recently become patron of  Shropshire Cat Rescue’s Purr project. Arthur Ransome helped finance a similar project himself.

Virginia McKenna in Mail on Saturday 214

2015 marks the thirty-first anniversary of the Born Free Foundation, which Virginia established with her son Will Travers to help big cats and other large mammals held in captivity. She still travels the world to raise awareness and alleviate suffering, drawing on all she learned from George Adamson whilst filming Born Free in Kenya back in 1966, and An Elephant Called Slowly in 1970. You can read more about her work by clicking here.

Virginia McKenna onthe cover of Saga Magazine

Virginia has written about her career and conservation work in a number of books including Into the Blue and an autobiography entitled The Life in My Years available online from the Born Free shop.

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001

Sophie Neville with Virginia McKenna in about 2001

42 years ago we were filming with Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm in the Lake District.

To read the sections of my diary on filming Swallows & Amazons on Peel Island, please click here.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, animal stories, Biography, British Film, charity, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking

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

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

The Boy Roger and the invention of the asthma inhaler

swa_bw_neg_ 005

John Franklin-Robins as Young Billy, Sophie Neville as Titty and Sten Grendon as Roger

~ Photo (c) StudioCanal ~

I have been deliberating upon points where fiction touches reality. The most significant in my own life is that the person behind my fictional brother was responsible for saving me from acute misery. Whilst I was an asthmatic, he was behind the invention of the Intal spin inhaler, which bought me instant relief.

I will explain the connection.

It concerns a true story behind the well-loved book of Swallows and Amazons. As you may know, this was written by Arthur Ransome for the children of friends of his, who were staying in the Lake District, after they brought him a pair of red slippers for his forty-fifth birthday in January 1929. He based his main characters, the crew of the Swallow, on these five real Altounyan children.

The character Roger Walker, known when he first started sailing as the Boy Roger, was inspired by Roger Altounyan then about six years old. As a consequence he was obliged to live out his school days under Swallow’s flag, as it where. This may have become tedious, although it was much the same for Sten Grendon who played the part of Roger in the 1974 film. I played his sister Titty.

Altounyan Children - Susie, Taqui, Titty (seated) and Roger

The well-known photograph of the four eldest Altounyan children – Susie, Taqui, Titty (seated) and Roger

Roger is seen here with three of his four sisters, and below as a boy along with Arthur Ransome obviously playing tennis. The story of his family is told  by Jeremy Collingwood in his recent book,  A Lakeland Saga.

Altounyan family with Ransome

Did we depict Roger Walker accurately in the film? May be not! Richard Pilbrow, the producer of Swallows & Amazons  told me that Mrs Ransome was furious that Claude Whatham had cast a boy with dark hair, but she never explained why.

swa_bw_neg_ 002Sten Grendon as Roger Walker with Virginia McKenna playing his mother

~ Photo (c) StudioCanal ~

When Evgenia Ransome visited the location and actually saw Sten running around at Bank Ground Farm she seemed happy enough and said nothing more. Perhaps Virginia McKenna somehow managed to make everything alright.

Stephen Grendon playing Roger

Sten Gredon playing Roger in 1973

~ Photo (c) StudioCanal ~

What I didn’t know until recently was that Roger Altounyan was an asthmatic. He was specifically allergic to guinea pigs.

About ten years ago I met Dr Bill Frankland, a former POW to the Japanese who became a Harley Street allergist. He is often on television, becoming  renown for still working at the age of nearly 103. Bill told me that Roger Altounyan had been a good friend of his. They’d worked together at Intal. I’d had known that Roger had been in the RAF during World War II, but not that he had qualified as a doctor and become an allergist. Bill told me that he used his knowledge of propellers to develop the Intal spin-inhaler and effectively treat asthma.

Roger was specifically intolerant to guinea pigs and would routinely experiment on himself. He would not have been allowed to do this by today’s regulations, which some say would have held back the testing definitely.  I gather from reading Rodney Dingle’s biography that the model inhaler that he made with a piece of hose pipe worked well, whilst the prototype made professionally did not. If you use an inhaler you will hear that the propeller has to be able wiggle in order for the medication to be successfully diffused into the patient’s mouth and lungs. The discovery was portrayed by David Suchet in a documentary entitled Hair Soup.

