Category Archives: Autobiography
This summer, I grabbed the chance to sail Arthur Ransome’s favourite little ship, the Nancy Blackett. If you recognise her it might be because she was his model for the Goblin in ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea‘, possibly the most exciting and touching of the Swallows and Amazons series of books. I re-read it while we were in Dutch waters aboard the main character herself.
~ Beach End Buoy at the mouth of the River Orwell in Suffolk ~
In the story, the Swallows – John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker – promise their mother that they will not go to sea, but disaster strikes when the Goblin slips her anchor in thick fog, while her owner is ashore, and gets swept out past the Beach End Buoy at Harwich. The wind rises and the children find themselves sailing across the North Sea in a terrific storm before a friendly Dutch pilot guides them into Flushing.
~ Nancy in the old lock at near the medieval port of Veere ~
This year we joined Nancy when she had already made the crossing to the Netherlands but we did take her through an old lock built in the same style as the one the Swallows encountered, all be it at the other end of the canal. It was as if we had sailed into the pages of the book and lived out the adventure ourselves, learning about ropes and reefing each nautical mile.
Mooring up could be tricky, especially since Nancy is an old lady with a bow-sprit, but unlike Susan and Titty, I never felt sea-sick for a moment.
~ Learning how to hoist the mainsail ~
~ Sophie sailing in salt water ~
~ Looking out for Dutch barges ~
Local author Veronica Frenks came out with us one morning, taking us up a creek to see the traditional Dutch barges and historic ships that she often writes about. She soon made plans to write about Arthur Ransome for Spiegel der Zeilvaart, a Dutch periodical. Here she is at the helm:
To read about sailing Nancy on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where she is based. please click here.
To read about sailing Nancy on the Beaulieu River and the Solent, please click here
If you would like to grab a chance to sail Nancy or find out more about the Nancy Blackett Trust, please click here
~ Titty with Amazon’s anchor ~
When I first posted an extract from ‘The Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons’ on a literary website, someone wrote a review assuming it to be a novel. They must have thought that I was some poor creature who had imagined the whole thing. The reviewer considered the plot too far-fetched and fantastical – as you might if it had not been true.
‘You must have been dreaming.’
‘But Captain Flint, there were burglars, you’ve got to believe me.’
Poor Titty! No one ever believed her. Fortunately quite a bit of documentary evidence exists to support the fact that a certain feature film was made in the Lake District in 1973. I do wish I’d kept a copy of the book review though.
~ The Swallows find Titty sleeping in Amazon near Cormorant Island ~
~ Titty and Susan sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island ~
~ Sailing Swallow and Amazon on Derwentwater ~
I was encouraged to collect things as a child, in case they might one day be of value. Back in 1973, I was given a number of black and white photographs and contact sheets of stills taken by Albert Clarke on the set of ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) – if you can call Derwentwater a movie set. I pasted some of these in a scrapbook but others remained in a roll that has only recently been returned to me. Each sheet looks roughly like this:
The eye is easily tired by looking at the whole set but scanning and editing reveals a little bit of film history in every shot. I can see here that Titty wasn’t letting Amazon’s anchor down, she was hauling it in while Susan was at the helm, with a fair wind in her sails. This must have been quite tricky.
You can tell by the numbers above each shot how many were taken and in what sequence. presumably 2003 photographs had been snapped by the time the Swallows found Titty moored near Cormorant Island.
~ These bizarre shots show the film crew afloat on their pontoon ~
The photographs below show Virginia McKenna rowing away from Peel Island on Coniston Water in a native canoe with DoP Denis Lewiston and his 35mm camera, which is pretty unique.
One thing is certain, if these contact sheets had not been given to me they would have been thrown out and yet, over time, they have become precious. Do add a comment below if you would like to see more.
It is quite interesting to see which shots were chosen for the press. You can see a few of the action shots used in magazines of the time by clicking here. Newspapers tended to chose photographs akin to portraits as you can see here.
Recent newspaper articles tend to use a black and white film still that was clumsily tinted giving the lake water an unreal and bright blue hue as you find here.
Some of the black and white prints are now held at BFI. StudioCanal hold a vast selection of the best photos in their library and have an on-line shop here. I have included about a hundred behind-the-scenes snaps taken by my parents in the latest edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ recently published by The Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, bookshops and online stockists including The Nancy Blackett shop, where proceeds go towards the upkeep of Arthur Ransome’s favourite little ship.
On Saturday 13th May members of the Nancy Blackett Trust asked me to open the Arthur Ransome Jamboree 2017 at Pin Mill in Suffolk.
Although Ransome is remembered for his ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books set in the Lake District he moved to the east coast of Suffolk in 1935 where he set a number of his books in the series. 2017 makes the 80th anniversary of the publication of his inspirational sailing book ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’.
You can actually go aboard the Goblin, since she was modelled on his own favourite little yacht, the Nancy Blackett. I jined her at The Royal Harwich Yacht Club where she was moored alongside Peter Duck one of his other much-loved yachts, named after the book he wrote that begins at Lowestoft. I met up with Octavia Pollock, a feature writer from Country Life and walked down the riverside for supper at the Butt and Oyster in Pin Mill where Ransome himself often ate.
