Category Archives: Autobiography

Diary of a lone litter-picker: week 4 of the Great British Spring Clean

Day 21 –

Our garden has become a retirement home for old buoys.  The school holidays have begun and hordes of small children descend on us and pester them. While dear old Mr Puce tolerates being punched, kicked and swung on, Miss Black, a fender who I found washed up on the shore, has a new role as a garden cushion.

‘Oh buoy, Oh buoy – Give us a wave!’

Mr White, an elderly buoy who had obviously been working on the Solent, was offered a new role on the Beaulieu River but has opted for a swinging job on a climbing frame in South London. Mr Pink, who had a career in the chemical industry before taking up life on the ocean wave, has passed on, along with one old buoy who sadly split his sides open.

It is a crisp spring evening. I take a footpath through the New Forest National Park with my dog and return home with a number of plastic drums and 5 litre containers I’d previously pulled out of a remote wetland area. The children are revolted. Time spent collecting this rubbish: 40 minutes.

Day 22 –

I sort the litter I’ve collected since the beginning of the Great British Spring Clean: 20 green glass bottles, 20 brown glass bottles and 20 clear glass bottles plus about 10 assorted glass recepticals. Most were so dirty I’ve had to soak them. My husband takes them to be recycled. This is important to him as he used to manufacture cut glass crystal and knows you can’t make glass without glass. A four year-old boy helps me count 137 squashed tins that once contained alcohol. They fill one recycling bag. I can’t bear the thought of counting the plastic bottles. This takes 20 minutes.

~137 tins which once held alcohol, found along one country lane~

I need to sneak off without the dog knowing. It’s too dangerous for him to collect litter with me beside the main road. I work away for about 15 minutes deciding a lot of people must be drink-driving. Only drivers chuck litter into the verges here. They must have serious disassociation issues to chuck it out while negotiating the sharp bend.

One driver wasn’t concentrating when coming down the hill not so long ago. The car didn’t turn around the bend at all. It carried straight on, splitting a large black and white chevron sign in two and landing upside-down in the river. The lights were still on when I passed by on my usual litter-picking walk. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured. The vehicle had been wrapped in police cordon tape by the time I returned but lay leaking oil into the river for six weeks. I extracted one half of the chevron sign at the start of the Great British Spring Clean. It is going begging if anyone would like it to decorate their bedroom. The council couldn’t possibly use it.

Day 23 –

What I thought might be hay-fever turns out to be full-blown cold. I have no energy to expend sorting the carefully gathered rubbish piled up outside my back door. My husband returns from re-cycling the bottles saying that they don’t separate the coloured glass anymore.

~This section of the Solent foreshore was multi-coloured with mirco-plastics 15 years ago~

We have a Portuguese friend staying who also has a bad cold and wants to collect seawater to clear his sinuses. I take him down to the Solent shore. Here I collect micro-plastics including drinking straws and a balloon and 5kgs of rubbish from a wetland area. The whole exercise takes 90 minutes as the location is quite remote.

Day 24 –

My cold is pulling me down but I find a wheel-hub and spend 20 minutes gathering litter from the roadside going up the hill, amazed at how much old rubbish I didn’t spot the first time. New items infuriate me. Today a Costa coffee mug sits on a ledge for me to find. A banana skin has been carefully folded inside and the cap clipped back on. What does the person who purchased this assume will happen next?

I’m told that nothing can be labelled ‘disposable’ anymore. Things don’t disappear, we simply move them to another place. I maintain that vegetables decompose and chuck the banana skin into the undergrowth but collect the cup with its plastic cap. I know Costa want to recycle this but I can’t walk into all the way into town especially. Can they give customers a discount or incentive when they provide their own re-useable mug?

Day 25 –

I’m ill in bed nursing my cold but get up in the evening determined to collect another bucketful of rubbish from the main road. I find a discarded ‘Bag for Life’ on the verge and return with quite a number of tins and empty bottles of alcohol.

Are glass bottles being flung out of moving vehicles? I spend a total of 40 minutes collecting and sorting as refuse is collected first thing tomorrow.

Day 26 –

I close my laptop at 6.00pm and spend 40 minutes in search of litter on footpath up to the pub and the main road on the way down. A number of cans have been shredded by a hedge trimmer that breaks glass bottles and makes everything more difficult. I fill a large bucket with cans and a black plastic bag with other rubbish before coming across a discarded road sign. The wheel hub I propped up for motorists to find is still in situ. I wonder how many have been collected by #litterheroes this month?

What do drivers think of me as I grub around at the side of the road? What would they think if I chucked the rubbish back into the road? I get upset when I find newly strewn litter but what can I do? Arrange a line of cans across the lane? String up plastic bottles like Christmas decorations? Would it stop anyone littering?

Day 27 –

I spend the evening walking along the Solent shore, alone with the dog, the sea birds and micro plastics. I photograph my catch before loading the hard stuff. It is clear that some pieces, including a balloon, must have already passed through the digestive tract of an animal, possibly a forest pony.

My aim is to collect bottles and ancient plastic containers lodged in the mud on a footpath running through a wood where I once found Mr-Pink-the-chemical-container in a down-and-out state. I recognise one turquoise bottle from the 1960s. The expedition takes 90 minutes.

Day 28 –

The lady whose stolen handbag I found contacts me to say she can pick it up on 24th April – the last day of the Great British Spring Clean. I still have so much to do.

I take my buckets down to the Solent beach I need to clean. Parking rules have suddenly changed. I’m required to pay £2.50 an hour. Thousands of pounds have obviously been spent on the terminal for the Isle of Wight ferry but this beach next to it, which could be a great asset, has been ignored.

I squeeze my car into a friend’s driveway and take my buckets down to the shore. It is like a rubbish dump. Every time I pull up a section of plastic, sand flies rise. I stuff as much as I can into a bag and gather bottles, plastic straws, fishing net, a yachting cap and other flotsam, and depart with as much as I can carry. The last thing I find is a fairy liquid bottle that must be 30 years old. It’s suddenly all too much. 40 minutes and I have hardly made any impression on the filth. I need to return with friends. As I write this, a neighbour messages me to say she’ll join me. If we work together it’ll be more amusing.

~Which is the oldest plastic bottle?~

What impact has this project had on my life? I have become more dedicated to recycling. Every milk bottle top gets saved for MENCAP. Every tin is crushed and recycled. The amount of domestic rubbish we produce has decreased – as has my waistline. All the walking and bending is keeping me fit. At this rate I might just gain the figure of a Fairy Liquid bottle.

Total for week: 395 minutes (nearly 7 hours)

To see a list of the things I’ve found on a beach clean please click here

 

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Diary of a lone litter-picker: week 3 of the Great British Spring Clean

In an attempt to turn the tide on pollution I am making a concerted effort to record how long I spend collecting litter and how may items are collected in the categories: plastic bottles, glass bottles, general rubbish and drink tins but find myself dragging other items such as road signs out of ditches.

Day 15

I’m am on the phone to the police as I write, reporting another stolen item. A sodden, empty jewellery box looked up at me from a ditch this evening. It was in plain view of the road. I had just collected one bucket of bottles, one of empty cans and one of general rubbish along with a road traffic bollard, the back shelf of an estate car and a sodden carpet. This took 90 minutes of concerted effort. Retrieving rubbish from an overgrown ditch is tricky. Some was hanging from the trees. However, this is the New Forest National Park. It’s important to persevere. One unopened tin of larger was dated 1990. It must have been lying there for thirty years. An odd conical can of UHT milk had the same ring pull. I’ve no idea of the date. It is made of both plastic and tin.

The police tell me that they will never be able to find out who took the jewellery box and suggest I dispose of it. It’s the sixth item of stolen property found on the same lane.

~A 30 year-old lemonade bottle gnawed at by mice~

Day 17

Another hour of my life is spent filling my three buckets with litter. I collect 23 drink cans, 8 glass bottles and 16 plastic bottles including 2 x 2 litre unopened bottles of cider from the local nature reserve. My powers of observation are increasing. I walked along a path which I have already cleared twice and yet spotted tins and bottles, which are decidedly elderly.

I find a full bag of make up in the lay-bye, which looks as if it was chucked out of a stolen handbag. It would be the 7th stolen item. What really worries me is a pair of tights, a girl’s skirt and a in the undergrowth femur nearby. Had someone been murdered? I returned home to Google ‘human femur’ and ‘difference between deer and human femur’ (which is not much).

Day 17

The dead body I feared finding turned out to be a life-size doll. I dragged a pair of huge high-heeled shoes and fancy items of clothing out of a marshy patch nearby. Ironically, the next thing I found was a plastic sack with hundreds of packets labelled: Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research – ‘PLEASE GIVE good quality clothing and paired shoes – your collection day is Thursday.’

There was also a large bag of incontinence pads (unused). Being absorbent these had filled with water and expanded in a grotesque manner as I tried to lift the sack. They  were so heavy it was all I could do to swing it towards my car. I had to use two bags from the council to contain the load. Why were all these things these dumped in a wood?

The dog was desperate for a proper walk so I took a bucket and went up the hill. The only people I came across were George and Kate Heathcote of Warbourne Farm, known for the Animal Planet television series Farm Life. They tell me that have been collecting roadside litter constantly and also came across a large doll in the woods. Creepy.

I walk on, startling a deer. It’s legs are far to fine for the femur, which I decide must be bovine. I return with only 13 cans, 4 glass bottles, 3 plastic bottles and a spare wheel but found much more ‘other rubbish’ than normal including a kite. The whole expedition takes 90 mins with another 10 mins to sort it all out

Day 18

I’m finding quite a few roadwork signs and the sandbags used to prop them up. I stack them by an electricity substation and plan ask the council to collect these after on 24th April when the Great British Spring Clean Officially ends. Other litter-pickers report estate agents’ signs are also a problem. We liaise on Facebook. Some collect huge quantities.

I begin to clear the busy road up the hill behind our house and find an open penknife, along with the usual litter. I spend a total of 90 mins collecting and sorting the rubbish, putting out 5 sacks for the refuse collectors.

Day 19

I look at the littered verges as we drive to a hotel in the New Forest where I am giving an illustrated talk on my next book. While speaking about the art of litter-picking over lunch, the gentleman opposite me says that he found a life-size doll whilst he was working for the Forestry Commission. Three in the same area.

Do people enjoy chucking litter into our woods and rivers? Does it give them a sense of release? Is it that people despise what they throw away? I usually pick up one used cigarette lighter a day. Most litter seems comprised of the wrappings of what is bad for us: cigarette packets, sweets, over-flavoured crisps, sugary drinks, alcohol and fast food. Much of this is unfinished, which makes it even more revolting to collect. I presume it’s natural to disengage from what poisons you as quickly as possible.

It’s been a wet day and I’m too busy to do much but collect 16 pieces of litter as I walk along the river to Book Club. I find a rubber tow-bar cover, which I present to my friend as a hostess gift. She says she is thrilled receive what she describes as a knob guard. I entertain the other members with tales from my litter-picking. Two of them offer to join me. Total for the day about 5 minutes.

Day 20

One of my Twitter friends called Becca noticed how ironic it was that people who consume caffeinated drinks never seem to have the energy to dispose of them. I collect about 7 on my way into town only sorry I can’t recycle them as I drop a mixed bag of rubbish into a municipal litter bin. An old friend joins me for a walk in the evening. I take a bucket as we stroll along the sea wall and collect detritus washed up by the tide. There are no bottles, no tins and we enjoy beautiful sunny weather.  Total for day 95 minutes

Total for week: 430 minutes

For list of weird things I’ve found on beach cleans – please click here

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Diary of a lone litter-picker: week 2 of the Great British Spring Clean

This month I have been re-energised in my endeavour to collect litter by taking part in the Great British Spring Clean under the auspices of Keep Britain Tidy. They encourage their registered #litterheroes to keep a diary:

Day 8: Friday 29 March

I find another unopened can of beer on the pavement in Tooting where I am staying in South London. The general attitude to litter seems almost medieval, accepted as normal and tolerated by residents who rely on road sweepers to clean up rubbish scattered by foxes. My friend did not want me to think of touching it without gloves but she can’t stop the children picking up lost toys. Each time we pass a shopping trolley of garden waste, abandoned in the street, we see it has attracted more litter. How long will it stay there?

Day 9: Saturday 30 March

I’m off to Premier Radio’s Woman to Woman conference in central London. Litter in the streets seems to be an indication of poor diet. You can see what is being recklessly consumed: sugar-laden drinks, sweets, flavoured crisps, fast food, alcohol. Do we have a natural urge to discard what is bad for our bodies?

Cable ties lie the pavement in Westminster. Although not cheap, builders seem to cut and cast these aside. I picked up a handful that could easily be re-used. PVC cable ties were originally manufactured by my father. He would have wept to see how many are wasted or left to pollute the Earth.

Day 10: Sunday 31 March

Back on the south coast, I find an empty beer bottle, coffee cup and two dog poo bags sitting on the flood defence gate over the Lymington River, left as if for passers-by to admire while they take in the view over the nature reserve. What next? Have these items been carefully placed for me to collect? What if they fall into the river? Could the beer bottle ever jam the sluice gates open and cause flooding? The plastic will be washed into the sea. I give in and collect the items, only grateful they don’t have to be fished out of the brambles.

I go out latter for ten minutes, finding a full bottle of beer along with a large number of cans on a footpath leading to the pub. Some of the tins have been minced by a hedge trimmer, which is maddening. We must clear the verges this spring before vegetation grows. I retrieve another expensive roller from a boat trailer and a various car parts that owners might like returned.

Day 11: Monday 1 April 

The police arrive to examine the HP laptop and jewellery box I found chucked in the river last week. A silver bracelet engraved with the name Shirley lies inside. Everything is taken to the police station. The officer recommends putting a photo on Facebook in an attempt to find the rightful owner. My post soon has 92 shares. I only hope it is not too upsetting.

~Do you know anyone called Shirley who is missing this?~

I also post a photo of a strange car part found yesterday and am told it is from a Mercedes. A grateful lady comes to collect the roller from her boat trailer. I continue picking up litter from the lane alongside the Lymington River and spot something familiar. It is the mud-guard that fell off my husband’s car weeks ago. I am thrilled. He says, ‘Oh, I thought it would turn up some time.’

Day 12: Tuesday 2nd April

The council message me to ask if I can tell them where three road signs I dragged out of the ditch can be located. I find one has already disappeared from the verge where I left it. I collect a rusty car radiator and two buckets of rubbish from the lane running alongside the nature reserve. Its raining, the dog won’t join me and am beginning to feel morose when I am struck by the sight of a double rainbow, arching over my buckets left in a gateway. It is as if I am being thanked for all I am doing.

Day 13: Wednesday 3rd April

I resume collecting bottles and cans from the lane wearing rubber gloves and Wellington boots, jumping into the ditch in an effort to extract bottles and cans before they are washed into the sea. What do you conclude when you find a lipstick in a wild, marshy place? I discovered a handbag not far away and kept searching the area, coming across an iPhone and an Acer laptop.

Back at home, I go through the handbag with care, looking for something with the owner’s name, as the police officer taught me. I ring the number on a pile of identical business cards and eventually get through. The owner is travelling through London on a bus. Her bag had been stolen from her car ages ago but she sounded very pleased to hear from me and said she’d come to retrieve it.

Day 14: Thursday 4th April

As requested, I’ve been posting photos of my litter activity on social media, desperately trying to edit attractive photos of garbage for my Ingram feed. I begin to lose followers on Twitter but gain others as support grows. Encouragement helps no end.

People are making a difference but the task seems endless. One volunteer from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust filled a long-wheel based Land Rover with rubbish from the Lymington causeway last year. Although an ecologically sensitive area it has somehow attracted more rubbish.

Today it was cold and raining hard. The road drains were blocked. I wonder why? I reached down to pick up one piece – just one piece – but if I don’t a dolphin could die.

 

Total for week: About 60 minutes

My Stop – Start campaign

Stop chucking litter

Start picking it up

Stop flushing things down the loo

Start getting organised – get a car bin

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Diary of a lone litter-picker: week 1 of the Great British Spring Clean

2,500,000 pieces of litter are dropped in the UK every day. It amounts to 912,500,000 pieces a year. This costs nearly £1 billion to clear up. As we all know, much lies languishing in our lanes and beaches. We need to collect it ourselves.

Keep Britain Tidy ask volunteers to divide rubbish collected into three categories: ‘plastic’, ‘cans’ and ‘general waste’. I decide to add ‘glass’, wondering how many bottles I will find between 22nd March to 23rd April, the period ear-marked for the Great British Spring Clean.

The diary of a litter picker:

Day 1: Friday 22 March

I register on-line with Keep Britain Tidy and spend 40 minutes cleaning a footpath leading through a smart housing estate on the way back from hospital. I’m appalled by the stinky litter and glad to be wearing rubber gloves. I’ve never found the need for a grabber or gloves when cleaning beaches. Now it is essential. Numerous plastic bags containing dog poo hang off bushes, more lie under shrubs. I notice packets, wrappers, cans and bottles everywhere, amazed at the amount of rubbish lying in private gardens.

