The Real Charcoal Burners ~ who we met whilst filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on 14th June 1973

Sophie Neville at the Charcoal Burners
Sophie Neville as Titty Walker visiting the charcoal burners on a cold day in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

On 14th June we were back at Ickenthwaite Forest, in Cumbria, to film the sequence when the Swallows visit the Charcoal Burners.

14th June ~ my diary aabout the charcoal burners

The real charcoal burner
Norman Allonby, the real charcoal burner outside the hut. Behind him the 35mm Panavision camera is being mounted on a small crane and short section of track ~ photo: Daphne Neville

‘He doesn’t look much like a son.’  The real Young Billy was almost indistinguishable from the actor. He seemed to take a wry interest in the filming but what he thought of us, of the crew, I dread to think. We were aliens on his planet. Terribly bossy ones.

The real Charcoal Burner with the actor
The charcaol burner Bill Allonby chatting to Jack Woolgar playing Old Billy

Our polystrene coffee cups look so out of place. They were. How much had changed in the art of producing charcoal between 1973 and 1929 when Arthur Ransome set our story?

Charcoal Burners during the filming of Swallows and Amazons
John Franklin-Robbins playing Young Billy, chatting to Norman Allonby of Bandrake Head  during a coffee break on set ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The Call Sheet for the day scheduled Scene 110 with the adder, but I recorded in my diary that we had completed that the previous day.  I must have meant my part in it.  The Director, Claude Whatham, was probably using the time to pick-up the shots of Young Billy working with his dampened fire.

Much later, when I asked Claude what made a good director he said, ‘You need to use your time well.’  This probably makes you an employable director, but I think Claude had other assets. We all adored him for one thing, and would do anything for him. We knew that he wanted us to keep going, no matter what happened. Susan really did leave her basket behind at the Charcoal Burners’. When Old Billy called her, she was truly taken aback and sweetly ran to collect it. It’s something that rings true, a natural quality that Claude brought to the film.

The interior of the hut must have been tricky to light. I think we had a real fire burning in the stone grate and Claude was keen for the scene to be atmospherically smoky. The wood smoke itself was fine but the crew were working with smoke guns, since they were more directional and considered more controllable. The acrid fumes produced by their oil canisters choked me but Jack Woolgar was absolutely stoic and kept our attention. I loved drawing with the charcoal. I wish I had drawn him.  Apart from the amount of smoke it was lovely inside the mossy wigwam. I could have stayed there quite happily. It was nice and warm.

Charcoal Burners Movie Call Sheet ~ Swallows and Amazons

Albert Clarke, our Stills Photographer, later gave us his unwanted contact sheets to stick in the scrap-books we kept of the filming. Amongst them are these photos he took of the Producer Richard Pilbrow with the charcoal burners of Ickenthwaite Forest.

Audrey Steeley told me that the older chacoal burner is Jack Allonby who lived at Spark bridge, a well known local character. However, Myles Dickinson has written in to say that it is Norman Allonby, Jack’s brother, who lived at Bandrake Head.  Audrey thinks the other chap could be Bill Norris, who was an authority on charcoal burning and also from Spark bridge, but that the picture doesn’t look much like him.  I think it might be Bill Allonby, Jack’s brother. Does anyone else remember them?

The Real Charcoal Burners 2
John Franklin-Robbins as Young Billy with Sophie Neville, Sten Grendon & the adder. Richard Pilbrow and the charcoal burner. John Franklin-Robbins & Jack Woolgar chat to the real charcoal burner, Bill Allonby.

As the Call Sheet decreed, we were scheduled to to move to Bank Ground Farm after lunch to film the receiving of despatches, a scene I look forward to describing in the next post.

You can see photos and read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’, available online here

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

23 thoughts on “The Real Charcoal Burners ~ who we met whilst filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on 14th June 1973”

          1. No, Jack is the old guy, he lived at Spark bridge, and was very well known to people in this area. My family knew him well as they were oak-spale basket makers and had been involved in coppicing for years. I’m not certain the younger man is Bill Norris actually. Also from Spark bridge, I know that Bill was an authority on charcoal burning, and had been at burns when I’ve attended, and was also filmed on many occasions. It’s possible it’s him, but the pictures don’t actually look that much like him.

  1. Some traditional charcoal burning was still being carried out in the Lake District when we recorded ‘On the Trail of Swallows and Amazons’ in 2000. We met a pair who said that they were the last, and the children interviewed them. Sadly the scene was cut from the broadcast.

  2. I visited one of their demonstration burns some years ago — lots of smoke and steam just like your film! — but I don’t know if they are still held, I’m afraid.

  3. I’m sure it is not Bill Norris. I have spoken to his daughter who doesn’t think he was at that burn with Jack Allonby although he did help him at another burn of which I have a DVD. Another friend of mine, who watched the filming of the charcoal burn as a child, thinks it could be Jack Allonby’s brother Norman who was there. I have sent the link to my friend and he will probably send in a comment soon. He showed me where the burn had taken place when I was searching for it a few years ago. I still do the traditional charcoal earthburns mainly in the south lake district.

    1. Thanks so much for writing in.
      Shall I wait for your friend can confirm the identity of the charcoal burners in the photographs? Then I can change the post.
      I hope you enjoy some of the other posts
      Many thanks again,

    1. I hope that I have altered my text and photo captions correctly. Please let me know if there is anything else in the Post that I should change.

      I hope you are enjoying the other days fromthe diary I kept so long ago. Do let me know if you have any questions.

      Many thanks

  4. So interesting… my ancestors lived at and owned Ickenthwaite in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s…Nealson/Nelson and Barker who married Dickinson.

  5. Brian Crawley (above) sent me this link as he thought I might be interested. Over 12 months in the 1970s I filmed Jack Allonby and Bill Norris do a charcoal burn on the same site at Ickenthwaite. It had been organised by Mike Davies-Shiel and Bill Norris. It followed the whole process from cutting the wood in the coppices to the burn itself. I can confirm that the figures in the photo are Jack and his brother. The latter came down most day to watch the burn and tell Jack what to do! We have just transferred the film to DVD and is showing its age but is a good record of how it was done. There was no charcoal made in the traditional way at that time but Jack was still bark stripping and providing wood for the Bobbin factory at Spark Bridge.

  6. That is most certainly Norman Allonby – I lived around the corner from him in 1973. He lived in a tiny 1 up, 1 down traditional cottage, walked everywhere and made a lovely cup of tea. He was very interested in my Eng Lit A level course, being a keen reader. I wonder how many people know he knew Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, by heart, and in their entirety and could recite any part, at any time, on request. He would happily talk for hours on the subject, with a twinkle in his eye and his pickle catching front tooth. Lovely, gentle man, living life at the right pace.

  7. I find this blog and the comments most interesting. It enhances an already brilliant and lively scene of the film. I was particularly interested to read about Norman Allonby and his love, and memory, of poetry. I have met this before with members of his generation. My grandfather (born 1899) could recite reams of poetry by heart, most leant in his youth, much of it in school.

      1. Well, my grandfather was very proud of his ability to recite loads of Tennyson, Byron, Robert Service, etc.

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