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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available on line.
I woke up this morning to find an anonymous donor bid £251 for a signed first edition of my book ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’. The money raised goes directly to BBC Children in Need, where it is carefully monitored.
Nearly eight hundred amazing books had been donated to the Children in Read charity auction organised by Paddy Heron, which raised a staggering total of £24,888.
Online bidding began about seven weeks ago and was advertised by the authors themselves on social media.
Rare copies of my first edition paperback of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ are often priced highly on Amazon so, when the bidding went above £75, I promised to include a signed first edition hardback of my memoir ‘Funnily Enough’, which includes a brief section on appearing in the film.
When the bidding went above £101, I promised to add my third illustrated memoir about Swallows and Amazons style adventures in Africa, written in letter form.
However, £251 is so very generous that I am off to my archive store to see if I can find a hand-painted map to include in the package.
I drew three different maps showing our film locations in the Lake District and reproduced them in different colour-ways, using one on the cover of my original ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’, which is still available on Kindle and any of the ebook outlets.
Earlier in the year, I spoke to Helen Millican on BBC Radio Cumbria about making the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District, back in the summer of 1973. We have had an amusing development.
I had been chatting away, telling Helen that people like hearing about all the disasters we had whilst filming on location. One odd thing that went wrong was that one of my milk-teeth fell out in the middle of shooting a scene with Virginia McKenna on Peel Island. At the time, I was somewhat distracted and self-conscious about this but could do no more than try to keep my mouth shut.
However, viewers often spot the fact that my tooth suddenly disappeared. They still talk about it nearly fifty years later. Helen assured me that the tooth fairy was bound to turn up with it, suggesting I could then take the small canine on BBC ‘Antiques Roadshow’, which was being recorded at Windermere Jetty museum in Cumbria at the time.
Amazingly, the missing tooth has been sent to me.
Peter Robb-King, the Make-up Designer on ‘Swallows and Amazons’, rang to say that he had kept it safely in a metal film canister labelled ‘Titty’s tooth’. He promised to send it to me in the post so that I could add it to my bizarre collection of movie memorabilia – valued by Marc Allum at £4,000 to £6,000.
Helen was delighted to hear that the tooth had materialized after 48 years. “Wow, Sophie what a result, after we made such a joke of it as well! That might just take your valuation up to the next level!”
Peter explained that he took the milk tooth to a dentist in Ambleside to ask if a bridge could be made to temporarily replace it but I remember the director, Claude Whatham, saying that he would ‘have to live with it’ – it being something of a continuity problem as he was yet to shoot earlier scenes of us sailing to the island. As a result, film fans can now work out which sequences were shot right at the end of our time on location even though they come before the scene with Man Friday (played by Virginia McKenna) in the storyline.
Peter Robb-King went on to have an amazing career in film, working on ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘Aliens’, and a number of ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Batman’ and ‘Star Wars’ movies. He told me that he originally found it difficult to break into Make-Up Design as a man, but managed to win a post as a trainee on ‘The Avengers’ in 1968. ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) was his first job as a Make-Up Supervisor, proving a break-through for him and other members of the film crew. It was the first film made by the producer Richard Pilbrow and David Wood’s first screenplay. Suzanna Hamilton, who played Susan, went on to star in many movies including ‘1984’ with John Hurt and ‘Out of Africa’ opposite Meryl Streep. She has recently had a guest appearance on ‘EastEnders’.
Now retired, Peter and his wife live in Maidenhead but enjoy travelling around. We had a long chat about the green parrot as he later adopted a young one that was rescued while making an Indiana Jones film in Sri Lanka. Stephen Spielberg looked after another parrot from the clutch.
If you enjoy ebooks, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ has links to behind-the-scenes cine footage and is very good value at £2.99 – available on Kobo, Smashwords, iTunes and on Kindle here
‘Titty from Swallows and Amazons’ often gets typed into the Goggle search engine but when I attempt to use it as a ‘tag’ a message pops up saying: ‘Sorry, you are not allowed to assign the provided terms.’ I can only conclude that Google lacks literary enlightenment but the BBC were happy for me to talk about Titty on BBC Antiques Roadshow recently.
‘Memory picks and choses,’ as Arthur Ransome said in his autobiography (p.33) but those who love his novels often wonder what would have happened to the characters when they grew up. It dawned on me that this might be one reason why people are interested to know what we all did with our lives. I played Titty Walker in Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. In 1962, the film actress Susan George played the same character in the black and white BBC television serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with her hair in pigtails. She was called Kitty, apparently with Arthur Ransome’s approval. BBC Films decided to call the Able seaman ‘Tatty’ in the 2016 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, when she was brilliantly played by Teddy-Rose Malleson-Allen who went on to star in ‘Four Kids and It'(2020).