Rubbish unopened can

After work, I spend 60 minutes collecting roadside litter from a lane running through the New Forest National Park, taking a pink bucket I once found washed up on the shore as a receptacle for general rubbish. I use a purple one for glass bottles and an orange bucket that soon contains 27 empty alcohol cans. Are motorists drinking whilst driving? I find two unopened cans of Stella, along with a new tube of muscle-relaxant cream, a bike-lock cable and an old milk bottle that had grown into the mossy stream bank. I chatted to BBC Radio Solent, live on air, explaining that I would never have guessed these items were lying by the roadside. They were hidden in the undergrowth, posing a danger to wildlife.

Day 2: Saturday 23 March

I spend 45 minutes collecting an empty 25 litre tub of bleach, a 5 litre tub of French Elf Diesel, a number of bottles and other plastic pollution from a footpath near the Solent shore, taking all I can carry. I use my large purple bucket, which can take broken glass and doesn’t flap about in the wind.

The bucket is easy to lay down while I dig around in the bushes with barbecue tongs. I wonder how old all this stuff is. How long has it been accumulating in the woods? On the way home I stop to pick up an old coat from the verge. It’s been there ages.

Day 3: Sunday 25 March

I spend about 20 minutes collecting fishing net, bottles, and elderly plastic including flip-flops and a neon pink buoy washed up on a small beach, whilst with a journalist and photographer from the Daily Mail. They are staggered by the age of the packets I am collecting. We find a crisp packet that has been sunbathing on the beach for at least eight years.

I show the journalist and photographer rubbish left by a homeless person who was obviously camping in our local nature reserve. How much of this is a reflection of addiction, poor mental health and homelessness in our society?

rubbish net

I take the photographer a short way along the river where I have cleaned the verges repeatedly but feel more needs to be done. We find a can of diesel and a metal wheelbarrow clogging the ditch which needs to be clear to avert flooding.

Day 4: Monday 26 March

It takes 80 minutes to collect rubbish from the Solent foreshore. I take an old friend who is amazed to see how much we find on a section of coast that appears clean at first glance. I effectively give her a demo on how scratchy and time-consuming it can be to extract litter from brambles and blackthorn bushes. With her help, I retrieve 3 glass bottles, 9 plastic bottles, one beer tin, a heavy plastic container, cotton bud stalks, Durex packet, wrappers, polystyrene, gaffer tape, a broken For Sale sign, a domestic scourer, a section of astro turf, fishing rope and micro plastics. It’s a bright sunny day and we enjoy ourselves hugely, encountering wild ponies and sea birds.

Day 5: Tuesday 27 March

Someone commenting on Facebook said: ‘You’re very lucky to have the free time on your hands.’ I am grateful I can get out and about but it’s not as if I don’t work all day. I multi-task. I normally collect rubbish as I walk the dog or go into town. Anyone can collect litter as they walk to work, or school. If we each picked up three pieces a day it would make a huge difference and surely benefit our quality of life.

Today, 20 minutes are spent collecting litter and 30 minutes reporting what I found to the Police. Whilst picking up cans and cartons from the verge in the lane that runs along the river, I spot a leather hold-all behind an electricity substation. I find it open with a large jewellery box inside. Socks – one sign of a break in – are lying near the soaking wet bag.

I ring the Police who ask me to take it home. I’m longing to return to the items to their owner. Some of the sentimental things inside will be retrievable. I think I’d better go down to see if there is anything more and discover a silver-topped HP laptop in the undergrowth. I inevitably collected more litter: total for the day 139 items plus an enormous car bumper. Since the Daily Mail have asked if they can photograph all I find, this is lugged home too. My garden is looking like a scrapyard.

Day 6: Wednesday 27 March

I have a hectic schedule today but pick up a few items as I walk to the railway station. It’s difficult finding somewhere to wash my hands. One person in our town must chuck litter out of their vehicle every day. They knot it neatly in exactly the same way before tossing it into the hedge.

Day 7: Thursday 28 March

I walk along the South Bank in London where rubbish bins are placed every 50 yards. What is litter doing to national morale? Who wants to live in streets strewn with waste? What impact does it have on tourism and jobs? And how can we solve the problem? Insisting on car bins would help.

Total for week one: 325 minutes

rubbish tins

 

 

 

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The original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is on BBC iPlayer

BBC iPlayer Swallows and Amazons

Claude Whatham’s classic film adaptation of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) is available on BBC iPlayer until 1st February – please click here for the link.

