Swallow’s flag and the bamboo fishing rods featured in the 1974 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’

The flag Titty made for Swallow in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Were some of these stitches mine after all?

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, or Bob Hedges who was in charge of the action props. 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.

Virginia McKenna, as Mary Walker with Sophie Neville playing her daughter Titty Walker busy stitching Swallow’s new flag in preparation for the voyage to the island (c)StudioCanal

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.

Ian Whittaker with the Art Director Simon Holland

‘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.

Property Master Bob Hedges keeping the perch alive

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 on Windermere

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.

Ronald Bousfield fishing at about the time ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was written

“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 or seen on Youtube here:

Memories of making ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974): part six

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in the 1974 movie

‘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.

Sophie Neville on BBC Antique’s Roadshow

‘Memory picks and choses,’ as Arthur Ransome said in his autobiography (p33) 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 can read more about making the movie in the multi-media ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’.

And in the illustrated paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ by Sophie Neville available online and from the Nancy Blackett Trust

 

Talking about ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) movie memorabilia on Antiques Roadshow this Sunday 9th May at 7.00pm on BBC One

This Sunday 9th May, BBC Antiques Roadshow returns to Windermere Jetty in the Lake District at 7.00pm.

Swallows and Amazons fans expressed great excitement when the first episode was broadcast from the museum on Sunday 21st February as it featured ‘Swallow’, the dinghy from the original movie made on location in the Lake District in 1973 and brought to cinema scenes in 1974.

‘Such an iconic film,’ the expert Rupert Maas, commented, admitting that it once inspired him to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.

He chatted to Rob Boden who looks after Swallow for the organisation Sail Ransome before placing a pretty high value on the old girl.

They had just enough wind to sail off into the sunshine.

I had been invited along for the second episode, recorded the next day, when it poured with rain. While others were arriving with exquisite treasures, I staggered into the museum with two carrier bags of old photographs and what my family regard as clutter.

Rupert Maas was busy valuing a painting by the waters edge but came to say Hello in the lovely new cafe at Windermere Jetty while we watched the expert, Marc Allum value another item.

Marc later walked around to inspect my collection of ‘movie memorabilia’ relating to the film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974), filmed in the Lake District forty-eight years ago. He liked the programme from the premier and the original black and white film stills, along with the flags kindly sent to me from America by Richard Pilbrow who produced the movie now distributed by StudioCanal who have a remastered cinema Bluray and DVD with Extras.

The camera crew seemed adept at keeping their equipment dry, but lining up shots was tricky since everyone had to be carefully distanced.

Marc Allum socially distanced from Sophie Neville and her bow

I knew that signed, first edition copies of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazon’ are worth up to £11,000. A note sold in an envelope addressed to a Miss Cartmell postmarked 1939 and accompanied by a small card signed by the author with a pen and ink sketch of a sailing boat, sold recently with an estimate of £1,000-1,500 but I did not think my collection of movie memorabilia from the early 1970’s would be worth much.

Marc Allum lining up a shot with Sophie Neville

Marc invited me to take up the bow an arrow, whittled on location during the filming and fletched with feathers from a ‘Red Indian Headdress’ purchased from a toy shop in Ambleside in 1973.

Marc Allum and Sophie Neville with the director

I suggested the director might like to take a shot of the ML Tern as she passed but visibility was too low. Marc concentrated on my collection, which had nearly been thrown out in a fit of de-cluttering years ago. He valued it at far more than I ever would have imagined.

I wondered if my item would ever be included, thinking it could easily hit the cutting room floor, but this well a kind reader alerted me to the Radio Times billing here

To see more photos of BBC Antiques Roadshow at Windermere Jetty, please see the previous post here

You can find the illustrated book on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ here:

For details on the BBC Antiques Roadshow website, please click here They tell me they, “would be delighted to hear of any developments that may occur following the transmission of the programme. For instance, further information about the history of an item occasionally comes to light or a decision is taken to put the featured piece up for sale. Should you have any such news, please contact the Antiques Roadshow Office at antiques.roadshow@bbc.co.uk.”

The episode ‘Windermere Jetty 2 – series 43’ will be on BBC iPlayer here

Detail of an original ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) movie poster hanging at Windermere Jetty Museum

You can read more about how ‘Swallow’ was bought at auction and restored, in Yachts and Yachting and on the Sailransome website.

You can listen to Sophie chatting about the experience on BBC Radio Cumbria here

Swallow’s original burgee and the White Elephant flag captured from Captain Flint’s houseboat, featured in the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

Points to add to the 3rd edition of ‘The Secrets of Making Swallows and Amazons’ (1974): Part five

Imdb, the International movie data base, list Billy Mayerl’s composition ‘Marigold’ as being included in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. This intrigued me. I looked up the music as I couldn’t think where it had been featured. Listen to the original version and see if you can recognise it:

The famous variety and radio entertainer Billy Mayerl playing ‘Marigold’ and other melodies

It was ‘played’ on the radio in the chandlery in Rio, laid over the scene when the film was dubbed at Elstree Studios. We didn’t hear it when we were in the actual shop.

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West inside the chandlery

The Swallows bought ‘grog’ (ginger beer) and rope for the lighthouse tree. Postcards and wicker shopping baskets hung in the chandlery, which had weighing scales on the counter.

The general Store in Rio
Sophie Neville in Rio with four bottles of grog ~ photo: Daphne Neville

This shot was taken during the filming on the corner of Woodland Road, Bowness-on-Windermere during the filming in June 1973. I wonder who the people in the background were – possibly members of the film crew. The man in the blue top looks like Gareth Tandy the third assistant director who would have been asking passing traffic to wait while filming was in progress. The building looked like this in 2012 but I need a more up to date photo.

Once Tom Kirkbride’s cobbler’s shop, later Mr Cropper’s sweet shop selling rainbow sherbet, Andy Dyker’s Fine Furnishings, a hairdressing salon and now a wood-burning stove showroom

Jenny Maconchy wrote in to say, “It may be of interest that we still have the bamboo fishing rods that were used in the film. They belonged to my father Leslie Borwick and 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.”

The Swallows fishing for perch on Elterwater (c) StudioCanal

As a boy, Arthur Ransome had his own perch rod with a colored float to use at Nibthwaite. Towards the end of the filming, Claude Whatham gave Simon West a similar fishing rod, which Ronnie Fraser taught him to use on Derwentwater.

Ronald Fraser behind-the-scenes on Swallows and Amazons (1974)
A member of the Arthur Ransome Group wrote, "I did not realise that the Lakeside Railway had only just re-opened in time for the filming. Of course, although Lakeside Station does get a mention in one of the books, it was the Windermere Station where the Swallows always travelled to. Although Lakeside Station would have been far more convenient from Beckfoot,the Great Aunt always insisted on Windermere as it meant less changes for her. Incidentally both Lake Windermere and Coniston Water had rail connections years ago (which is the likely route for the slate from Slater Bob’s mine although this is not mentioned being outside the scope of a childrens’ story).
With Virginia McKenna at the Haverwaite Railway Station
Viginia McKenna at the Haverthwaite Railway Station in Cumbria soon after it re-opened in May 1973. Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Lesley Bennet and Sophie Neville are with her. The carriage with compartments is in the background ~ photo: Daphne Neville

“‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) was instrumental in helping me through a very stressful period of my life, and writing was a great healer for me. The results of my efforts are in the The Arthur Ransome Society library : ‘Prospectors Afloat’ and ‘Coots in the North’ a completion of the short portion which was published. I will be obtaining ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ and no doubt many more of your other publications in due course.” Charles H Ball

The Swallows at the Lighthouse tree Lookout point
Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon as the Swallows on Wild Cat Island

I’ve just read that in Zulu folklore, the swallow is known as Inkonjany – the one who points the way to summer. “The swallow, and other birds like it, is regarded by our people as a symbol of effort and hard work as well as of unity, because you will see these birds gather together in large groups as they come and go. The name Inkonjany means the little pointer, and it comes from the verb komba, which means to point out something. It was said that if you saw a lot of swallows in the sky, it meant that the summer and the harvest would be very good.” I felt this applied quite well to the Walker family migrating north for their summer holiday and working hard as being the best crew they could be.