Dr Roger Altounyan

Dr Roger Altounyan

I was allergic to feathers as a child and prone to horrific asthma attacks, not from parrot’s feathers but old pillows and eider-downs. I may owe my life to Roger and his spin-inhaler. The medication certainly helped me enormously and has always given me to the peace of mind that it will give me relief if I do get wheezy.

Dr Bill Frankland

Dr Bill Frankland celebrating his 100th Birthday in 2012 with Sophie Neville

Dr Frankland gave me a set of photos taken at Roger Altounyan’s going-away party in Cumbria when he took his family and friends up Coniston Water on the Gondola. He said that Roger insisted on smoking a pipe even though he was reliant on oxygen and explained that the experimentation was partly responsible for his early death in 1987.

 Further reading: Roger: The Life and Distinguished Achievements of Dr Roger Altounyan, by Rodney Dingle. It is difficult to get hold of but Kirkland Books in Kendal have a copy.

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Film production, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Comments on ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

Sophie Neville with Suzanna Hamilton

Very, very many thanks to all those who have taken the trouble to send in feedback about our paperback version of ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons: Behind the scenes on the Classic Film’.

The publishers have been thrilled to hear what you think, hoping that the will appeal as a good Christmas present.

Virginia McKenna rowing

Here are a few recent comments:

‘Get a glimpse behind the scenes from Sophie Neville, who played Titty, in this gorgeous book, released to celebrate its 40th anniversary.’ Yours magazine.

‘Came home to a wonderful surprise – my copy of The Making of Swallows and Amazons! wonderful.’ Pandora Doyle  ‘I love it! So excited. The photos make the book especially the coloured ones. I will be dipping into it all day!’

‘…a delightful book, which tells the behind-the-scenes story of the film. Neville’s account of exploring, sailing, and the green parrot will no doubt have readers reliving childhood memories and falling in love with the Lake District all over again.’ The Lady

Sophie Neville in the tent at night

‘I can’t wait to read The Making of Swallows and Amazons! My eight year old daughter is also looking forward to it – she has learned to sail on Sydney Harbour just like the Swallows’ mother did! (I learned to sail on other Ransome waters – near Pin Mill in Suffolk!). Thank you so much for sharing your memories of the experience with us – what a magical film!’ Clare Havens, author

‘I ordered two copies, one signed by yourself and one unsigned which is already becoming dog eared {my measure of a good book}.’ Arnold Mostyn

David Bamford: (Antipodes) I am in the middle of reading Sophie’s book about the Making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and enjoying every word of it! Now, when I see the stills, I remember her writing about how cold the weather was, and they were dressed in light summer clothes.

Sophie Neville in Swallow

Loving @Sophie_Neville ‘s Making of Swallows and Amazons. Technicalities of filming with big unwieldy cameras. Plus lots #ambleside gossip. Eileen Jones @CumbriaPR

‘It was great to read an account of how filming is not as simple as people imagine! Enjoyed it very much.’  Martin Robinson

‘A sort-of layman’s perspective on filming is completely fascinating.’ Nick Archer

‘I enjoyed the book much more than I expected, if that doesn’t sound v strange.’ Tom Morgan.  ‘I thought I would enjoy it but I really, really enjoyed it. I… was very impressed by the flow and ease of your writing. My inherent nosiness helped of course.’

‘Great book, I really enjoyed reading it.’ Stephen O’brien

‘Really enjoyed it. Lots of insight into/memories of 70s life (not sorry to have left that behind!!). Very interesting to learn more about your co-stars, and the other people involved in creating the film – my original discovery of your blog was having watched the film, and wondering “where are they now?” That question is comprehensively answered!! Also very interesting to learn about the process of film-making – we take so much for granted with digital video cameras these days. I guess for me the whole thing about learning about you, Suzanna, Lesley etc as people is what most interests me from a human point of view – kind of much the same as learning about the Altounyans and Collingwoods in Hardyment’s book.’  Paul Fernandez.

‘Lovely to meet you in Ambleside, It was a great evening. Book and DVD are brilliant.’ Ali Graham

‘I matched your book to the DVD and the two made a really good present, even though I say so myself!’ Barry Burles
.

Nancy and Peggy on Wild Cat Island

To read more, please click here for reviews on the Amazon UK site

All photos (c) StudioCanal, reflecting the quality of the digitally restored blu-ray. To see official stills from the film please click here.

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Filed under Acting, Autobiography, Biography, Cumbria, Film History, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Questions I’m asked at cinema screenings of Swallows & Amazons (1974)

Over the next few days I am going to be giving Q&A sessions at cinemas screening StudioCanal’s newly restored version of Richard Pilbrow’s movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (U) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the film’s release in 1974.

