Rowing to Cormorant Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater in 1973

Sophie Neville rowing to Cormorant Island
Sophie Neville as Titty and Stephen Grendon as Roger rowing to Cormorant Island

‘Pull harder, Roger!’ ~ hardly a line from Shakespeare, but one that has lodged deep in my memory.Titty was even bossier in Arthur Ransome’s books ~”You keep time with me, Boy,” said the able-seaman.”All right.”Titty lifted her oar from the water. Roger gave one pull.”Boy,” said the able-seaman, “you mustn’t say ‘All right’.””Aye, aye, sir, ” said the boy.**

When we auditioned for Swallows and Amazons the emphasis was on sailing. Could we sail? In fact I needed to be good at rowing. Titty and Roger row back form the Charcoal Burners, I rowed the Amazon from Wildcat Island and here we were rowing across Derwentwater to Cormorant Island. This was more difficult than normal as Swallow was wired to the camera pontoon.

Cormorant Island

When I look at the 16mm footage my father took of me rowing at home before we left to film in the Lake District I cringe. My blades were high above the water, hitting the surface with terrible splashes but I seemed to achieve my objective.   I managed to fit an improvised mast to our Thames skiff and even made my own sail. It doesn’t look great, but I think Arthur Ransome would have approved.

Cormorant Island and the camera boats
Swallow finding Amazon anchored near Cormorant Island on Derwent Water with the camera pontoon and safety boat: photo~ Daphne Neville

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton joined us for the scene when the Swallows lower the Jolly Roger and start to sail the captured the Amazon back to Wildcat Island.  I can only imagine that I changed my costume in one of the support boats. I think the scene may have been shot with two cameras on different boats ~

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in the captured Amazon, with David Cadwallader, Bobby Sitwell, Dennis Lewiston, Claude Whatham and two electricians holding reflector boards on the camera punt: Photo ~ Daphne Neville

This shot shows Claude Whatham using the punt,* which somehow managed to accommodate Dennis Lewiston, the 35mm Panavision and quite a few crew members, while Richard Pilbrow remained on the camera pontoon with Eddie Collins operating the 16mm camera.

Richard Pilbrow and his film crew on the camera pontoon with Eddie Colluins opperating the 16mm camera. Simon West and Stephen Grendon sail Swallow. Suzanna Hamilton is cilmbing aboard the Amazon with Sophie Neville

I remember the scene itself as being difficult to achieve in terms of sailing. Swallow has a keel, and Amazon with her centre board is much the faster dinghy. It is not like racing two boats of the same class. After hauling up the anchor Suzanna and I battled to turn the Amazon, not wanting to wiggle the rudder and jeopardise her pins. I remember Simon calling advise over the water.  He stalled and we caught up, trying to get close together for the shot. The result was a photograph used on the front cover of the next Puffin edition of the book.

Swallows and Amazons book cover 1974
Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton on the cover of the 1974 Puffin edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

* I may be wrong about these photographs. The still surface of the water in the shot of Titty alone in Amazon suggests that it was taken later on, when we filmed the burglars landing on Cormorant Island with Captain Flint’s trunk, but we probably had a very similar set up on this more sparking day ~ 15th June 1973.

We went on to film various shots of us sailing on to Wildcat Island, when I think the camera was in Swallow capturing close-ups of a triumphant Captain John. He did indeed do well.

**Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, 1970 Jonathan Cape edition

You can read more about our adventures here:

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

44 thoughts on “Rowing to Cormorant Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater in 1973”

  1. The scene about the hunt for the treasure always struck me as the one false note in the film.

    In the book, everyone goes hunting once, which is unsuccessful, and only then do Titty and Roger go off alone. In the film, just after Captain Flint explains how sorry he is to John, especially for calling him a liar, and Titty explains how she heard the thieves, he dismisses her story saying he wishes he could believe it, which seems completely contrary to his change of heart. I know films re-write things, and chop out things, but I always felt there should be a better way to deal with that one bit!

    But do keep up the stories!

    1. Ah, this is a point for the writer, David Wood.
      ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is all about integrity and believing in children.

      Many thanks for your comment and for your encouragment.

      Do let me have any questions – I still have a month or so to go!