One of the film fans has called her hens Titty and Nancy. I’m sure Mrs Jackson would approve. Do use the comments box below to write in with any connections you have to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and the original film.

You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from libraries, bookshops or direct from the publisher . The Nancy Blackett Trust have signed copies and it can be purchased online here:

There is also a similar multi-media ebook entitled, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons'(1974). You can see inside the first section for free here

Points to add to the third edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) – part four

Windermere in the English Lake District

When I was last in the Lake District, I grabbed the chance to climb to the top of Gummer’s Howe to look down on the ‘Great Lake in the North’. Arthur Ransome, who once lived at High Nibthwaite, must have gazed at this exact, same view. ‘Native shipping’ was passing a wooded island and a bay where I could see a yacht was moored. It was like looking down on the chart I once drew for the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ first screened in cinemas forty-seven years ago in April 1974.

Looking to the south, I could see Lakeside Station and the Haverthwaite steam railway running alongside the River Leven where we began filming back in May 1973. The renovated line had only been running for two weeks but we were instantly transported back to 1929, when Ransome wrote the book in a grey barn nearby.

Blake Holme, one of the wooded islands on which Wild Cat Island was modelled

Michael Johnson left a comment on the Arthur Ransome Group Facebook page saying, ‘The Lakeside & Haverthwaite is a lovely line, but frustratingly slow. It’s such a short line that the journey would be over within a few minutes even at a modest speed, like 25mph. Drivers are under standing instructions to drive at little more than walking pace so the journey takes at least 15 minutes. That way everybody thinks they’ve got their money’s worth!’ I hadn’t noticed when travelling on the line myself a few years ago.

The River Leven and southern end of Windermere in Cumbria

Ransome wrote: ‘Windermere is the lake, a bit disguised’ although he used many locations found on Coniston Water that perhaps he wanted to keep more secret. However, it is clear that Rio is his name for Bowness-on-Windermere, which I was able to explore recently. This was the jetty where the Boy Roger was left guarding Swallow.

Bowness-on-Windermere

Charles Elliot from Bowness remembers us, “filming in the bay with some actors in a rowing boat. There was no security so I walked down the jetty right behind the camera.” Was this captured by the Guardian newspaper here?

It’s possible find some of the locations and even some of the traditional boats that appeared in the movie. The natives may be able to help you. Brian Salisbury said, “The village store was my grandfather, Tom Kirkbride’s cobblers shop from mid-1930s to mid-1950s.

Woodland Road, Windermere

Stan Cropper took it over and added the LH extension.” He said of our set designer, “They did it up with the original red wooden finish.” The cat was called Rusty.

Simon West as Captain John in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) – StudioCanal

After he posted this photo on Facebook, Harry Hodgson wrote to say, “I remember looking at all the 1930’s products in the windows.”

This behind-the-scenes cine footage shot by my father in 1973 shows the film extras getting off the coach at Bowness and a scene being shot on the jetty:

Stephen Newton and Phil Procter would go and watch the filming in their dinner break from Borwicks Aquatics. “There was a band playing in the bandstand and a bloke on a pushbike with a front box selling ice cream. You can see this in the film when the kids are on the pier in the background.”

Windermere skiffs at Bowness-on-Windermere

In many ways, the 1974 film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ has become a touchstone to re-set our lives. Nigel Young writes: “On arrival back from touring, I’d get to Oxenholme station and rush home, change into my boots and head to the hills passing through Bowness…. I’d look across the lake and count the trees on the small beach, seven in all? and in my mind’s eye try to place the bandstand which features in the film so prominently. I’d look for the jetty where Roger was confronted by a blazered gent in whitened shoes asking him about his boat and think… ‘What have they done with it?’  