The character was inspired by a real little girl, Titty Altounyan, who stayed at Bank Ground Farm (or Holly Howe) when visiting her grandparents who lived above Coniston Water. In 1939, Miss Joyce Cartmell acquired a signed note from Arthur Ransome explaining that, ‘Titty is short for Tittymouse which is what she was called when she was a baby. Nobody ever calls her anything but Titty now’. It appears that Ransome was also asked for a photograph of himself, to which he responded, ‘Too ugly’.
Edward Thomas (1878-1917) described Arthur Ransome as ‘exuberant, rash and intelligent.’ In 1973, I can only assume the film director Claude Whatham was looking for the same spirit in us children. It was certainly captured by Wilfred Joseph’s nautical film score.
What constantly impacts me is the number of people who write in to say how much they wanted Titty to become their best friend. In many ways the characters from Ransome’s books become friends for life. You can easily gain others who have the same outlook on life by joining The Arthur Ransome Society, who offer activities and grants for young people as well as adults with a literary bent. You too can stay at Bank Ground Farm and run down the field to dip your hands in the lake.
You can read more about making the movie in the multi-media ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’.
Bidding mounted steadily for a hardback first edition copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’, signed by the author.
After 64 bids and it sold for £201
– I am quite blown away. Very many thanks to all our supporters –
100% of the money will be donated to BBC Children in Need – under the auspices of ‘Children in Read’ via the Jumblebee auction site where this illustrated book was listed under the categories of both ‘Autobiography’ and ‘Film & Television’.
To read a free sample of the first section of the 2nd edition – available as an ebook – click here – then click on ‘Look inside’.
To see more on the second edition of the ebook – click here
‘highly amusing and thoroughly enjoyable’ David Butters
Since the bidding ran so high, I will include a signed copy of the 2nd edition, entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’, published by The Lutterworth Press. This contains colour plates with more photos and additional stories that flowed down from the Lake District after the first edition came out.
I’m also including a hardback First Edition of my memoir ‘Funnily Enough’, which has a few pages on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and a signed copy of ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, which has noting about the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ but is all about living out the adventurous outdoor lifestyle advocated by Arthur Ransome, so there are four books in the bundle.
Although surpassed by Phillip Pullman and JK Rowling, I gained far more than authors such as Bernard Cornwall, Jeffery Archer, Sophie Kinsella and Maggie O’Farrell.
Being a filmography, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’ sat alongside the bestsellers, ‘Killing Eve’ by Luke Jennings and ‘Kay’s Anatomy’ by Adam Kay, which you can see by clicking here.
This auction of books has already raised £21,841 for BBC Children in Need, which is fantastic. It closed on Friday 13th November at 11.00pm.
If you need to know more about the auction, please contact Paddy Heron at Children in Read: email@example.com
This is the 7th Authors’ & Illustrators’ Auction in support of the 2021 BBC Children in Need Appeal. Charity Ref: 802052
‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) starring Virginia McKenna was broadcast on BBC 2 on Sunday 30th August 2020, recalling the adventures of the Walker and Blackett families on a ‘Lake in the North’ in August 1929 before the school term began. Hailed as ‘The feel-good film of Lockdown’, it transports us back to a time of freedom, celebrating the beauty of the English Lake District. It was available on BBC iPlayer here.
You can watch a short re-mix here:
It was wonderful to see the feature film heralded as ‘Film of the Day’ but Hilary Weston of The Arthur Ransome Society pointed out that there are a few errors in the write up.
Arthur Ransome wrote the novel ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1929. The first illustrated hardback was published by Jonathan Cape on 1st December 1930. There are twelve books in the series, however only five are set in the Lake District. ‘Missee Lee’ sees the Swallows and Amazons exploring the South China sea with Captain Flint, while Dick and Dororthea join them all on the Sea Bear to cruise the Otter Hebrides in ‘Great Northern?’. The 13th story in the series, an unfinished manuscript entitled ‘Coots in the North’, is set in Cumbria.
Arthur Ransome died in 1967, aged 83, so was not around to see this feature film made. He had been grumpy about the 1963 BBC serial made in black and white, which starred Susan George as ‘Kitty’ (rather than Titty).
