News about the Lanehead boathouse once used by Arthur Ransome

Daily Express Boathouse article

I arrived back from holiday to find that, following the ITV report, daily newspapers in the United Kingdom have been writing extensively about a certain inspirational boathouse on Coniston Water that is currently for sale.

The Daily Mail even included a clip from the film of Swallows & Amazons in their online article.

The Times calls it ‘Ransome’s adventure playground’. The Evening Mail published a photograph of him I hadn’t seen before.   The Daily Telegraph admitted that the Estate Agents have had more inquiries from journalists than buyers.

What no one has picked up on was the useful wooden jetty in front of the boathouses that appeared on Countryfile, Big Screen Britain and Country Tracks presented by Ben Fogle for BBC One.

Geraint Lewis of the Arthur Ransome Trust tells me that the wooden part of the jetty belongs to Lanehead. The old stone part belongs to Bank Ground Farm. So far as we are aware, the wooden part is not included in the Lanehead boathouse sale. Sealed bids had to be in by 4.00pm on 12th September. Peter Walker of Kendal tells me, ‘According to the local boatmen… the Lanehead boathouse has not been sold… prospective buyers have been put off by access problems.’ (See comments below).
Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville below Bank Ground Farm on Coniston in 20031
Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville when filming ‘Countryfile’ on Coniston in front of the Lanehead Boathouse in 2003
The Battys, at Bank Ground, have bought a floating jetty/pontoon, which was used by the National Trust’s Steam Launch Gondola during the Coniston Regatta in May. Geraint says,
‘This was quite a feat, as the jetty was a lot shorter than Gondola, whose prow was well over the land once docked.’
He tells me that Bank Ground intend to build a new wood jetty if or when they get planning permission, suitable for more regular visits by the Gondola and Campbell the Coniston Launch. Such a jetty would need to be “L” shaped, to allow rapid arrival and departure in deeper water’.

Do let me know of the latest news on this.

Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville on Coniston in 2003
Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton on the jetty in front of the Lanehead boatshed during the filming of ‘Countryfile’ at Bank Ground Farm.

For those who do not know the historical background:

Lanehead is the large white house above Coniston Water in Cumbria, which was once owned by WG Collingwood. He worked as the personal secretary to John Ruskin who lived  at Brantwood, just a little further down the East of Lake Road. Collingwood met the writer Arthur Ransome when he was a young man on holiday in the Lake District and invited him to stay at Lanehead.

Arthur Ransome became firm friends with WG Collingwood’s daughters Dora and Barbara. Although he light-heartedly proposed to both of them, Dora married a friend of her brother’s, a doctor of Armenian-Irish decent called Ernest Altounyan. He worked at the hospital his father had established at Aleppo in Syria where Dora joined him. They had five children – Taqui, Susie, Titty, Roger and Brigit who they would take to the Lake District every four or five years so that they could spend time with their grandparents.  With so many in the family party, the Altounyans stayed at Bank Ground Farm, next door to Lanehead. Arthur Ransome joined his old friends, helping Ernest to acquire two clinker built dinghies so that they could teach the children to sail. One was called Mavis, the other Swallow. These were kept in the boathouse that is currently for sale, which then only had a short stone jetty.

When Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for the Altounyan children, depicted as John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Brigit, he set the opening chapters at Bank Ground Farm, which he called Holly Howe.

For more information on this please read Christina Hardyment’s book, ‘Arthur Ransome and Capt Flint’s Trunk’ (p.32-44) and Jeremy Collingwood’s new book, ‘A Lakeland Saga – The story of the Collingwood and Altounyan family in Coniston and Aleppo’.

Roger Wardle, (see comments below) who has written a number of books on Arthur Ransome and has his diaries from the period tells me that there is no evidence that Arthur Ransome taught the Altounyan children to sail or that they even went out sailing in 1928/1928.  He sailed Swallow alone until the weather got too bad and she was put away for the winter but the little boat obviously stirred his imagination.

Claude Whatham at the Boathouse with Simon West and Sophie Neville
Director Claude Whatham at the Bank Ground Boathouse talking to Simon West and Sophie Neville when filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973

The film Swallows & Amazons produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973, used the Bank Ground boathouse and jetty as a location. John discovers Swallow in the boatshed on the lake below the farm where the Walker family are staying.

