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.
Over the years, I have been suggesting a variety of useful, literary gifts. I have just brought out this mug featuring a map of the Swallows and Amazons locations on Consiton Water, currently available online from £8.86
I’ve brought out maps in a range of colours.
These t-shirts might be useful for anyone liable to get lost.
I’m selling a variety of garments with my Swallows and Amazons map of Coniston Water on the Redbubble site where you can also find cushion covers
along with throws, duvet covers and a variety of products from phone covers to laptop sleeves if you fiddle around with the site here
There is a whole selection of socks, which I have listed here
The Nancy Blackett Trust have wooly hats and some great clothing, embroidered with Arthur Ransome’s good little ship. They have an online shop where you can also find yachting caps here
These new 90th anniversary tea towels make a useful gift for sailors, which can be purchased here
Peter Willis is offering his book ‘A Good Little Ship’ about rescuing Nancy for £10 – a great present for fans of Arthur Ransome.
I love these Swallows and Amazons bookmarks available from sky.n.fern for £2.50. They stock an assortment of unique stationery, which you can see here
I found this spectacle chain decorated with swallows, appropriate for web-footed grandparents, available here
For someone without much space, you can find handmade dolls house miniatures of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books here Each tiny book has tunable blank pages 1:12th the original size. I’m not sure if they are paying royalties to the Arthur Ransome Estate but what a compliment to the author. I’d be thrilled if they made miniatures of my books.
There is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ confetti, for sale on this site. Each heart is about one inch in size and can be used for a table decorations.
Jago Silver has some new ‘Never Stop Exploring’ cards, journals and notebooks, which you can find at his online shop here
This year, I bought packs of book-ish Christmas cards from the charity SchoolReaders. They have a variety here.
Here is something for sailors, which could include a voucher to sail Swallow, the dinghy from the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, which you can find out about here.
A digitally hand drawn reproduction of StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics film poster for the original movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) is available here
Or you could give a copy of the book on how the film was made. Large paperbacks can be ordered from Amazon or direct from the publisher here or other stockists listed here.
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.
Are you looking for a special Birthday or Christmas present for someone who happens to love the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974)?
Paddy Heron of Children in Read has a huge number of amazing books listed in a charity auction being held to raise funds for BBC Children in Need. Nearly £21,000 has already been pledged, which is amazing. We have 3 days left to bid, so you have time to chat to the family!
‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ is listed as Lot 298, in the section ‘Film & Television’ above Nigella Lawson’s book ‘Coot, eat, repeat’.
and scroll down until you see the image of the book you would like to bid on, then click on the price button and you can enter a bid when the large image pops up. You don’t pay until you win on the final day. I will pay the postage within the UK and inscribe the copy to whom you wish.
We now have another bid for £101. Copies on Amazon.UK – where is it has 47 reviews, are now listed as costing about £76. I promised that if the bidding went higher than £78 I would personally inscribe this large paperback edition and include a signed first edition hardback copy of my autobiographical book ‘Funnily Enough’, worth £15, which includes a few pages about filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District.
I said that the bidding goes any higher than £101, I will include a copy of ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, my memoir about leading a Swallows and Amazons style life camping in Africa:
I received an interesting series of emails recently from a stone mason called Philip Chatfield:
‘Hi Sophie, I was watching ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the old classic, on Talking Pictures TV… great channel. Curiously, I have, hanging in my cottage ceiling timbers, the lantern you used for the Lighthouse on Wild Cat Island !!!!!!’
‘Lanterns like this pattern are not common, so I presume it must be the one used in your film. I like to think so. There is a hole in the top of my lantern which has been plugged up and holes in the base too. If you use the lantern with candles, which is what I always do. then you cannot have a hole in the top of the lantern. Heat goes up and out of it and the rope or wooden handle may catch fire! It is stopped up with a small bolt with a flat rounded top.’
The holes would have been made to insert an electric light behind the candle so that it would show up on film.
It certainly looks like the lantern we used, which I knew well at the time. A hurricane lamp is used in the book Swallows and Amazons. John, ‘tied the other end round the oil box at the bottom of the lantern’, although candle lanterns were used to mark Secret Harbour.
The black lantern was packed into Swallow on the voyage to the island, visible when the Walker children narrowly miss the Tern. You can see it lying in the shallow basket.
It was rather uncomfortable to lean over when handing Roger the telescope.
The basket was taken out of Swallow at the landing place and Titty moves it up the beach ‘for fear of tidal waves.’ See if you can take some screen shots of it hanging from the lighthouse tree.
The same lantern was used in the movie ‘Far From the Madding Crowd'(1967) starring Alan Bates, Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and Julie Christie.