After he died, his Russian wife Evgenia was determined to avoid what they called a ‘Disneyfication’ of the books and kept a tight hold on the script, character names, locations and casting of Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 adaptation. As a result, David Wood’s screenplay adheres to the story and was approved by Mrs Ransome who gave the go ahead. On watching the finished film, her only adverse comment was that one of the kettles used was of the wrong period.
Arthur Ransome’s father died when he was thirteen and the theme of fatherlessness flows though his books granting the young characters independence. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’ it is Nancy and Peggy, the Amazon pirates, who have no father.
The story opens when the four elder Walker children are given permission to sail off to camp on an island by their father who is absent, in Malta with the Navy, and sends the famous telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN (with no apostrophe).
Vicky, the fifth sibling and baby of the Walker family, keeps the Swallows’ mother at Holly Howe farm on the mainland. Tension is created after the Amazons let off a firework on their uncle’s houseboat while he is absorbed in his writing and ignoring them. He shook his fist at the crew of the Swallow assuming they were responsible for the damage and was labelled ‘Captain Flint’.
In his memoir, ‘A Theatre Project’, Richard Pilbrow describes how the idea of adapting ‘Swallows and Amazons’ came to him as he watched the sun set over Windermere one night when visiting the Lake District. He put the idea to Nat Cohen of EMI who was looking for a classic book adaptation similar to ‘The Railway Children’, which had been a box office success. Nat Cohen hadn’t heard of Arthur Ransome but his assistant loved his books and raved about the idea. EMI Films provided the initial budget of £250,000 although more was spent. The movie was directed by Claude Whatham who may well have been influenced by the Children’s Film Foundation but he was regarded as avant guard at the time and, like Richard, motivated by the beauty of the Lakes.
The original poster for the film used an ampersand in the title graphics but this was lost as it was translated, sold worldwide and remastered.
Someone who must love the old film claimed the error in the write up was that it was only given three stars. The DVD now has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon but it only gets 6.5 out of 10 on IMDb – the International Movie Data base, which is equivalent to three stars. You can add a review on this site here.
Mark Walker of the Arthur Ransome Group added: And they got the title of the article completely wrong. “Film of the *Day*”, indeed..!! Film of the Year, Decade, Century, Millenium….any of the above could have been more appropriate..!!
I returned to the shingle beach at Tanner’s Lane on the Solent with my friend, also called Sophie, who took care of the dog while I collected plastic pollution. Having cleaned the same beach seven days ago, all I found was a black plastic lid washed up with a number of micro plastics. I plan to return in another week and begin counting the pieces as an indication of what is being washed up on a 500 metre stretch of the Solent. I guess the amount will depend on whether we have another storm or winter picnic-ers.
We then walked half a mile up the only lane to the beach. I filled my feed bucket with about 5Kgs of crisp packets, cups, flowerpots, a tin and two glass bottles. My friend was interested in how much more rubbish we spotted on our way back to the car. Litter picking is like that. You see into ditches from a different perspective. Cyclists visiting the New Forest were interested to see how much had been thrown onto the verges of the National Park and were horrified to see how much we collected.
We drove through the New Forest the next day, taking note of the verge-side litter. Where does it come from? What kind of motorist can ignore the fact they are driving through a National Park? Cyclists must notice every piece.
I later extracted three items from the Lymington River. Two were cups with plastic lids and plastic straws from McDonalds. The nearest is a 25 minute drive away, yet I often find their packaging. Is it dropped by commuters, visitors or delivery people?
I found an old carrier bag, put on gloves and collected a bag full of litter on my way into town, finding old things like a neck brace left in the street. The bag is deposited in a municipal bin, as advised. What distressed me was looking over the flood barrier to see so much rubbish dumped in the Nature Reserve.
I walked the dog around Bradbury Rings Iron Age Fort in the afternoon, collecting about 20 items of litter. Although ancient rubbish is the life-blood of archaeologists, I think we can spare them Coke tins.
I spent 40 minutes collecting litter, walking through the park and along the Solent Way, passing the Yacht Haven. There seemed to be more litter on the ground than a council operative was collecting from the plentiful municipal bins. I found a brand new bag-for-life before picking up two canisters of laughing gas by the Yacht Club. What can I do but re-cycle them?
Storm Brendan hit us hard for two days but the skies finally cleared and enabled me to get down to the coast to collect plastic bottles and wrappers along with two fishing buoys that had blown in from the Solent. It was a joy to be out in the New Forest National Park and felt good to be doing something worthwhile but can I make a difference?
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.
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.
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.