Lakeland steamers embarking from Bowness-on-Windermere

“Then I’d look at the landscape and note all the changes since the making of the film before heading home where I’d immediately put the film on, grab a glass of white wine and just sit and watch it, getting transported back in time to another way and another space, but that space still exists in some strange dimension for me, and I feel in touch with the lakes and in touch with a past I can totally relate with.  John wears one of those stripy  S buckle belts on his shorts.  I had one too!

Sophie Neville in Bowness, Cumbria
Sophie Neville, Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Stephen Grendon in Bowness in the summer of 1973

“You were well cast, almost as if you were a family before you all started and the cinematography, especially where the sailing sequences are concerned, is something out of this world. Whoever shot and edited the footage for the film were totally at one with the story and the locations…..   And Ronald Fraser !!  …well I would say he really did ‘Swim’ …… I was Principal of an Outdoor Education Centre on Windermere for over a decade and I am aware of just how cold the lake can be in winter or summer….and there goes ‘Ronald’ getting thrown off the plank by you guys into Coniston or Windermere which ever, they are both as cold as each other!”

To read a previous post on finding the film locations and taking the Lakeside and Haverthwaite steam train, please click here

Bowness-on-Windermere

You can read more about the film locations used in ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ published by The Lutterworth Press who can send you a copy.

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

Memories to add to the third edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ – part three

“One pandemic discovery for my family was 1974’s ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ a charming British film about kids just playing on a lake. On their own, they’re plenty capable of making their own tents and adventures”, the US film critic Jake Coyle wrote in a review for the Associated Press of a new movie released on Netflix called ‘Yes Day’.

Many people have fond memories of watching the original movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when it first came out in cinemas nearly forty-seven years ago and list it in their Top Ten feature films of all time.

David Kerr wrote: “I first saw the film while I was a junior projectionist. I was 17 at the time. My cinema was called the Astor in Bromley, part of south east London. While an independent cinema, we took the ABC circuit films. Somewhere, I have the LP record and a poster of the film. I went on to a career spanning 40 years in international film distribution.”

“It remains one of my top ten films even to this day. I worked for 20th Century Fox…Polygram…and United International Pictures which distributed Universal, Paramount and Dreamworks films. I had a good career and witnessed the good the bad and the ugly during my travels.”

Simon West and the camera crew at Bank Ground Farm

“From memory, I can recall that the film was released over the Easter school holidays in 1974. It’s just been helped as I have found a press ad online and it lists South London unusually running the film first on April 14th.”

Finding Swallow
Simon West, Sten Grendon and Sophie Neville with the director Claude Whatham

“I believe the film was supported by ‘The Lion at Worlds End’ …the documentary that Virginia and Bill Travers made with George Adamson about returning an African lion to the wild. I know I ran the film again either in 1975 or ’76 as an afternoon matinee only with a Kung Fu adult programme in the evenings.”

Brenda Bruce and Simon West on location above Coniston Water

“The film means a lot to me and has done so since 1974. It made me revisit the books…which I still read (currently dipping in and out of an old hardback edition of ‘Pigeon Post’) but I believe I had only read one during my childhood, which I think was ‘Swallowdale’. I also embarked on a number of holidays in the lakes because of the film. That first year I camped on a farm at Torver on the west side of Coniston.”

Simon West as John Walker studying the chart at Holly Howe before the voyage.

“The reason I include it in my top ten is simple. It is pure storytelling that takes the viewer on an adventure. You do not notice the individual aspects of film making you just become engrossed in the story. And that is what a good film should do. I watched it again just last week on a streaming service… It makes me smile ….what more can I say.”

Virginia McKenna with Sophie Neville on location at Bank Ground Farm

John Rose wrote: “I can remember watching the film in 1974 with my mum and grandma when I was a nine or ten year-old, at the then called Mecca Cinema in Horsham, Sussex (sadly now demolished). I remember loving the natural setting and the adventure in the film and remember it being thrilling and suspenseful! Still my favourite film, so cheerful and up-lifting. The lovely music! All still brings a tear to my eye.  Back then in the ’70s we didn’t have the lakes but at every opportunity our little band of local children would run off over the fields playing, building camps and climbing trees in the woods – such happy, carefree days.”