You can also see it hanging from a farm cart.
Philip says, ‘Clearly all the props went back to the Turk Phoenix shed near Teddington after shooting.’
‘I never thought about it before but I used to work on a sailing ship called Grand Turk, which was owned by Mile Turk of Turk Phoenix who did a lot of film work.’
‘The Grand Turk played the HMS Indefatigable in ‘Hornblower’ with Ioan Griffiths and co. While I was on board (as Third Mate and Gun Captain) I needed more props for the gunnery dept. The lantern was one of the props we had on board. It came from Turk Phoenix who still had one of the boats used in your wonderful film.’
‘Mike Turk’s business provided nautical props.’ When Mike reached the end of his life and fell ill, many of these were sold at auction in 2010, including the dinghy that played Swallow in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974), which was purchased by group of film fans now known as SailRansome.
‘Before my time on Grand Turk I spent five years working on a lovely old square rig ship called MARIA ASUMPTA. Back in 1991 we sailed from London’s St Katherine’s Dock to Ipswich. We anchored off Shotley on the Orwell pretty much where the GOBLIN in Ransome’s book ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea’ book was set. As we hauled up our anchor we brought up a small kedge anchor. I still have it. At the time I was convinced it may have been from the story or even the sailing trip the story was originally based on. Who knows, but it is a lovely anecdote. We had sailed the autumn before to Flushing in Holland and did a tour of the inland waters of Holland.’
‘Sadly, Maria Asumpta was lost off Padstow in May 1995 with the loss of three crew. Thankfully I was one of the survivors.’
‘You can just see me standing staggering, second from the left, in a state of shock. Three were lost but I was amazed more weren’t, frankly. My friend the bosun Graham is sitting on the stern about to leap off. He survived, just. The ship had been built in Barcelona and launched in 1858.’ By the 1990’s it was the oldest square rigger still sailing.’ A true ship wrecked sailor! What would Titty say?
‘As a stone carver and sculptor I make memorials. A few years ago I was asked to do the memorial for one of my old school teachers and eventually his wife, who now shares his grave in Monmouth. She was Helen Bucknall but her mother was Mrs Henry Clay. The Ransome book ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ is dedicated to Mrs Henry Clay no less. Henry Clay was a friend and colleague of Ransome’s on the Manchester Guardian, also a keen sailor. I think Helen and her family were the inspiration for the story in the book. So Helen has a carving of the yacht they sailed as children on the large Welsh slate memorial in Monmouth cemetery.’
‘The galling thing for my friends, whose mother was Helen, is that they can’t find the original first edition of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ that Ransome signed. Hope it turns up. At least that charming card exists. Love his little sketch of the dinghy.’
‘Anyway, hope this is of interest… well done for all you do. I have a hard copy of the book on order! Can’t wait. Very best wishes, Philip Chatfield’
To read more about some of the Swallows and Amazons movie memorabilia, including Swallow’s flag and the fishing rods, please click here
To read more about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ – click here
This lovely documentary shows Philip’s recent work on railways:
“It’s Alan Smith here – lovely to have all those memories flooding back! I’ve been through the family archive of photographs and have uncovered two pictures which I’m sure you won’t have:
“The first picture is fairly obvious – it’s you and the other cast members in the car at Haverthwaite station. This will have been taken by my Mum at the time the ‘official’ photo was taken.” This was on 14th May 1973 when a reporter from the Times came to witness our first day of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’. The station had only been re-opened two weeks earlier.
“The photo (below) shows (left to right) my brother Robin, me and our friend John Eccles standing in front of a pony & trap. This picture was also taken at Haverthwaite, probably by my mother. John came along with his grandparents Patsy and John, and everyone remarked on how distinguished Mr Eccles senior looked in his boater and blazer!
“Please feel free to use these pictures however you’d like – I wonder if they’ll prompt others who were there to unearth similar memories?!”
“We had a lovely two days as extras on the film. I remember there was a casting one Sunday morning at St Anne’s Hall (an old church which is now converted to flats) in Ambleside. This is where anyone who wanted to take part went along to meet the director and wardrobe people. My mother was given instructions re the dress-code for Robin and me, and we were asked to meet in Ambleside town centre a couple of weeks later to board a bus which took us to the first location (Haverthwaite).” This took place about two weeks before the film. Eileen Smith ran the Gale Crescent Guesthouse in Ambleside although none of the crew stayed there. My mother, Daphne Neville, went along to help the wardrobe master, Terry Smith, fit the film extras with costumes.
