Is it possible to have a Swallows and Amazons childhood these days?

Sophie Neville promoting her book

When I appeared on Channel 5 recently Matthew Wright asked, “… if it’s possible to have a Swallows and Amazons childhood these days – and if today’s kids would actually have the skills to survive.”

I received so many interesting comments on Twitter and Facebook that I thought I should copy them here, hoping it is OK by those who took the time to write in.

“Would they survive? Hmm. Better drowned than duffers…” Fergus

“Of course it’s possible – we do it every time we are on holiday at real Swallows and Amazons location. Our kids love it….” Kate

“I think few parents would look at a small sailboat & Coniston Water or Windermere, and give the go-ahead for children ages 12-7 to sail & camp by themselves. However, there are a lot of really wonderful parents who sail & camp WITH their children, and then allow independent exploration with help nearer at hand.” Elizabeth (USA)

“OK – so we cheat a little – in that we stay in the cottage rather than in tents on Wild Cat Island – but it has got a little busy there of late. Trying to bring a boat or canoe into the secret harbour is more like trying to park in a multi national supermarket car park, but very little has truly changed on the island and if you can see past the bright orange and red buoyancy aids of the temporary visitors, one can still imagine being the Walker children. And if you get the island to yourselves – it’s pure joy. We frequently issue the owl hoot just to let our kids know that food is ready! As for the lagoon downstream – it’s still there – our kids have taken to canoeing as far downstream as they can – wading in low water and paddling down rapids where they can. They take no mobiles, IT equipment etc – and they are gone for hours making maps of the stream and naming the shores, fallen trees etc.” Kate

“I’ve just been reading my daughter the bit in Winter Holiday where Dick rescues the cragfast sheep by inching his way along a rock ledge. “Would you be able to do that?” I asked her. “No, I’d be much too scared!” she replied. And I said “Good!”.” Valerie

“Some risks are too high, too likely to leave the child unable to enjoy a normal life afterwards. Examples: diving into rivers with rocks, driving way above the speed limit, using illegal drugs/binge drinking. There are risks that simply have too high a chance of a serious bad outcome. I like the “Roots & Wings” approach. While they are young, you teach how to make a reasonable decision about any given risk, then as they mature, let the child figure out more on their own.” Elizabeth

“It isn’t only duffers who come to grief, and even if it was, duffers deserve to be protected from their own stupidity. So, I prefer the idea of teaching children what the risks are and how to manage risk so that they can then do things that look highly risky without there being any great risk. What is wrong is to shut children’s lives down instead of teaching them how to be safe and free, and that’s the most dangerous route of all because it sets them up for empty lives which will lead them on into a prolonged and deep exploration of alcohol and drugs. Freedom is essential for good mental health and needs to be maximized, but learning about risk management is a crucial part of that. So, how do you teach risk management without it being dull? Get out there with your children and join in with the play. Point out the possible dangers along the way, not in a lecturing way, but simply by telling little stories about idiots who came to grief by making mistakes. It doesn’t take long to make a dangerous environment safe for children to play in by putting ideas in their heads as to all the easy ways to be killed or injured by the apparatus at hand. If they know what the unexpected dangers are, they will be armed against making them. If they die after that, then it will be against the odds – it would have been more dangerous not to let them out.” David

“Agree 100%. In my mind, risk-averseness is one of the great failings of my fellow modern Americans. Never be sorry for a might-have-been.” Sandy

Sophie Neville on The Wright Stuff

If you have views on the subject, or want to see more on outdoor pursuits discussed on the programme, send an email to:

To watch a recording of the programme please click here

Sophie Neville with Kate McIntyre

with Kate McIntryre who loves the outdoor lifestyle

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

22 thoughts on “Is it possible to have a Swallows and Amazons childhood these days?”

  1. A difficult one, and I think it has more to do with your own nature and experiences than the times we live in.
    I’m now 61 but when I was 7 my 10 year old brother (and only sibling) was killed in a road accident. We lived in the country (in Suffolk) in a small village, and prior to his death in the school holidays we would roam the fields and play by a small river, making bows and arrows, chasing cows, playing with electric fences (see what you touch it with and not get a shock!), he had a knife and I can remember getting a small axe from the garden shed once to cut down a willow branch to make a bow.
    When I was 9 or 10 we lived in another village and looking back my parents allowed me to go wandering the local fields (again with a river, and I couldn’t swim!), and this seems very trusting and brave of them. In contrast when I stayed with my maternal grandparents who lived in a small seaside town they were appalled my grandfather allowed me to cross the road on my own and do errands for him (he owned a shop and couldn’t leave it unattended.)
    I’ve not been a parent, but when my partner’s grandchildren were the age of the Swallows and Amazons I probably was over-protective, they are now 18 and 21 and I still worry sometimes about where they are and what they are up too!
    So I think it has much more to do with the parents and the children’s upbringing!

  2. Sophie – thanks!
    As I get older I wonder how my parents let themselves give me so much freedom (and how they coped with it all anyway!)

  3. Yes, but interestingly this would be in the same era S & A was set. My father in a small country town, my mother in a small seaside town. But then they were of a generation who went to work when they were fifteen (that’s how they met!)