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Sten Grendon in Swallow

Last time the film was broadcast on BBC Two, David Stott, who worked as a unit driver on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when he was fresh out of college, wrote in to say: “I remember how cold you all were whilst filming the swimming scene.  The lily pond scene brought back memories of a very wet day on Pull Wyke caravan park.  Most of the day was spent in the two double decker buses that were your school room and the canteen waiting for the rain to clear. Everyone was so grateful to pack up and go home.”

Sten Grendon as Roger with Suzanna Hamilton as Susan

 

“I had many incidents with the parrot that I had to collect in the morning and return at night.  I hated the bird, often it was let free in a bathroom at Kirskstone Foot and l would have to catch it and put it in its travel bag. I notice in the film that it is chained down whilst it is sitting on your shoulder.”

Kit Seymour as Nancy, Sophie Neville as Titty and Beauty playing Polly the green parrot.

 

“I would spend a lot chatting to Ronnie Logan the hairdresser while the shooting was taking place, such a nice man.”

“The day they filmed the walking the plank scene I remember very well.  I took Ronnie Fraser to the Lodore Swiss hotel at  lunchtime and he was really very well plastered by the time I got him back for the afternoon filming.  I suppose it was the only way they managed to get him in the water.  He was not a happy chappy that afternoon when I eventually took him back to Ambleside.”

“I had to put the rushes on the train to London in the evening and collect developed film (how times have changed).  One of my treats was that I was allowed to watch the rushes with the production team in the evening. Watching it again this afternoon was a real trip down memory lane.  I cannot believe that I was a student starting out in life at the time and now l am a pensioner.  Where has all that time gone?”

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in 1973
 
You can read more in the paperback on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’
.
 
 

You can see some of the illustrations here:

Quotes for the 3rd edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’

Movies are made for watching. In the end, they belong to those who love them and it is wonderful to hear of the impact they have had on people’s lives.

The screenwriter Caleb Ranson wrote: “You’ve no idea how thrilling this is for me to hear from you. Swallows & Amazons was a life changing cinema visit for me, set me off on my path writing/producing TV/films. I played the soundtrack album every night for years. And I love your book BTW, bought it when it first came out.”

Paddy Heron of Children in Read describes the movie Swallows and Amazons(1974) as “a national treasure of a film.”

Nigel Seymour wrote to say, “that the original film has an ambience which cannot be calculated.  It sits in time, yet it is as fresh as if it was made yesterday!” An international musician today, Nigel believes, “It possesses a simplicity of life we’ve lost, so watching it is a refreshing reminder of great days… a journey into another dimension and another world steeped with love and belonging, adventure and moral understanding, which is shared between a family and accepted. The characters are brought to life almost as if they are an infinite, integral part of the immortality of the story, each giving that picturesque understanding the viewer finds impossible to explain. After watching this film one arrives back in real time with a resounding bang! We wonder why such a simple story can create such an iconic understanding. Why watching this film can make you feel happy, totally complete and yearning to return again and savour that wonderful, eternal landscape we have all learned to grow  and love as the Lakes.”

Tracy Kenny from Ketts Books wrote: “Swallows and Amazons is a firm family favourite in our house and for a while there, your movie was the only film my eldest would watch!”

The author Catherine Randall said: “I lived and breathed Swallow & Amazons including your film. Knew nearly all the words!”

The fan letters continue to arrive. Each one treasured.

Nigel Young writes: “‘Swallows and Amazons’ is one of those films which sets itself  in that timeless space no one can quite fathom or understand, almost verging on ‘Immortality’.  I’m sure no one at the time working on it ever thought the film would achieve the cult status it seems to enjoy today. You are possibly smiling when you read this, but it’s a true reflection of a film, which is more than a film and touches on those beautiful innocent moments and times which have been lost forever.”