Ronald Fraser walking the plankSten Grendon, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville as the Swallows making Ronald Fraser walk the plank. Where are the Amazons?

If you can come, please do bring a question. I am always very interested in those asked by the children. They can be quite difficult to answer:

‘What did it feel like to be alone on the island?’

Titty alone on Wildcat IslandTitty leaving her tent on Wild Cat Island

‘Where you really able to keep the parrot?’

swa_bw_neg_ 021 Kit Seymour with Sophie Neville  and Polly in the Houseboat

‘How long did it take to film?’ is another question I am often asked. The answer is quite complicated.

Then I ask,  ‘Would you like to know about the mistake I made?’

swa_bw_neg_ 043The crew of the Swallow leaving Holly Howe 

I started singing, ‘Adieu and Farewell’, when the sea shanty Spanish Ladies is always sung: ‘Farewell and Adieu…

Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies, 
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain;
For we’re under orders
For to sail to old England,
And we may ne’er see you fair ladies again.
We’ll rant and we’ll roar, like true British sailors,
We’ll range and we’ll roam all on the salt seas;
Until we strike soundings
In the Channel of old England,
From Ushant to Scilly ’tis thirty-five leagues.

swa_bw_neg_ 042Virginia McKenna watches the Swallows sail from the jetty at Bank Ground Farm on Coniston Water. Can you spot the safety officer – a frogman just visible right of shot?

I noticed that one inconsistency made by the design team was that the swallow flew down our flag whereas it always flies up Swallow’s burgee in Arthur Ransome book illustrations. I count it as a subtle differentiation that I reproduce whenever I draw the crossed flags myself.

Swallows & Amazons flags for book

 

When I was writing ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’ I noticed that, while the title of the book is ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the graphic designer working on the film always used an ampersand, making it SWALLOWS & AMAZONS in the 1974 film.

There is another odd thing right at the end of the film, as the credits roll. See if you can spot what it is.

This week there are a number of screenings in Cumbria:

Royalty Cinema Bowness-on-Windermere 6th, 7th August http://bit.ly/1nCooVq

Roxy Cinema Ulverston 6th, 7th August http://bit.ly/1nYKgKn

Zeffirellis Ambleside  6th August (with Sophie Neville Q&A) http://bit.ly/X8BYFU

Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal  7th August (with Sophie Neville Q&A) http://bit.ly/1jTanmg

For details of screenings at PictureHouse cinemas across the UK please click here.

(All photographs on this page are copyright StudioCanal. To see more stills and merchandise available please click here. )

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Cinema, Cumbria, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Photography, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized, Zanna Hamilton

Come to watch StudioCanal’s newly restored Swallows and Amazons (1974) at Hackney PictureHouse

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StudioCanal, who distribute the 1974 feature film of Swallows & Amazons (U), have a huge treat in store for film fans:

40th Anniversary Restoration of SWALLOWS & AMAZONS, starring Virginia McKenna and based on Arthur Ransome’s classic novel, will be released on brand new Special Edition DVD and first ever Blu-ray release on 4th August! Pre-order your copy here: amzn.to/1pmF7fe.  Special anniversary screenings will be taking place – ” 

Hackney Picture House drawing

The Hackney PictureHouse will host the first London screening with Q&A by me, Sophie Neville, on Thursday 31st July at 11.00am. Please click here for details.   Do join us!

Hackney Picture House exterior

 

It has been a difficult secret to keep. Virginia McKenna, Suzanna Hamilton and I were interviewed for the DVD extras, which I believe also feature Christina Hardyment exploring the film locations this summer while imparting information about Arthur Ransome who drew on his own childhood holidays in the Lake District to add detail and authenticity to the original story.

The 16mm behind-the-scenes footage that my parents took when they were with us on location back in 1973 was handed over to the technicians to use in the extras package. I haven’t seen the finished version yet, although I did record a commentary to explain what was going on.

StudioCanal DVD cover

 

What do you think of the cover?

Hope to see you at some of the screenings! Let me know if you can come.

There will also be a number in Cumbria this August.  Please go to Sophie’s Events Page for details.

To read the press release please click here.

 

 

 

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Filed under Acting, Arthur Ransome, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Film, Film History, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, Uncategorized, Zanna Hamilton