My father has always grabbed a chance to go to the Lake District. As a young man he once took advantage of a military travel warrant to climb in the hills and later made it his job to visit the Colfast Button factory in Maryport, every month, when he worked for BIP. He would stay at the Pheasant Inn at Bassenthwaite Lake, latching visits onto a weekend, so he could explore Cumbria.
This was in the late 1950s. When I came along he took us to stay at Goosemead Farm. We climbed Castle Crag and you only have to glance at the photographs to see how happy I was to be there. We had a sheepdog called Luppy who came too. She was a great character and much loved. Found as a stray before I was born she was still around when I left home to be in Swallows and Amazons.
Arthur Ransome had been Dad’s favourite author as a boy. He said that he would wait in anticipation for another book to be published. He’d bought me the whole set, collecting them from various second hand shops. I had read the whole lot, bar Coots in the North, by the time I was twelve. He set my destiny.
My father left the dogs at home on 26th May so that he could drive my younger sisters up to join us for two weeks and watch the filming. He found Peel Island on Coniston Water and was there to meet us when the boat came in at the end of the day. My sisters stood smiling on the rocks, dressed for the weather in matching red jerseys, duffle coats and gumboots.
My parents had booked a Bed and Breakfast in Ambleside across the road from the Oaklands Guest House. I immediatley noticed a sign declaring that you had to pay 10p to have a bath. ”Ten pee!’ Mum glarred at me, furious. ‘Do be quiet, they’ll hear you’. I had moved to share Suzanna’s room, since Mrs Price had a long-standing booking for the back room Mum and I had been using. Her guest house was full to bursting since she had students from the Charlotte Mason College of Education lodging with her aswell as all of us and her own three children. The only real problem was that we had nylon sheets and the bedding kept slidding off in the middle of the night.
My sisters, Tamzin and Perry, who must have been about eight and nine, struck up an instant rapport with Suzanna Hamilton. She asked them to baby-sit her pet slow worms. These had come up from London with her in a small glass aquarium, which she had put in the fire place in our room. I don’t know what Mrs Price thought. I wasn’t very keen on handling them and have no idea how she fed them but Perry was intrigued. Suzanna had also brought her ukulele. She would sit on her bed playing Ain’t She Sweet, Sunny side of the Street, Playing on my Banjo and other Norman Wisdom numbers, completley fluently and with great gusto. My sisters were entranced. They may have even shared the room with us and the slow-worms. Mum can’t remember.
Dad had already made plans for sailing that first Bank Holiday, when Richard Pilbrow had scheduled a break.
I remember the Hula-hula girls well. Although it was only May they suddenly appeared on what seemed to be a remote, inaccessible island, clad in garish, brightly coloured bikinis – the kind that had little frilly skirts to them. We watched them splash about and swim in complete wonder as, although it was sunny, we knew how cold the water was.
We had seen something of the same kind of savage the day before. I can remember the dismay on the First Assistant’s face when he realised it really was the Saturday of the Bank Holiday. We had had Peel Island to ourselves, indeed it had become ours – our special place, our magical camp, our home. And suddenly it was being invaded by brash women from Manchester who certainly had no respect for anyone making a film. I don’t know how they got out there. they seemed to arrive from no where when we were in the secret harbour, which was suddenly a secret no more. It was their holiday and there was no stopping them or their over-weight and noisy children. They were quite frightening.
The horrific Bank Holiday traffic queues were also unexpected, but my father took us up into the mountains and out on Derwent Water. He must have been trying to teach my mother to sail for decades but she has never begun to get the hang of it. She was in mourning that weekend as she had watched her favourite hat blow across the water and sink to the bottom of the lake. It was a bulbous pink and white Donny Osmond cap that Claude Whatham had enjoyed wearing on set to amuse us. She was able to find a yellow and white one to replace it but he never liked it as much. Said it didn’t suit his colouring.