Taqui Altounyan on Peel Island

Amazon, originally known as Mavis, now rsiding at the Coniston Museum
Amazon, originally known as Mavis, now residing at the Coniston Museum

People come from all over the world to visit Mavis, the traditional gaff-rigged dinghy known to all those who love the Arthur Ransome books as Amazon. She has been lovingly renovated but, still being a bit leaky, is on permanent display at the Coniston Museum in the Lake District. It was in this clinker-built dinghy and another little ship named Swallow that the Altounyan children learnt to sail on Coniston Water in the late 1920s.

In later life they used Mavis to teach their own children and grandchildren to sail. She was kept in Brigit Sander’s (ne Altounyan) boathouse at Slate Quay, which so resembles Ransome’s illustrations of the Amazon boathouse.

Suzie, Taqui and Brigit Altounyan

One of the secrets of  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that the character of Captain John, was, if anything, loosely based on a the eldest girl in the family. Arthur Ransome obviously needed to balance genders and have two boys and three girls instead of only one boy, as in real life. Taqui Altounyan seemed to take this in her stride, giving him what advice she could. She has detailed this in her memoirs of the family’s lives:  In Allepo Once and Chimes from a Wooden Bell  – excellent books that have become much sort after.

Roger Wardale, author of many books about Arthur Ransome and the locations he used in his stories, kindly sent me these photographs of Taqui that he took when she was showing him some of the places where she played as a girl.

Taqui on PEEL Island -
Taqui Altounyan on Peel Island, Coniston Water

The Lake District, where her Collingwood Grandparents lived, was obviously a special place for her.

Taqui at Beacon Tarn
Taqui Altounyan pointing to the rocks from which they would jump into Trout (Beacon) Tarn.

These photographs of Roger’s show her walking back in time,


visit Mavis in Coniston Museum

Taqui + MAVIS
Taqui Altounyan looking at Mavis, who was later renamed Amazon

and go aboard SL Esperance on Windermere,

Taqui, _You can sweep up_
‘You can sweep up’ Taqui Altounyan in Esperance

soaking up the atmosphere in her cabin.

Taqui Altounyan with Roger Wardale and some of his former pupils inside the Esperance, which was the model for Captain Flint’s houseboat

Very many thanks to Roger Wardale, whose own books can be found listed here.

For more photos of Amazon please click here

You can read about making of the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here:

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

24 thoughts on “Taqui Altounyan on Peel Island”

  1. Oh, Sophie–what a lovely post! I have read Taqui’s two books, and own both of them. I think she must have been a wonderful woman, and a great oldest sibling in that active family! Thanks for these photos of her re-visiting the special places 🙂

    1. Thanks to Roger Wardale, really. I have ‘Chimes From a Wooden Bell’ open right now where Taqui says, ‘…I was not in the least like ‘Captain John’….The Walkers were certainly not the Altounyans.’ but they certainly inspired Arthur Ransome and it looks as if she enjoyed flying the flag in later life.

  2. It is interesting that the Houseboat never existed on Coniston Water but was a mobile boat on Windermere; and that it was specially imported for the film. What really intrigues me is that Ransome as Captain Flint, writing in the Houseboat, is really writing Swallows and Amazons, so that he has a Prospero like role:

    (to FERDINAND) You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
    As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir.
    Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
    As I foretold you, were all spirits and
    Are melted into air, into thin air.

    Just a few days ago we listened to the audio of Chapter Three, then saw the relevant part of the film, then read through the relevant part of the script and then saw a two-minute instructional video on jibing! That was followed up by some Robinson Crusoe!

    The book and the whole coming into being of it and its variants is wondrous indeed!

    1. Your Chapter Three Day sounds great!

      Sadly we were unable to use the ‘Esperance’ when filming in 1973. We actually shot the Houseboat scenes on Derwentwater, converting the ‘Lady Derwentwater’ who was in working order, licensed to carry 90 passengers.

  3. I was privileged to sail Amazon once, when she was still allowed out on the water….
    Hmm, I’m not 100% convinced that the earnest and sober John was drawn from our feisty Taqui…. She always seemed to me, when I used to know her, to relate to quite a different leading character……………. 🙂 🙂 John I always saw as the young Ransome.
    On a slightly related subject, I wonder whether I could give a plug for a short piece about Ransome’s characters? See http://www.allthingsransome.net/literary/its_a_wise_child/index.html: I met Isobel Laidler, then aged 12, in 2008 and discovered that she had some most original things to say about AR’s characters, so I added some preliminary notes and got her thoughts published on Allthingsransome. Sophie, I’d love to hear what you think of her analysis of Titty? (Isobel, incidentally, is now in her first year at Cambridge, reading English literature and very active on the drama scene.)