Soon after leaving unversity, I worked behind the camera on the BBC TV adaptations of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, Ransome’s two books set on the Norfolk Broads. The Coots also visit Beccles in Suffolk. It was the Swallows who made it to Pin Mill and Ransome set his novel ‘Secret Water’ in the Walton Backwaters nearby.
I first went to Pin Mill when The Arthur Ransome Society asked me to give a talk about making this BBC serial entitled, ‘Swallows and Amazons Forever!’. This year I gave another talk about the cast and signed copies of the new edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS and AMAZONS – 1974’.
~The Orwell at Low tide~
Arthur Ransome’s biographer Professor Hugh Brogan was interviewed by erstwhile BBC reporter Tim Fenton at the Pin Mill Sailing Club where author Julia Jones also spoke about her children’s books.
~ Sophie Neville ~
This VisitEngland event was great fun. There was a geo-caching route along the footpath from Shotley to Pin Mill. Marine artists Claudia Myatt and Christine Bryant hosted drop-in sessions on the riverside where the Rabble Chorus were singing.
~Mugs with artwork by Claudia Myatt sold in aid of the Nancy Blackett Trust~
There was an outdoor installation of old Pin Mill images enabling you to look back in time. These were taken by Arthur Ransome himself of the building of his boat Selina King at King’s boatyard nearby. It’s the first public exhibition of these pictures ever seen and will continue to be on show at the Pin Mill Studio.
The Pin Mill Studio also hosted an exhibition of photographs from the restoration of Melissa, a barge restored to her former glory by Webb’s boatyard, with additional archive images of Pin Mill from the early 1900s.
The Vintage Mobile Cinema, as seen on BBC Television’s Reel History of Britain, screened unique archive film of Pin Mill and Shotley.
~The Nancy Blackett in her 85th year~
A Pin Mill ‘Wooden Boat’ race was held along the stream leading down to the river and you could take a ride on the Victorian swing boats on the Common as in years gone by. There was pirates and seafarers fancy dress competition for children and an Arthur Ransome lookalike competition (pipe and moustache!) along with stalls and sideshows from local groups, charities and organisations.
Live music, including shanties from Pin Mill favourites, High Water Mark and a performance of We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea by pupils from Holbrook Academy entertained visitors while cream teas, a barbecue and refreshments were served at the Butt and Oyster and Pin Mill Sailing Club.
T-shirts celebrating this special anniversary were sold along with gifts to generate funds for The Nancy Blackett Trust, who celebrate their 20th anniversary this year.
Do let us know if you came along by leaving a comment!
The event has a Facebook page here
To read more please visit the Nancy Blackett website by clicking here.
News of 2nd edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS and AMAZONS (1974)’ published by The Lutterworth Press on 25th May 2017
Sophie hopes to be signing copies at events around the country this summer.
Last weekend Sophie was signing copies of her books at the Tavistock Festival and gave a talk at the Roseland Festival in St Mawes before a screening of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on Sunday evening at the lovely Hotel Tresanton cinema.
We are hoping copies of the 2nd Edition will be available by Saturday 13th May when Sophie will be opening the Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree in Suffolk, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Nancy Blackett Trust and Visit England’s Year of Literary Heroes. As we Discover the Land of Literary Greats, Sophie will be giving a talk on the adaptations of Ransome’s books set in East Anglia and the English Lake District.
this Saturday 22nd May at 2.00pm
~Drying coffee beans on our farm at Usa River near Arusha in 1972~
Days spent at our farm in northern Tanzania were full of colourful characters, including a cobra who lived in the trees overshadowing the house. He probably kept down the rodent population quite efficiently.
My great-uncle Tony was probably more dangerous. He had a very sensitive nose and a legendary temper.
My aunt kept tame lemurs. They marked their territory by peeing on their hands. This was understandable until they decided to climb over your face.
My father loved travelling in northern Tanzania and was intrigued by the wildlife.
I was fascinated by the people, many of whom wore traditional dress in the early 1970’s.
Extended ear-lobes, names such as Libougi and bright beaded jewellery had me squinting into the sunlight.
In a country where polygamy was the norm everyone seemed to have rather large families with any number of wives and children.
Having your photograph taken was quite the thing. What the woolly lemurs thought of this, I do not know.
There was always talk of the next expedition up-country. Careful packing was a constant preoccupation.
Complicated arrangements were ever being made. Uncle Tony was an honourary game warden, with the power to arrest poachers.
My mother loved the idea of going on safari and urged him to include us as he toured areas where wildlife thrived.
It was a privilege to be taken game viewing as a child by someone with such a depth of knowledge.
I began to sketch in the back of his Land Rover, while keeping lists of the animals we encountered and trying to learn their Swahili names.
As we drove through the national parks, such as Lake Manyara we rarely saw another vehicle. The reason for packing so carefully was that there was no one around to help if anything went wrong. If you broke down or ran out of fuel you could be in serious trouble.
But there were always old friends to visit and they were charming, most hospitable.
After driving for ages, we’d end up at another farm-house, playing croquet.
Nothing but croquet, all afternoon and evening. Somehow I survived. I did so by keeping a diary. It was the first of a whole pile of notebooks that have grown exponentially, forming the basis of quite a few books – with more to come.
To be continued.