The facts behind the concept of a ‘Swallows & Amazons’ childhood

What strikes me about Arthur Ransome’s whole series of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books is that they are set almost exclusively outside in the open – or afloat. When we made the film in 1973 it rained so much in the Lake District that the producer must have longed for the existence of a few more interior scenes. As it was, the longest one ended up on the cutting-room floor. Is this because the essence and appeal of the stories is that they occur beyond the confines of domestic realms?

Blu-ray reading telgram

‘If not duffers, won’t drown.’ Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

When I appeared on Channel 5 last year I learnt the most depressing facts about the decline in the amount of time children spend outdoors. Recent research shows that children tend to stay indoors, watching television, playing computer games or even spend time doing homework, rather than go out to play. Kids today play outside for less than five hours a day at weekends and only for an hour or so during the week, which is half the time their parents spent outdoors, whatever the weather. You’d have thought they must have had higher levels of vitamin D. Apparently only 21% children today play outside near their homes, as compared to 71% of their own parents when they were young.

Blu-ray Swallow's stern


  • 44 % of parents wish their children played outdoors more often.
  • 54 % seriously worry their child doesn’t spend enough time playing outdoors.
  • But 43 % of parents admitted they rely on school to ensure their children are getting plenty of time outdoors through PE and play times, and spend very little outdoor time with their children themselves.
  • One study found that eight in ten parents said their favourite activities as children involved being outdoors. But only half their children lead the same active life.

Apparently parents have forgotten how to play with their kids. While nine of ten parents recognise that it is vital for children to use their imaginations, 16 per cent of parents say they have no idea how to make up stories or create imaginative play. What would Titty say?

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‘X marks the spot where they ate six missionaries!’ Simon West, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon on Peel Island in the English Lake District.

So what’s changed?

  • 32% of parents quote safety fears as the reason their children didn’t play out more often.
  • 19% said it was due to a lack of time.
  • 16% said their children would rather do other things.
  • 53% of parents were reluctance to letting children out of their sight on the danger posed by traffic
  • 40% feared their child would be snatched by a stranger.
  • Over 25% worry their neighbours would disapprove if their children played outdoors unsupervised.

 Blu-ray gutting fish

The Arthur Ransome Society have organised a number of activities for families this summer, including a camp at Cobnor Point on Chichester Harbour from Friday 14th August to Sunday 16th August. The idea is that you bring your own tent, food, drink and a boat if you have one but the cost is very low at £20 for adults and £10 for children. Activities include nature walks, archery, games, signalling and water divinging with sailing when the weather permits. The cost includes a barbeque on the Saturday evening. Please click here for details.

If you missed Dan Damon’s programme on BBC Radio 4, when I spoke on the appeal of a Swallows and Amazons childhood, you can listen to the full recording on BBC World Update by clicking here.

If you would like to read more about the making of the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, please click here:

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

25 thoughts on “The facts behind the concept of a ‘Swallows & Amazons’ childhood”

  1. Aha! The famous Magnus Smith, Keeper of the Swallow. You might have a big project here, Sophie, ‘Childhood Regained’.. The microchip has led us indoors somewhat…it’s important to keep a balance… This is paradoxical when climate change is pushing us outside…! You will see just how hot Georgia is! I found it somewhat ironic today that the clinic, at 4:30 were unwilling to take a couple of blood tests from me fore a routine medical, because I was ‘late’! yes – a 95 degree afternoon sun does require a siesta! Clinic should know that! ‘Nother part of the same problem! Man’s dislocation of himself from himself! Now that started from the Russian Revolution onwards, Ransome doing the escaping! There is something lurking here, yes? – in what you say? The last two Guardian “secret teacher’ pieces have echoed the same theme…

    1. I like the idea of ‘childhood regained’. I also think it good for children to work a bit during the holidays. They love fundraising. Do children work in Georgia?

  2. It IS a sad fact that children don’t spend nearly enough time outdoors. If I think back to my childhood in the Karoo and how many hours every day were spent out in the veld, or playing closer to home, I feel sorry for today’s youngsters.

    The ARS’s initiative is a wonderful one, and I wish it all success.

    S&A forever!

  3. Good to see your new post, Sophie – as always at this time of year I’m definitely out of doors, excavating in central Turkey – 9 hours a day in a trench in nearly 42 degrees. It’s a real shame that many parents are afraid to let their children play out of doors (though of course there is some risk). When I was young I had a lot of outdoor freedom, for a sad reason – my mother had had polio, so couldn’t come out and scamper around with me and my sister, so she courageously let us go (giving us the basic warning about Strange Men). I feel that she and Mrs Walker both saw the huge greater good of letting us loose, and I’ve always been grateful for that childhood.

