‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ getting used to sailing our boats in preparation for making the film back in 1973

Sunday 13th May 1973

Sailing on the lakes ~

Swallows Diary 13th May

Swallows Diary 13th May page 2

…And so we spent the Sunday before the filming began sailing. I’m afraid I can’t remember a thing about it. I imagine we sailed out from the Kirkstone Foot Hotel on Lake Windermere.

I’ve always felt the cold. Back then I only had a terrible blue nylon anorak that I don’t think enabled me to enjoy the sailing, which was a pity. I seemed to have got very cold even when sailing with the wind.

The Amazon has a centre board and was always a much faster boat than Swallow. It proved a bit of a problem during the filming as she always gained more distance when the director wanted a shot with both dinghies sailing together. But, even as old boats with very limited sail, they can go at quite a lick. I remember both were difficult to turn unless you got a bit of speed up. Swallow’s long keel makes her roomy and stable but I sailed her recently and she’s not a boat that wants to go home. I’m used to modern rudders now, whereas Swallow and Amazon have shallow ones shaped like the letter ‘b’.

Swallow photographed by Martin Neville
A photograph of Swallow in 1973 taken by Martin Neville

We had lunch with Virginia McKenna who was to play our Mother, Mrs Walker.  She was sweet and so enthusiastic about what we were doing. I remember that she made a great effort to entertain us at the hotel, instigating games of Consequences, which we adored. We roared with laughter as she read out the results.

Virginia McKenna photographed by Daphne Neville
Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm ~ photo:Daphne Neville

As my father said recently, Virginia McKenna was completely right to play the part of a Naval Commander’s wife.  A darling of the British public she is, and was, the star who carried the film. I knew her from having loved the animal movies she’d been in ~ Ring of Bright WaterAn Elephant Called Slowly, Born Free and my favorite wartime story A Town Like Alice, for which she won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress.  She was also nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride and played Julie Hallam in The Cruel Sea, another superb wartime classic.  Married to Bill Travers she had four children of her own by the time she made Swallows and Amazons. I don’t know how she managed to do so much, all with with so much grace and time for others.

Claude Whatham by Coniston Water
Claude Whatham – photo: Daphne Neville

Claude Whatham, the director, Richard Pilbrow, the producer and David Blagden, the sailing director were with us, along with Mum and Jane Grendon, Sten’s mother who was our other chaperone. Neville Thompson, the Associate Producer who was in charge of the budget and schedule, was also with us that first weekend.  He later worked on the Mosquito Coast, Time Bandits, Sharpe’s Rifles and produced The Missionary with Michael Palin. He must have been a good man to have on board.

Richard Pilbrow and Neville Thompson ~ photo:Daphne Neville

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Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

8 thoughts on “‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ getting used to sailing our boats in preparation for making the film back in 1973”

  1. Hi
    I brought Swallow a few years ago but sadly she was pass sailing anymore.
    I convert tired boats to dry land seats and swallow now lives on as a beautiful little seat. I am just building her stem into a new seat.

    1. Many thanks for writing in. Can you tell me which Swallow you were able to buy, who from and whereabouts? The news could stir a lot of interest. In 2010, a group of us clubbed together to buy the dinghy that was used as Swallow in the film when Mike Turk auctioned his stock of vessels used in movies. She was carefully renovated by Pattinsons, was displayed at the 2011 Boat Show in London and is availble for people to sail through Sail Ransome. She is currently in East Anglia.

      1. Yes I was exhibiting at that show and saw that one . I brought this one from a guy who lived the other side of Woodbridge a couple of years ago.
        It was for sale on eBay but didn’t sell. She was in a very poor condition and although I could have rebuilt her there is little commercial interest in them. Saving her in some form seemed to be better than losing her altogether. At that time I had no idea she may have been connected to the actual Swallow.

        1. Is she the fourteen foot clinker-built dinghy called ‘Swallow’ bought in Lancashire by Arthur Ransome in 1928? He lived at Levington in Suffolk before WWII so presumeably could have bought her down. I am not an expert on his boats but know people who are.

        2. You say, ‘She is the one in the picture on your blog. I have only just cleaned up the transom with the same script on it. I brought her from an elderly gentleman who didn’t mention the connection but just said she sailed on the Deben. I was just looking through images of wooden clinker boats like I do and found my Swallow, not until I clicked on the link did I realise. Were there a number of boats used for the film (1974) ?
          I would love to find out more,’

          As far as I know we only used one dinghy for Swallow in the film, now owned by Sail Ransome. The only other clinker built dinghy was used on a float (a lorry) in The Lord Major’s Show in 1973 when we climbed aboard and were driven around the City of London to advertise the film. ‘Swallow’ could have been painted on her stern for that event. She would not have needed to be sea-worthy. You can find some photos of her on my blog here: https://sophieneville.net/2012/10/25/bringing-the-lake-district-to-london-for-the-lord-mayors-show/

          Otherwise we used Amazon, who is now in Kent, and a tender for the houseboat, which I think is now owned by a TARS member called John. Virginia McKenna rowed a heavy rowing boat. I don’t know where that is. The Lady DerwentWater was used as the houseboat. She is still in use by the Keswick Launch Company. You can see a number of ‘dressing’ boats, such as Windermere skiffs and the steamlaunch ‘Elizabeth’, that were used at Bowness on Windermere in the Rio scenes.

          In 1983 I worked on the BBC drama serial of Ransome’s books ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ entitled ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’ set on the Norfolk Broads and at Beccles. We used a number of dinghies, photos of which you can also find on my blog.

  2. Virginia McKenna is one of our greatest film actresses of the last half of the 20th century; and from what you, and other people that have met her, say, a thoroughly nice and charming lady. It must have been great working with her.

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