Alan couldn’t think why his Dad didn’t come along. It might have been the threat of haircuts. No man in Cumbria under the age of seventy could be persuaded to have a 1929 haircut, apart from Jim Stelfox the station master and my own father, Martin Neville, who appeared in the Rio scenes shot at Bowness.
You can see a quick flash of Alan and his family near the bus in this behind-the-scenes cine clip, shot by my father with a 16mm Bolex borrowed from his company:
Alan watched this and wrote, “My brother and I are convinced that the boy on the right of the frame at 0’06” is Robin, and the woman standing next to him in the hat with the red band is my mother, Eileen (I appear to have gone in search of ice cream or something, as I’m nowhere to be seen!).
“A couple of seconds earlier at 0’04” I’m almost certain the woman standing in front of the red bus with the large bag is John’s grandmother Patsy Eccles, and the the man in the white blazer, trousers and hat is John Eccles senior, Patsy’s husband. I have very fond memories of Mr & Mrs Eccles – they were a lovely, kind couple who were almost like an extra set of grandparents to Robin and me.
“We may only have been extras, but it was so exciting for all of us! The first day’s filming was spent getting on and off the train, followed by what seemed like endless trips up and down the line (this would have been when you and the other actors were in the next carriage filming the early scenes).
“The second day was a few days later at Bowness Bay. This must have been some feat to achieve as the road was closed to traffic and any clues from the 1970s such as road signs had to be covered up or disguised!
“Both days had a very big effect on me. As a child I’d always been fascinated by radio, film & television, and this brought my imagination to life. It also lit a fuse under my ambitions to do something in broadcasting. The result is I’m now a news presenter on Radio4, doing the news in programmes such as Today, PM and The World at One, so I have a lot to thank Swallows and Amazons for! My work means I now live in Buckinghamshire, but I get back to the Lakes 5 or 6 times a year, and I know that when I hang up my headphones for good, that’s where I’ll live.”
Although born in Edinburgh, Alan’s family moved to Cumbria when he was two years old. He and his brother, Robin, enjoyed an idyllic ‘Swallows and Amazons’ childhood growing up in the Lakes. They didn’t get into sailing but loved hill walking. You can see his BBC profile here
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
A few weeks ago, BBC Antiques Roadshow featured some of the flags from the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) in which I played Titty Walker. These film props had been sent to me by the producer Richard Pilbrow who now lives in Connecticut. I take them with me if I’m ever asked to give a Q&A or talk about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’. Film fans enjoy taking selfies with them.
I explained that they were made on location in 1973, possibly by the Art Director, Simon Holland, who enjoyed painting. Equally, they may have been made by the Set Decorator Ian Whittaker, who went on to win an Oscar and nominations for several more. Bob Hedges who was in charge of the action props was also adept at making props in the days when health and safety regulations were more relaxed.
In the story, Titty decides to make a new flag for the Swallow. I was keen on sewing as a child, and was thrilled to be given a needle and thread to stitch a blue swallow on the flag myself in a scene with Virginia McKenna, who played Mrs Walker, shot at Holly Howe (Bank Ground Farm) above Coniston Water in the Lake District. Rather a modern reel of cotton was caught in vision.
It was not until I returned from recording Antiques Roadshow at Windermere Jetty and had the flag on my desk that I noticed some of the stitches are different from others. It looks as if the small, white stitching on one wing could have been my own. As a child, I had thought the larger stitches rather clumsy but am sure they looked appropriate in vision. It would be worth far more if it was known to have been made by Ian Whittaker. He won an Oscar and was nominated for his work on a number of other films.
‘Properly’, as Titty would say, the bird should be flying towards the mast, although I am assured that Arthur Ransome did once draw a diving swallow on one flag. In his book, the swallow was sewn into the cloth rather that plonked on top of fabric browned by tea but our flag has lasted for 48 years.
After Antiques Roadshow was broadcast, a lady who grew up in Bowness on Windermere, wrote to say, ‘It may be of interest that we still have the fishing rods that were used in the film. They belonged to my father Leslie Borwick and were lent to the film crew. They are rather worse for wear but still treasured as I was a big fan of the books when I was young. Unfortunately I was living abroad when the film was made so have no memories of it.’
Leslie Borwick, was a keen fisherman who took his daughter out to catch perch. She said that the bamboo rods are quite fragile but one has a wooden reel, which is interesting.
“My mother’s side of the family were very keen fishermen. Their surname was Bousefield and there is a fly called “Bousefield’s Fancy”(Frank Bousefield)”
You can read the original post about filming the fishing scene on Elterwater here
A clip of Swallow’s flag being valued on BBC Antiques Roadshow can be watched on BBC iPlayer.
The whole story of the making of Swallows and Amazons (1974) can be read 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’.