Holly Howe or Bank Ground Farm ~
Fifty years ago in the Lake District
When you next go to Bank Ground Farm you must stand outside the front door and imagine the sight of two red London Route Master buses making their way down the drive back in 1973. They swayed from side to side.
We thought it comic. I still can’t work out how they managed to avoid how bringing down the dry stone walls. While sheep grazed outside in the rain, we made ourselves comfortable at the Formica tables in one of these converted buses and got down to our lessons.
Meanwhile Ian Whittaker, the set dresser, and Simon Holland, the art director on ‘Swallows and Amazons’, transformed Mrs Batty’s upstairs rooms into the Walker children’s bedrooms of 1929. I changed on the top deck of our bus and was rushed through the rain with a coat over my nightie to the magical atmosphere of the film set. This was warmed by arc lights. Everyone became focused what was just in front of the camera: me reading an early edition of Daniel Defoe’s classic book, Robinson Crusoe. The director, Claude Whatham needed to establish that he was Titty’s hero. I can remember having to hold the book in special way so the cover could be seen clearly.
You can see that in my diary, I described this as ‘a bed scene’, which might amuse some actors, especially those who are not at all keen on doing bed-scenes (every actor I know). The beds themselves are probably still at the farm.
They may have shot the scene where Captain John is learning Morse Code in the same room. Simon West then had to be made very brown indeed, the Make-up Designer dabbing away with a tiny sponge. This was for the uneasy sequence, much later in the story, when he returned to Holly Howe to explain himself to his mother. This was shot with Virginia McKenna writing letters at a desk in the square bay window, with the view of Coniston Water beyond. I had used it when stitching Swallow’s flag in the scene recorded the day before.
Mrs Batty later told me that the bay window leaked terribly and that she was glad to get rid of it. She built a lounge area in its place, which became a dedicated Swallows and Amazons room. I’d been chatting to her back in 2002 when we were waiting for Ben Fogle and the BBC crew of Countryfile. They had been looking for other locations used in the 1974 film before a planned interview with me and Suzanna Hamilton, who had played my sister Susan. I remember Suzanna’s train had been terribly delayed.
We’d waited and waited and waited. It got later and later. When Suzanna’s taxi finally arrived, I was so excited to see her that I encouraged her to run down to the lake as we once had as children.
The Countryfile director must have been at her wit’s end. Ben Fogle came down to fetch us. My excuse was that Suzanna needed a stretch after her a long journey from London.
The Westmorland Gazette captured the three of us plodding back up the field.I did the whole interview holding a bottle of grog, given to me by Arthur Ransome fans who were staying at the farm. You can see it in the photographs if you look closely. I don’t think Ben knew what it was.
My father’s 16mm home movie footage of the making of Swallows and Amazons was cut into this interview with such success that the documentary was re-shown on Big Screen Britain along with other landscape movies such as Whistle Down the Wind and The Dambusters.
You can find out more in the paperback ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ or here on Kindle where the first section can be read for free:
9 thoughts on “Holly Howe on the 5th day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ near Coniston in 1973 ~”
I do hope they re-show the Big Screen Britain ‘Swallows and Amazons’ episode again sometime. Or better still, make another programme for the 50th anniversary next year!
I’m sure there would be quite a bit of interest.
I think so too. I’m working on it!
Poor Suzanna! She must have been so embarrassed at disrupting the film schedule. What was wrong with her, poor girl?
And a very interesting reference to the Bank Ground window – so did the film team ask for (and pay for) the window to be changed?
Mum was very hard on Suzanna. She had a bit of tonsillitis poor girl. I’m usually the one who falls ill.
The bay window at Bank Ground was intact when we made the film in 1973, which was wonderful as it matches the Clifford Webb illustrations. I’m not sure when Mrs Batty built her extra sitting-room in its stead. Possibly the late 1990s. We made the Countryfile episode in September 2003. The weather was glorious.
Oh, tonsillitis makes you feel awful – I remember repeated bouts aged 7 until they despatched me to hospital for removal (the doctor had come and had exclaimed joyfully upon examination ‘Your tonsils have lovely big yellow spots all over them’).
Ah about the window – sounds a v good thing for Lucy Batty to have done.
Suzanna is far tougher than me. She shrugged off the infection pretty quickly.
Sad in a way about the square bay window but the new room is warm and comfortable, dedicated to Swallows and Amazons. Have you been to Bank Ground Farm?
Well done Suzanna! Strong constitution. And I’ve been to the outside of Bank Ground (years ago, at a TARS gathering) but not stayed there (yet…). x
I stayed in the corner room after we made the item for Countryfile and joined TARS when they hired the barn at Bank Ground, which was great. The stable cottages look lovely too.