Simon West in the boathouse
John Walker discovering ‘Swallow’ in the boatshed belonging to Holly Howe, in the EMI-Theatre Projects film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

The children gain permission to sail Swallow and soon have her brown sail hoisted with John as Captain and  Susan as Mate, with Titty and Roger registered as crew, whilst baby Vicky helps wave them off on their adventures. The rowing boat moored next to it was known as ‘the native canoe’. It was used by Mrs Walker, graciously played by Virginia McKenna when she rowed out to Wild Cat Island where the Swallows went to camp. They encountered two girls who became know as the Amazon Pirates, after their own gaff-rigged dinghy that flew the Jolly Roger.

Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm ~ photo:Daphne Neville
Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm sitting behind the boathouses when the film was being made in 1973 ~ photo:Daphne Neville

You can read the first section of my ebook on the making of Swallows and Amazons for free here:

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

16 thoughts on “News about the Lanehead boathouse once used by Arthur Ransome”

  1. The number of newspaper articles certainly shows media interest in Arthur Ransome. I have just re-read his autobiography. The story about teaching the Altounyan children to sail is not mentioned!

  2. No and there is no mention of teaching to sail in Arthur Ransome’s diary or his wife’s or Dora Altounyan’s journal. I researched that summer of 1928 from written evidence and only found a solitary mention of AR sailing with Earnest Altounyan as soon as the dinghies had been taken to Bank Ground. He had pretty busy summer with his weekly “Rod and Line” articles and reviews.
    Titty (Altounyan) told me that her favourite occupation with the boats that year was sitting with her legs dangling over the transom watching the minnows in the shallow water. Taqui (Altounyan) recalled AR at some time getting hot under the collar when he saw someone trailing a hand in the water. No more.
    A photograph taken that year shows that they were very small children physically (Roger was only six).
    I am of the opinion that a delightful myth has emerged that “Swallows and Amazons” arose out of AR’s sailing lessons, for which there is no evidence actually took place.

    1. My main reference for this was the new book ‘A Lakeland Saga’ by Jeremy Collingwood, which I would quote but I have returned it to the TARS library. Have you read this? It seems to be most carefully researched, with references after each chapter.

      1. No I have not read it, though it has been well reviewed. I am afraid the cover put me off. Unless Jeremy Collingwood had access to letters or similar primary source (in which case somebody is bound to shoot me down) I remain unconvinced.

  3. I am confused! When we were recording the ‘On the Trail of Swallows and Amazons” we were told that the boathouse was the right hand (from the lake) of the three. Were we wrong, or is somebody using the connection as a selling point? Can anyone tell me for certain which of the trio housed “Swallow” in 1928? And where is the evidence?

    1. Many thanks again for your much-valued comments. I have re-jigged this post to make it a little clearer. What do you think? Do you mention the boathouse/houses in any of your books?

      1. Oh dear! I published a photograph of the right hand (Bank Ground) boathouse in “In Search of Swallows and Amazons”. There were other boats around in 1928 (Ransome went sailing on Coniston with Ernest Altounyan a week or so before the dinghies were bought) and so, there might not have been room for all in the central boathouse.
        I have not written about Lanehead but I recommend without reservation a wonderful piece of evocative writing by Taqui Altounyan in “In Aleppo Once” pp.171-7
        “Lanehead was like a magic spell, exerting its influence against space and time. . . “

  4. Please correct me, but as I understand it, ‘Swallow’ the Altounyan’s original 14 foot dinghy, was kept in the central boathouse that belonged to the Collingwoods of Lanehead. Ransome set the story of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at Holy Howe (Bank Ground Farm in his first draft) to whom the right hand boathouse (viewed from the lake) belonged along with a white-hulled, thirteen foot dinghy. When the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973 they featured the right-hand Bank Ground boathouse with its old stone jetty and a 12 foot dinghy. It seems the truth widened as the boat became ever shorter.

    1. Thank you Sophie. I do not think that at the time the Collingwoods actually owned Lanehead or the boathouse, but they would have had the use of it.
      Checking with my copy of Swallowdale, there is a good headpiece showing two (not three) boathouses and Mrs Walker standing on the stone jetty waving.

      1. I have been re-reading Christina Hardyment’s book, ‘Arthur Ransome and Capt Flint’s Trunk (p.32-44) which provide an insight, although nothing specific on the Lanehead boathouse.

            1. According to the local boatmen, the 3rd boathouse to which you refer also belongs to Bank Ground Farm.
              The Lanehead boathouse has not been sold… prospective buyers have been put off by access problems.

              1. Thanks so much for asking around. I wonder if the Sunday Express knows this? I saw their double page feature article you spied, published on Sunday 15th Sept. It was balanced and very well written, although they could have given us news of the sale. Rather odd not to.

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