  2. Hello Sophie – thanks again for all the memories of making ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I still think it would make a terrific ebook, especially if the colour could be retained (not sure that the images would work on my Kindle!).

    I have a question, so I apologise in advance if I have missed something in the text that answers it. It is this – why were some of the scenes filmed on Derwent Water instead of Coniston Water? It must have been a logistical nightmare getting all the actors, crew and equipment from one end of the Lakes to another, especially during holiday season. Or were all the scenes around Derwent Water filmed at the same time?

    Best wishes

    1. I wonder if Richard Pilbrow can answer this question – I’ll pass it on to him.
      I imagine they wanted to include the locations and dramatic scenery around Derwentwater.

      I’ve no idea how they got the Camera pontoon up there. I expect the cross bars detached. The original schedule probably grouped all the Derwent Water scenes together, but as you’ll see, we had to cope with the reality of bad weather and Virginia McKenna’s availablity, so it must have been tricky. A logiscital nightmare. We return to Peel Island soon!

    2. Kevin,

      Richard Pilbrow, who produced the 1973 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, has written from America to say:

      We used the two lakes because of specific spots that Mrs Ransome pointed out to us.
      i.e. Long shot of island from Darian’s point on Derwent.
      Peel Island itself and Farms on Coniston.
      Houseboat on Derwentwater simple seemed better.

      We only used Windemere for the almost shipwreck scene and town, because of generally too much boat traffic.

      I think you’re right that we did go back and forth. Logistics of location, weather, adult cast presence, etc.
      I have no idea how the pontoon, e†c., got moved. Magic perhaps?

      1. Thank you for the answer to my question (both of you). I will look forward to reading the next blog!

  3. In one of the drafts for Swallows and Amazons, Titty and Roger row off to Cormorant Island treasure-hunting while Nancy is tipping Captain Flint the black spot. Titty returns alone to find that he is in their camp, has apologised and is now an ally. Talk turns to the burglary and his box. Titty tells him that Roger, left on guard, is sitting on it.
    In this particular piece of adaptation, I would not be too hard on David Wood, i think it works quite well.

  4. I so warm to your comment about ‘integrity, and believing in children’; yes; the whole world isn’t like that, but – better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Keep up the stories and all the work, Sophie.

    1. Thank you, Jill
      I still have a month of dairy pages to go.
      The next one is a bit off-beat, then we return to Peel Island with Virginia McKenna – and her husband.
      I am enjoying it – but it is hard to keep going as I have many other demands on my time.

      1. Coincidentally, I met Virginia McKenna last week!! and mentioned your blog to her.

        We all eagerly await your new blog entries, but we do know how much work it is and will curb our patience when you get too busy.

  5. I think I’ve discovered a lovely misremembering: on p77 of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog (1999) he mentions seeing at Burnham Overy Staithe ‘A woman in rust canvas shorts and plimsolls, with masses of fair curls like Titty in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Can’t be the book, so it must be YOU!

  6. One might almost say ‘By gum’ …. Well, that’s as if he were to discuss the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh when the real Shepard illustrations are there to be appreciated……………

  7. Another brilliant blog. It is good to see at least some of the 1960s serial with Susan George, although I remember at the time being furious at the name change from ‘Titty’ to ‘Kitty’.
    I think you are being too hard on yourself concerning your rowing. I remember my late wife and I trying to row in the late seventies; I’m glad no-one was filming that!

      1. You certainly did. I have seen film, or at least photographs, of you rowing the Drapers’ Shallop. It looks very hard!

    1. I knew it was the Queen’s boat, and it looks very fine. But there is one vessel where the rowers stand up, isn’t there?

              1. Oh, I see. It sounds very intricate. I must learn more about this, it’s fascinating. I suppose gondolas use focalas? I know they’re rowed standing up.

              2. Thanks, yes, I see now. Quite a complicated looking item. It seems that it is spelt ‘forcola’.

          1. I can well believe it. I didn’t know anything about all this. I always assumed the rowlocks on a gondola were a fixture, not a removable piece of kit. Thank you for filling me in.

              1. I bet they present a spectacular sight! Do you belong? I doubt I will get to the Voga Longa but I hope I can get to see them somewhere before too long.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: