Swallows, Amazons and Archery

Much has been written of the legacy left by Arthur Ransome who inspired so many go camping, fell walking or sail the seven seas. I hope he would be amused to learn it has been the arrow, fletched with green parrot feathers, that has flown through the pages of my life.

Sophie Neville the archer c 1969~Sophie Neville dressed as a medieval archer in 1969~

Archery became a popular sport for ladies in Victorian England. The influence was not lost on Arthur Ransome who writes in his autobiography that his Great-aunt Susan was a keen toxophilite who attended bow meetings at Belle Isle, the long island on Windermere. Another great-aunt was shot in the bonnet by an arrow when the Boxer Rising reached Peking. She was serving as a missionary.

I gather it was Arthur Ransome’s sister, Joyce, who owned a green parrot whose feathers made good pipe cleaners. Did they ever get used for flighting arrows? Arthur doesn’t seem to have taken up a bow beyond, perhaps, playing Red Indians as a child with his friend Ric Eddison.

Titty Walker may not have known that the real Queen Bess was a proficient archer, but Roger certainly expected savages to be armed with poison-tipped arrows as he took dispatches across the Peak at Darien. Did Nancy and Peggy ever don Red Indian head-dresses? Since they are described as wearing red caps when the Swallows first encounter them, I assume this idea was instigated by Helen Edmundson’s musical and reinforced by the 2016 film of Swallows and Amazons. Although far from nautical, this is akin to certain antics in Secret Water and certainly adds visual drama to the confrontation.

Practicing with bows and arrows

~Sophie Neville with Peter Robb-King, Ronnie Cogan, Lesley Bennett, Kit Seymour and Terry Smith~ 

I learnt how to shoot in 1973 when the Amazons were being taught how to pull a bow made of Lakeland hazel for the original movie of Swallows and Amazons. As children, we all wanted a go. I still have a practice bow and a couple of arrows whittled on location by Bob Hedges, our property master. I remember one hitting the campfire. ‘Don’t touch the point – it might be poisonous!’ Please note that the shot of the arrows zooming over our heads looks so dangerous on screen that it was cut from the television version of the feature film. This was no snazzy visual effect. The arrows were genuine, however they were strung on taut nylon fishing line rigged over our heads to ensure we would not get hit. They were fired by the prop men and not the Amazons.


~Daphne Neville who won many archery prizes teaching Lesley Bennett (Peggy Blackett)~

As female Amazon warriors were redoubtable archers it is easy to imagine Captain Nancy bent a sapling to her will and had Peggy making arrows. It is reasonable to assume they used longbows on Wild Cat Island, but in Swallowdale it is a crossbow that graces Ransome’s illustration. How Nancy got her hands on one is unknown but it must have been simpler to use in a boat with discretion and accuracy. Did Ransome ever try this out?

Sophie Neville shooting

~Sophie Neville shooting with a compound bow in the Emirates~

What happened to the bows and arrows after Swallowdale? Archery is something you usually grow into, rather than out of. By the age of fifteen, I’d gained the part of an archery champion in an adventure movie called The Copter Kids. This necessitated target practice with a modern re-curve bow and ended with me shooting from a helicopter.

I now belong to a number of archery societies and, like Great-aunt Susan, set out with my tabs and tassel, quiver and longbow. Luckily the skill, much like an appreciation of Arthur Ransome’s writing, is something that tends to improve with age. I met my husband at one bow meeting, have held three Ladies’ Championship titles and managed to reach a distance of 145 yards when we celebrated the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt.

I have never fired a crossbow. Since they are potentially lethal weapons, Nancy could have been detained for firing hers even if the tip was not deemed poisonous.

Author Sophie Neville

 ~Sophie Neville at a West Berks bow meeting~

A version of this article was originally published in Mixed Moss, the journal of The Arthur Ransome Society.

You can read more in ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ available online:

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

13 thoughts on “Swallows, Amazons and Archery”

  1. Thank you Sophie, very interesting!
    I’d never thought about where Nancy’s crossbow came from in Swallowdale, I suppose I must have supposed it was always around but it’s never mentioned again!

      1. None that come to mind, but I’ll keep looking!

        Ransome certainly created Nancy to be someone to try and do anything, maybe archery was just one of those and once he’d got a plot idea out of it he moved on to something else.

  2. Another lovely post, with the real (you and your mother being archers) and story parts blended. Yes, an interesting thought about the crossbow – Nancy presumably browbeat someone in order to get one for the motorboat trip, having considered and discarded the idea of using a longbow.
    As for archery disappearing in the stories, I’m not v surprised as children definitely have ‘crazes’ for one summer. The Amazons might indeed have continued with some archery while the Swallows were absent, but once the whole gang was together (and perhaps the Swallows weren’t so into archery – heavens, imagine Roger loose with a bow) the Amazons would focus on something that everyone wanted to do together.
    We could also envisage a scenario where Nancy accidentally winged a pig during some sort of pirate raid, and was sternly forbidden to draw bow for a year…..

    1. I think Arthur Ransome must have liked the idea of using the parrot’s feathers to fletch the Amazons’ arrows. Maybe he knew someone who once used feathers in this way and showed them to a parrot who was justly outraged. In reality it is not such a good idea to use green feathers as you can’t spot the arrows in green grass. My husband does have one or two with green and white fletchings. My own are blue and yellow. Have you ever shot?

      1. Evidently need a different-colour parrot!! No, I’ve never done more than try a longbow out at country fairs – and in fact I seemed to be quite accurate, so perhaps it’s something I’ll take up in some far future leisure period. I did enjoy a display at one show where a group of archers shot as many arrows as they could for 15 seconds to show just how devastating the onslaught must have been to the French at Agincourt: there was an absolute swarm of arrows filling the air – scary.

  3. This is a fascinating blog post Sophie, thank you. I have never tried archery but it looks and sounds very exciting and great fun. I don’t know whether I’ve left it too late to try but I would definitely have a go given the chance. The crossbow was the favoured weapon of William Tell, I seem to remember.

      1. Thank you, I am looking forward to receiving my first ‘Mixed Moss’ in due course. My form is now in the post!

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