A boaty biography

Sophie Neville

I grew up with boats in the garden. My father owned eight at one time, including two coracles and a vintage river launch called Ottor that he renovated himself.

Martin Neville with friends on the Norfolk Broads

As a young man, while setting up a team to develop the fibreglass hull, Dad raced on the Solent, volunteered on a tall ship, and wrangled an Atlantic crossing on the maiden return voyage of the QE2, taking us children around the liner when it reached Southampton.

Sophie Neville with her younger sisters aboard the QEII in 1969

I learnt to sail dinghies at Newport Bay in Pembrokeshire, later making my own sail for a Thames skiff so that I could take it down the lake where I grew up in Gloucestershire. My father wanted a Mirror dinghy, but since they were beyond his budget we had a dubious one-design with a ? on its sail.

A family holiday in a Hullabaloo boat on the Broads – off season

Dad bought one of the first Toppers, which seemed quite daring at the time. It had no halyards. Its arrival caused much excitement. Called Earwig, the fibreglass hull was portable but proved precarious, soaking the crew as waves sloshed over her orange deck. I wasn’t much good at withstanding the cold and grew to loath setting off with wet feet.

Sophie Neville rowing to Cormorant Island
Sophie Neville as Titty and Sten Grendon as Roger rowing to Cormorant Island

Playing Titty in original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ involved quite a bit of rowing, which I kept up first as a member of the Collingwood Ladies Four at Durham University and later on the crew of The Drapers’ Shallop, a ceremonial barge that can be spotted on the Thames and River Lea, the Dart or Poole Harbour.

Rowing the Drapers’ shallop down to Runnymede

My dedication to fixed thwart rowing enabled me to take part in a Jubilee Pageant for The Queen at Henley, transport a copy of the Magna Carta to Windsor, and man an oar of the royal barge Gloriana in the Boat Race flotilla at Putney a year when Cambridge won.

Sophie Neville rowing in black cap on the River Thames at Putney

Belonging to the rowing club, City Barge, enabled me to take part in the Voga Longa in Venice – a 35km marathon – with the gold medalist Ed Coode as stroke. I later rowed a sandalo down the Amstel into Amsterdam standing to row Venetian-style, getting used to the idea of using a forcola in windy weather.

In the bows of a sandalo on the River Amstel in Amsterdam

We navigated the shallop down a tributary of the Loire in Brittany, leading a procession of two hundred and forty traditional boats into Nantes for the Rendez-vous de l’Erdre. I was asked to take the helm on the way back, great Dutch barges bearing down on us.

With the presenter and crew of France 3 news

One of my favourite vessels is a two-man canvas canoe my sister found on a rubbish dump. I nearly drowned after getting stuck in a kayak and prefer an open dugout or fibreglass equivalent. These have taken me on adventures in Papua New Guinea, across Lake Malawi and through the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Bird watching on the Boro River – Sophie Neville with Jez Lye

Back in 1978, I helped my father, Martin Neville, to restore a 1901 steamboat called Daffodil, which they kept near Oxford at Port Meadow on the Thames.

SL Daffodil on the River Thames

We would steam down to Henley each year for the royal regatta or upstream towards Letchlade. You can read about how we renovated here here.

We took a Humber Yawl that Dad built to take part in a Steam Boat Association rally on Windermere and pay homage to launches used in the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ kept by George Pattinson at the Steam Boat Museum, now known as Windermere Jetty.

Lullaby undersail, playing the Teasel on the broads

I a lot of time on the water while filming the 1984 BBC adaptation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ when we spent three months filming on the Norfolk Broads. The series starred a yacht called Lullaby from Hunter’s Yard, which you can now hire for holidays.

I went away from my wedding in a punt, Dad polling while I sat with my new husband, holding an umbrella while a rainbow appeared over the water.

At the Brewery Arts Cinema in Kendal for the launch of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ and the 40th Anniversary DVD

While serving as President of The Arthur Ransome Society, I gave twelve Q&As at cinemas. Members of SailRansome have often come along with the little clinker-built dinghy used as Swallow, which I helped purchase when she came up for auction in 2010.

I am often asked to write articles about my life afloat, and have spoken at literary festivals, on BBC Radio and on ITV News when I nearly capsized.

On ITV News at Ten with Nina Nannar

It is with The Arthur Ransome Society that I have been able to sail an historic wherry down the Norfolk Broads, take an old German ferry to Lundy Island and cruise down Coniston Water on SL Gondola.

Aboard Wherry Maud – photo Diana Dicker

As a member of the Nancy Blackett Trust, I’ve sailed on the Orwell, in the Solent and through the inland waterways of the Netherlands, visiting Middleburg.

~Nancy Blackett in the Netherlands~

I enjoyed crossing the Veersemere to Zierikzee in the wake of my own forefathers.

Over the years, I’ve grabbed the chance to sail yachts to Salcombe, up the coast of Norway and through the Mediterranean but I still love taking out a small boat in the Lake District or on the Norfolk Broads.

At Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads

You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available on line.

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

13 thoughts on “A boaty biography”

      1. I did, thank you; quite a bit, in fact. And most of the photos I don’t think I’ve seen before.

          1. Well, it’s not my idea of luxury but I love the dugout canoe too, and the ‘Gloriana’. But my favourite boat has to be ‘Daffodil’; and I love the idea of you being punted away from your wedding, that surely has to be the most romantic ‘end of a perfect day’, even in the rain!

              1. Thanks very much for this new link, Sophie. I will look at it in later tonight. I really enjoyed the blog post on ‘Daffodil’. It’s a shame she was so fragile but what an ingenious way to make her usable. Thanks again, for both links.

  1. Dear Sophie fabulous stories what a fairytale child hood you had .The roots had been set for your future with boats. I got the Norfolk Broads bug in 1969 very rarely missed going since then .Kind Regards Roy .X

      1. Thank you so much for the link, the article looks brilliant. I shall enjoy reading this very much, the first photo alone looks fabulous. You’ve told me about your ‘Funnily Enough’ blog posts before, I really will have to start reading them.

  2. Thank you Sophie, the illustrated story of your boating / sailing life is very interesting, much of it unknown to me. I of course love your Swallows & Amazons film, and your part in it. A few years ago now on a visit to the Lake District I managed to visit quite a number of the film locations, where you stayed etc.

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