  4. Semi-rural Somerset, suburban Buenos Aires (!), edge-of-small-town Sussex. It’s the fields and hedgerows of Somerset that I look back to, but in B Aires I explored the streets and river area endlessly on my little bike, and in Sussex the countryside started right behind our house. I’m so grateful to my father for doing this for us, as he could easily have chosen somewhere much more convenient for getting to work. And there was Cdr Walker arranging for his family (I always assume vaguely that they lived in a flat in London) to have a happy rural summer.

    1. I too am endlessly grateful to my parents for bringing us up in the country. It was pretty isolated where we lived, which made transport an issue, but I loved it all.

  5. As the elder of two sons , we were fortunate to have two parents who were both teachers . Our parents` holidays were the same as ours , lengthy and we often went out in our Austin A30 or later our Vauxhall Viva . Holidays were often in Britain and our uncle and aunt lived in Bournemouth , so seaside holidays were a popular ( and cheap ) option . We both look back on childhood holidays as happy times – family times – not expensive `theme park` times which seem to be so much the `norm` today .

      1. My wife and I camped with our daughters in Sandown , I.O.W. in 1984 (frame tent !). My earlier camping was in our garden in 1965 for one night , in an ancient 1920`s tent , not unlike those used on Wild Cat Island . My friend and I lasted until about 4a.m. when the sofa won !!

            1. In a study conducted on what made for strong family bonds, camping came high on the list, especially if a storm came in and the family had to huddle together and overcome the hardship.

              1. We only had one thunderstorm in 1984 in Sandown , but our girls have often suffered torrential downpours at the CCIW camps which they attended at Towyn , mid Wales , for many years .

  6. I wonder of these statistics how many families surveyed lived in cities? in the 2012 census “London has the smallest proportion [of overall population] living in a whole house [includes bungalow, detached or attached property]: 48%. In the capital 50.3% live in flats, with 1+% in commercial buildings” Even in small towns in the countryside, in compacted council estates, children live in maisonette blocks or blocks of flats with no outside space. It’s interesting that having access to outside space is not mentioned. Perhaps the control group needs status clarification to be a valid scientifically? 🙂

      1. in the 1940s and up to 1955 I lived in a small road of typical ‘3-up, 3-down’ 1930s homes like the Hope and Glory film.
        Apart from the odd lorry or van no traffic entered the street and none parked. We kids were free in our own version of paradise. We played hopscotch, rounders, cricket and football as well as chasing games. Not a Swallows and Amazons childhood, but an outdoor one, until a mother would appear and call you in for dinner As i grew older I was allowed to go to the nearest farmland with a friend, not more than half a mile.
        We had our ‘Swallowdale’, Watch tower rock of huge dead tree, a small drainage river (guess what?) and our own SW ‘buffaloes’ to avoid when blackberring.
        Today the houses have no front gardens as-two-car families need the space. The farm vanished under a housing estate years ago

  7. I grew up in a city but until about age 12 I spent summers at the country cottages of aunts and uncles. Entire days were spent in the woods or by the lake or stream alone or with friends and I’d simply return to the cottage for lunch and supper. The only time I’d be scolded would be if my estimate was way off and my meal had to be reheated/reconstituted in some way. For the rest of my youth I had complete freedom in the city and would spend the entire day with friends, playing sports, bike-riding or swimming at the local pool. No incidents, no accidents, no worries. I truly feel sorry for the kids of today! Still, I envy the Swallows and their access to a sailboat! That would have been the ultimate freedom for this complete duffer!

  8. Dear Sophie , My family ( self ,wife , 2 daughters – 36 and 33 and husbands and our grandchildren , 6,5,4 and 3 all live in Greater Manchester . We are within 30 minutes of Holmfirth , 45 minutes of Leeds , 90 minutes of York and I can drive to Windermere in under 2 hours . Having been born in Leicester in 1953 , I made a great decision to move `UP NORTH ` in 1972. The countryside is a matter of minutes away , the air is clear ( and our drinking water comes down a pipe from Hawesater ) – We count our blessings daily !
    TARS for ever , Martin

  9. I was brought up near the sea, in Southsea, and then in a suburb of South London but managed to be out in the ‘fresh’ air a lot; either with individual friends or with the Cubs and, later, Scouts. I was encouraged in this by both parents who didn’t want to see me ‘loafing about’ indoors. It’s tragic that the emphasis is now so much on ‘safety’ that parents seem almost afraid to let their children go out.

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