    1. Isobel wrote: ‘Titty is a character who likes to get lost in her own world of excitement and adventure, and her love of books must enhance that imaginative world. But surely there is a personal side to all of this: Ransome had a loved child of his own to care for. Was this the inspiration for Titty? In the first book, where she waves goodbye to her mother, whilst her siblings are away at war, she starts to cry. Is this just because she’s homesick, or is it because she felt just what Ransome feared his daughter felt? Did sensitive Titty have a secret fear that she had been abandoned by her father, or forgotten on his exotic trips around the world? Maybe this helps to explain her wild imaginings about Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday, her voodoo accidents, and her own particular attitude to ‘natives’. Out of all the Walker children, I think that Titty is the most real to Ransome.’

      I certainly think Ransome enjoyed writing about her. She now stands out as one of the great characters of English Literature, does she not?

      1. The South American strand is there in the Keats quotation right at the top of Chapter One, and runs throughout the book, although it is more real to Titty than to the others. I think The Tempest is again relevant: Titty has something of Ariel.

      2. The idea that Tabitha made her way into any of the characters had never really occurred to me before, but it does rather make sense that she would. Which is at once fascinating but also rather depressing as, if AR had hoped Tabitha would see something of herself in one of the characters then he would have been even more disappointed by her reaction to the book. Although I think AR manages to make all the characters real and none of them are too rigidly stuck to a “type”, Titty and Nancy are the two most fully realised. Taqui always considered herself to be Nancy, I understand, and she seems as likely an original model as anybody else.

  4. The South American strand is right there in the Keats quotation at the start of the book, and it runs throughout the children’s imaginative world. Titty has something of Ariel in her relationship with the island – qualities which are excellently developed in the film. Observing children of this age, it is clear that some kind of magical world really is is rather more real to them than we imagine..conventional education rather works against this – neutralizes it, in fact – rather than builds on it…

  5. I do not believe Taqui ever considered herself to be Nancy, Duncan.
    I wrote many years ago that her letters to her Uncle Arthur were Nancy-like, no more.
    In our several conversations on the subject, she did not see herself as John, either, but was happy to play whatever ‘role’ Ransome’s enthusiasts wished.
    I do not think Ransome’s siblings should be left out of any consideration of possible inspirations.
    We had a picnic lunch aboard the Houseboat and spilt crumbs on the carpet, hence the dustpan and brush.
    Taqui is actually pointing to the deep part of Trout (Beacon) Tarn where she and the others used to jump in.

  6. As a rider to what I wrote before — In Aleppo when Taqui was about twelve, she and friends formed the Cassiopeia’s Chair Club and ‘did a lot of dancing, dressing up and acting. One of my costumes was a poppy made out of scarlet organdie petals on each of which was a patch of black silk, with a green organdie bodice.’
    But when they left for the mountains in the summer the club became quite different. The club’s aim was to encourage ‘toughness and daring’ and to ‘stamp out muffishness’. A muff ‘minded getting dirty and tearing their clothes’. To join a girl had to pass a series of daunting tests. The members wore shirts and shorts, with scout belts and a whistle and knife hung on a lanyard round their neck.

    1. Hello. I guess you are quoting from ‘In Aleppo Once’? What would be the dominant ideological influence then, on these girls? What was their father doing? Was he the Armenian; and his wife from NW England? Where did they meet? Was he of the ‘Baden-Powell’ school? Because scouting was born roughly at this time…and I think B-P wanted to extend it to girls from Day 1. Being nice to neighbours and natives was part of the code. We see that when in the film the Roger says ‘Hello sir’ to the farmer. Maybe there was a dawning consciousness that the great War had solved nothing, and that during the next one, women would have to be a lot more active. This in general worked, though my paternal grandmother, of quasi aristocratic pretensions, is said to have played Bach fugues on the piano for the duration, and refused to work! Martin (Bolnisi)

  7. mfmsm — their father was a surgeon — he was part Armenian (a ‘mongrel’, he said) — they met when the Altounyan’s uncle, Robin Collingwood invited him home for the holidays from school — he almost certainly was a disciple of B-P.

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