You can discover what it was like to appear in the movie, in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’, an illustrated paperback published by the Lutterworth Press. Although written for adults, it is suitable for all ages and quite fun for anyone interested in acting or keen on visiting the Lake District. It can be ordered online, from good bookshops or your local library. If you already have a copy, do add a review to the online sites or email a photo – it is always great to hear from readers.

 

The second edition of the ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’, is similar but includes a few more stories from the Lake District and links to behind-the-scenes cine footage. It is out on Kindle, Smashwords, iTunes, Nook/Barnes&Noble from £2.99  If you already have the first edition you can re-load the up-dated version free of charge.

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Film adaptations of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on BBC Two

Swallows and Amazons film poster

If you enjoyed the original film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ broadcast on BBC Two today, do think of getting a copy of  ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, published by The Lutterworth Press or the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’. You can read the first section for free on Kindle here. Quite fun!

It’s surprising ‘Swallows and Amazons’ hasn’t been re-made a number of times. The 1974 movie was sold all over the world and has been screened so often it’s become regarded as iconic, labelled ‘a cult classic’ or ‘enduring success’. You can listen to Wildfred Joseph’s film score here:

Thanks to Claude Whatham’s extraordinary skill in creating a period film that never dated, cinema audiences emerge asking if it was made last summer.

danish_swallows_and_amazons_JC03906_L (1)

The Danish poster of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ 1974  giving the Swallows a Jolly Roger or pirate flag

Although it was shot 45 years ago, fan mail still arrives from Australia, the USA and Japan. Families can quote David Wood’s script fluently, having watched the DVD thirty times or more. The biggest complement is that they talk of being ‘Titty-ish’ or ‘just like Titty’, the little girl whose imagination gave her the strength and courage to excel.

-A carefully made fan letter showing Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in 1974-

When I went to watch the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ being made on location, I warned the actors they were in for the long haul. Although the new adaptation has older children in the cast, and additions to the plot, it was heralded as a great British film, a landscape movie of significance about the thrill of exploring the great outdoors. Broadcast on BBC Two earlier this December and it is out on both Blu ray and DVD. For the Hanway Films billing of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ 2016, please click here.

Swallows and Amazons in Czech

A Czech poster of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ 1974

 

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Alison Hull interviews Sophie Neville on her involvement with the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Signing copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ in Cumbria

1 – How did you get the part of Titty?

In March 1973, a letter arrived, out of the blue, inviting me to audition for a role in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I was twelve years old, an ordinary school girl at a convent in Berkshire. I’d read the Arthur Ransome books but had no idea I was up for the lead in a major EMI feature film intended for a universal international audience. The movie was directed by Claude Whatham. Back in 1970, he’d cast me as Eileen Brown, opposite a boy playing Laurie Lee, in the BBC’s first adaptation of ‘Cider With Rosie’. It was a role that demanded learning a piano piece so complicated it took twenty-one hours to master, but I did it. Claude must have respected my hard work. I was too tall to play Titty but, after a sailing audition at Burnham-on-Crouch, I was offered the part. He cast Sten Grendon, who’d played the young Laurie Lee, as Roger, Suzanna Hamilton was Susan and Virginia McKenna starred as our mother. She later admitted to finding her character rather dull but it was her name, in lights outside cinemas, that drew big audiences. We’ve kept in touch. She is still acting, aged 87, and has led the Born Free Foundation’s international campaign to redeem the lives of wild animals held in miserable conditions since 1998.

With Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, in 1973 

2 – Why was it so suitable for you?

We loved visiting the Lake District as a family. My father helped the Maryport Button Factory with their publicity and once took us to stay on a farm near Castle Craig above the River Derwent. I spent my childhood camping and messing about in boats, adding a sail made from a dust-sheet to an old rowing skiff. The great thing about the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was that Simon West, who played Captain John, was an exceptional sailor. He went on to become a national champion. Kit Seymour, who played Captain Nancy, also had a natural command of the waves. It shows on screen. They were able to handle our small boats when squalls rolled down from the fells. I didn’t have their innate understanding of the wind but it was Titty’s job to row everywhere – back from the charcoal burners and off to One Tree Island on Derwentwater. “Pull harder, Roger!” I managed to row Amazon out of Secret Harbour in one take, with the cameraman and a massive 35mm Panavision Camera on board.