      1. I think so, over-protectiveness undermines self-confidence in some ways. What you had to say on Matthew Wright’s programme was very true – that you were brought up, and you and your husband have brought your own children up, to do these things with the right amount of supervision so they can do things but not be in danger. Too many parents seemed to assume they will be in danger from the start. Depends where you live as well, I wonder if current children who grow up in the countryside have more freedom to do things as we did?

        1. You can’t start too young, especially when pointing out poisonous plants or the dangers posed by traffic. I try to use different warning such as ‘Careful’, or u-huh, rather than ‘NO!’ all the time.

          We were camping once and I watched someone – who is a very good father – let his 15 year old burn himself when cooking on the fire.
          ‘Why did you let him?’
          ‘It won’t kill him. He’ll learn a lesson that will never be forgotten and look after others better as a result.’
          I could see the sense in this, as boy was too old to be nagged and would have resented his father fussing over him.

          1. This reminds me of something in my childhood, in the house I was born in there was a small coke burner in the hall. When I was around three years old (in the summer) I kept touching it having been told not to as one day it could be hot, but I carried on. Apparently (my mother told me this years later) she waited until she used it in the autumn, when it had burnt out and cooled a bit she took my finger and put it on it! (she said it wasn’t hot enough to harm me, but it was enough to make sure I never touched it!)

  4. Sophie, it should be even easier for parents to give kids that S&A freedom, given that communications are more instant (texting) and potential rescue much quicker.

    My own kids have had that freedom – as have the kids in my latest books.

    In my view it is the twin curses of overregulation (minimum ages for unsupervised activity) and the insidious distraction of virtual reality, that are undermining the ability for parents to give those freedoms, and the interest of kids to even use such opportunity if offered. I’ve been exploring these issues myself in the Australian & NZ media recently. You’re doing a great job in the N Hemispher to keep the suibject alive – Keep it up !

  5. Part One
    The question seems to have taken as its premise that it was possible (or is it more possible) for the children of the late 1920s to have the freedom to sail and camp, while keeping parental supervision at arms length, enjoyed by fictional children.
    I think the secret of the success of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was summed up by Titty Altounyan, who told me, ‘We did none of those things, they were what we would have liked to do.’ As one reviewer remarked, the book made ‘dreams come true’.
    The young Altounyans in 1928 sailed with a parent, and they were ‘taken’ to picnic on Wild Cat Island. Years later, as teenagers, they had a friend of their father keeping an eye on their activities at Coniston.
    In those pre-war days comparatively few families could afford the Walker’s/Blackett’s/Callum’s lifestyle, anyway. The huge success of the series in the 1930s and 1940s was in part due to that fictional wish-fulfillment. Today many more families are in a position to give their children a Swallows and Amazons childhood, although I am not too sure what that means.
    Taking the series as a whole, it seems as if Ransome is careful to remind readers of the dangers faced by his fictional children as a result of the freedom they enjoy — sailing in the dark, swimming for their lives, getting lost in the fog, falling through careless climbing, getting caught in a blizzard, almost getting trapped underground and burnt in a fell fire, drifting out to sea in fog and getting trapped by the rising tide. Is he not offering a cautionary reminder to 1930s parents and children?

    1. Part Two
      In ‘Coot Club’, ‘The Big Six’, ‘The Picts and the Martyrs’ and ‘Great Northern?’ there are no dangers of this kind and the adults are more closely involved. Is this a coincidence?
      Having freedom as a child does not necessarily equate to having a Swallows and Amazons childhood, unless that is simply what the phrase means.
      Just as the Swallows needed Mary Walker (in Ted’s absence), so the children of today who learn to sail and to become self-reliant need the active support of their parents to adapt the adventures of fictional children for them. David seems to have the right idea.
      On Coniston, there was a large family who camped on the shore across from Wild Cat Island for the the summer holidays during the inter-war years. There is a good case to be made for them as the ‘original’ Swallows, but the point is, that since the children were real there was greater parental involvement.
      I have taken children aged between nine and eleven to climb Kanchenjunga — a great Swallows and Amazons experience. But just as it was in 1929, only irresponsible parents would have allowed them to climb alone. If anything, it is less dangerous today owing to the greatly increased number of climbers.

    2. I completely agree. I few people – namely my father – did seem to have a huge amount of freedom. As a boy Dad thought nothing of sailing from Lymington over to the Isle of Wight, by himself, to the amazement of the Americans stationed at Yarmouth.

    3. I would agree Roger, particularly your last comment. But he does incidents that they do need adult help with – in Swallowdale Roger’s twisted ankle, though the help is given by outsiders who many parents would not have trusted to do so. Aren’t the books a reminder to parents too that you can give children a degree of freedom if they are aware of the dangers? It seems many modern parents are far too aware of remote dangers and ‘protect’ their children by giving them the idea that those dangers are everywhere.

  6. It should be possible to have a Swallows and Amazons childhood these days. It is if the parents aren’t over-protective, which, sadly, today a lot of them are. The risks, in the countryside such as the Lake District are more or less the same as they were; less now if you go boating with life jackets. There needs to be a happy medium struck between over-closeting and neglect.

          1. Exactly. My parents were marvellous in this respect, allowing me to go off rock-climbing, mountaineering and sailing with the scouts with very little adult ‘interference’.

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