The Swallows voyage to Wild Cat IslandSimon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville in Swallow, 1973

Casting-off Swallow was more of a challenge. It doesn’t show on a small screen, but when ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is screened in cinemas, you can spot the sequence when I slip on a rock with the telescope in one hand. I was up to my waist in water but got back on my feet and battled on, waving as the others sailed up Coniston Water. I knew how difficult the shot was to achieve and was desperate to do my best for Claude Whatham.

Standing on Peel Island in a soaking wet dress while the Swallows sailed north

3 – Did it fire your wish to work in TV?

No! It was directing plays while reading Anthropology at Durham University that ignited a desire to work on television dramas. However, the experienced I’d gained acting in movies helped me win a place on the BBC TV Graduate Trainee scheme. After working on ‘The Russell Harty Show’, I grabbed the chance to cast children on the adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk Broads: ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’. I found Henry Dimbleby, then aged thirteen, to play the lead and spent three months on location with Julian Fellowes and Rosemary Leach – who I’d met when she played Laurie Lee’s mother. I later worked on ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Eastenders’ and ‘My Family and Other Animals’, before producing an INSET series, directing one episode at a village school in Cumbria. I began casting children in the Lake District to appear in BBC adaptations of Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland books but they were axed, which was sad, as we were all set to make ‘Swallowdale’ and ‘Pigeon Post’ on the high moors.

Sophie Neville directing a drama-doc with BBC cameraman Lorraine Smith

4 – What does the Lake District in general, and Keswick in particular, mean to you?

We live on the south coast but take the train north at any opportunity. I’m now President of The Arthur Ransome Society and came up for a fabulous weekend in May when we sailed from the jetty at Bank Ground Farm – Holly Howe in Ransome’s books. I gave an illustrated talk on the secrets of making ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at the Bassenthwaite Institute, using behind-the-scenes photographs taken when we were filming on Derwentwater forty-five years ago. We shot all the scenes involving Captain Flint’s Houseboat in a bay on the western shore. She was played by the Lady Derwentwater, converted for the drama by Ian Whittaker, a talented young set dresser who went on to win an Oscar for set decoration on the feature film ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. We shot the lighthouse tree scenes near Friar’s Craig and used Lingholme or One Tree Island for Cormorant Island, where Titty finds the treasure chest. We enjoyed making Ronald Fraser, the film actor playing Captain Flint, walk the plank and sailed up Derwentwater to the strains of ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor’, played as the end credits roll. Forty years later, Suzanna Hamilton and I were asked to lunch with Richard Pilbrow the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. Buskers were singing this song outside the restaurant in Covent Garden. We couldn’t believe the coincidence.

Meeting fans of Swallows and Amazons at Keswick in July

I meet people from far and wide who tell me the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ inspired them to visit the Lake District. It has been broadcast on television every year for the last forty years and was last shown in Australia on Boxing Day. It has been dubbed into Czech twice and is often shown at festivals as only ‘U’ certificate movies can be screened outdoors. I just hope this has proved a blessing to the people of Keswick, which I so loved visiting as a child. I thought the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – that I appear in for approximately two seconds – would overshadow the classic version but it has simply raised awareness along with DVD sales. Fan mail continues to arrive. A beautiful card came today. Arthur Ransome would have been touched. It had fish on it.

Funnily Enough - the first extract in iBelieve Magazine

Editorial coverage and a literary award for ‘Funnily Enough’

5 – Do you want to mention mental health/physical health issues are always in the news?

I find that many of my readers are stuck in bed or battling with ill-health. I hope they are amused and uplifted in some way by stories in my books. ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary I kept after collapsing at the BBC, is about my own struggle with what I am pretty sure was a tick-bourne disease. I lost my job but recovered in Southern Africa, where I fulfilled Titty’s dream of seeing “forests full of parrots” and produced decorative maps for a living, inspired by Spurrier’s illustration on the original cover of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I used maps and details from my sketchbook to illustrate a paperback entitled, ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, which is out in colour as an ebook.

On the crew of the Gloriana in the Boat Race Flotilla in March featured on BBC Television 

6 – What else?

People often ask how ‘Swallows and Amazons’ influenced my life, keen to know what I am doing now. I am still keen on rowing. I completed the Voga Longa, a 32 kilometre marathon through the Venetian lagoon with Olympic gold medallist Ed Code and was on the crew of The Queen’s row barge Gloriana for the Boat Race Flotilla this year. This summer, I grabbed the chance to row through the canals of Amsterdam, which was fascinating. However, it was the Amazons bows and arrows that impacted my life. After learning to shoot on the shores of Coniston Water, I was cast as an archery champion in another movie and have since won three Ladies Championships. I met my husband at an archery match. My stepson shot for England in July, winning a tri-annual match against the Royal Company of Archers (so proud!) I gave a talk recently demonstrating how the arrows in ‘Swallows and Amazons were’ fired over my head. The shot looks so dangerous that it was cut from the TV version of the film, but is included in the re-mastered 40th Anniversary cinema Blu-ray version, which we are now able to watch on the big screen.

Rowing in from De Hoop Rowing Club in Amsterdam, July 2018

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Swallows, Amazons and Archery

Much has been written of the legacy left by Arthur Ransome’s, 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 while she was serving as a missionary. I gather it was his 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. Does anyone know otherwise?

Titty 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. 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.

neville002

~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 2016~

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.

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‘I Chaperoned Six Film Stars’ Daphne Neville’s memories of making the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 part three

Daphne Neville in about 1973

Daphne Neville in about 1973

I clearly remember my mother winding carbon paper into the roller of her portable typewriter and bashing out articles. Ping! the bell would ring as she reached the end of a line. She would then pull left on a shiny paddle, with relish, to begin a new paragraph. She seemed to type like the wind, it was only a pity she didn’t write more. Was it more time-consuming when making changes was so laborious and a dictionary needed to be flicked through to check spelling? I was forever pouring through a thesaurus and looking for reference books in libraries as a child in the ‘seventies but find computers seems to steal more time.

Sophie Neville with the cast of Swallows

~The photograph that illustrated an article in Woman magazine taken at the Commonwealth Institute in 1974~

Here is the second part of the article Mum wrote for Woman magazine when the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was screened in cinemas around the country in April 1974. Earlier pages can be read in a previous post here and there is also a programme she wrote for BBC Radio Bristol on the same subject here.

Jean McGill, Jane Grendon, Sten Grendon, Kit Seymour, Sophie Neville, Claude Whatham, Simon West, Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Ronnie Cogan, 1973

Daphne Neville giving Lesley Bennett (Peggy Blackett) archery lessons, 1973

The Saucepan and her mother, Daphne Neville in 1973

Terry Smith, Sophie Neville and Daphne Neville on location in the Lake District

Wardrobe Master Terry Smith with Sophie Neville and her mother Daphne Neville outside the Make-up caravan on location near Keswick in Cumbria

I’d forgotton that Kit was sent half a Birthday cake but do remember Ronnie Fraser arrived at her party quite tiddly. I am amused to learn we finally left Oaklands Guest House with fifty peices of luggage but I still have a hazel bow and arrow set, which I don’t expect ever fitted into a suitcase.

Please let me know if you would like to see old scripts and letters relating to the original publicity for the film, kept in my mother’s archives.

To read more about Daphne Neville’s adventures in film and television please click here

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‘Swallows and Amazons’ in Keswick

This summer marked the 45th Anniversary of filming the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater when Ronald Fraser was obliged to walk the plank in a solar topi in July 1973.

Ronald Fraser walking the plank

To celebrate the anniversary, Sophie Neville, who played Titty, introduced a screening of the 1974 film at the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick on Saturday 28th July.

Captain Flint having walked the plank

She demonstrated how one of the visual effects was achieved and signed copies of her book ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ after a Q&A.

‘I brought one of the original arrows that the Amazon pirates fired over my head. It looks so dangerous on film that the shot was cut from the television version but is included in the re-mastered cinemascope edition that we are now able to watch on the big screen. You might be able to spot a few other things that went wrong while we were filming, such as the time I inadvertently slipped up to my waist in water.’
‘The elegant Lakeland steamer, the Lady Derwentwater, had the starring role as Captain Flint’s houseboat. She was adapted for the part by the award-winning set designer Ian Whittaker, who went on to receive an Oscar for Best Art Direction on ‘Howards End’ starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. His astonishing list of nominations can been seen here
Swallow, the 1930s sailing dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was at the lakeside for Arthur Ransome enthusiasts to admire. She is looked after by Rob Boden, from Kendal, who is happy to take people for a sail by prior arrangement via the SailRansome website here.

Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons

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