Charles H Ball wrote: “‘Swallows and Amazons’ was instrumental in helping me through a very stressful period of my life… I will be obtaining ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ and no doubt many more of your other publications in due course. “

C.H.B. left a review of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ writing: ‘the feelings of anybody who would have loved to have had the opportunity of actually taking part in the film are summed up by Nancy Blackett when the D’s are explaining how they managed to get to the North Pole a day earlier than planned. ‘And you two came by yourselves and got here through that blizzard?’ said Nancy. ‘However did you find the Pole?’ ‘The blizzard helped really,’ said Dorothea. ‘We were sailing,’ said Dick………..’And we’ve gone and opened the stores,’ said Dorothea. ‘And eaten some of them. You see we lost our food when the sledge turned over and the mast broke…’ ‘Capsized!’ cried Nancy. ‘Mast gone by the board! Oh. you lucky, lucky beasts!’ Some of us will forever envy the lucky children who had the opportunity of a lifetime.

I hope to include all these quotes in the 3rd edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, to be brought out for the 50th Anniversary of the films release in April 2024. Do leave a comment below or write in, letting us know what the film meant to you or how it effected your life.

Charcoal Burners at Hill Top – Arthur Ransome’s last home in the Lake District

A guest post by Stephen Sykes of Hill Top, Ealinghearth, Haverthwaite:

There are two farmhouses in the Lake District both called Hill Top and both once owned by famous children’s authors – and just a few miles apart. One, of course was Beatrix Potter’s, and the other was the last home of Arthur Ransome, which my wife and I purchased in 2012.

More recently we acquired the adjacent wonderful ancient woodland of some seven and a half acres. With its precipitous rock faces, mighty oaks, gigantic gnarled yews and dazzling carpets of bluebells in the springtime, Backhouse Brow (as it is known) entirely fulfils The Woodland Trust’s epithet: “home to myth and legend, where folk tales began”.

There are the evocative remains of long-gone human activities too. Coppiced sycamores evidence a traditional form of woodland management historically used in the area to satisfy the insatiable demand for charcoal required to service the long-ago thriving iron industry in Backbarrow, just a half-mile away over the hillside. And within Backhouse Brow can be found numerous archaeological remains left by the charcoal burners and their activities, once a common sight in this area of South Lakeland. Long-disused trackways still clearly make their way up and across the woodland. Levelled spaces – knowns as pitsteads or platforms – for creating kilns or piles to burn charcoal are still in evidence.

Circular stone base of a charcolburners’s hut

Ancient walls in various states of decay both encompass the woodland and subdivide it. And most evocatively of all, there are the more personal remnants of the lives of the charcoal burners themselves. In addition to a much-rusted shovel or two, can be found the tumble-down remains of a circular low stone wall upon which charcoal burners would have erected a shelter, much as Ransome describes in Swallows and Amazons:

At the edge of the wood, not far from the smoking mound, there was a hut shaped like a round tent, but made not of canvas but of larch poles set up on end and all sloping together so that the longer poles crossed each other at the top. On the side of it nearest to the mound there was a doorway covered with a hanging flap made of an old sack.

Meeting the charcoal burners’s adder – a scene from the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) StudioCanal

And indeed only a modest distance from our circular stone base, but at a somewhat higher level, lies the still identifiably levelled ground of a pitstead where a charcoal pile may well once have been tended by the men whose hut lay below. A strategic placing not only high above, but in a position which ensured that smoke was generally carried well away by the prevailing south-westerlies.

Stone hearth near Ealingshearth

Quite separately, in a glade some distance away, there are also the isolated remains of a rather fine stone hearth, presumably used for charcoal burners’ more domestic chores.

So, with extensive coppicing, trackways, pitsteads, the circular stone remnants of a hut and a hearth of particular note, and all adjacent to Hill Top – indeed, all now within Hill Top’s grounds – begs the question: was Ransome aware of any of this? Whilst he would have certainly seen the coppiced trees, probably not the archaeological remains. Despite the central involvement of charcoal burners in his story, he makes only the most fleeting occasional mention of the woodland in his later diaries and there is no mention of his having entered. Nevertheless, it’s rather fitting that in his final years he should have found himself in immediate proximity to this iconic historic activity about which he wrote some three decades earlier in his most famous fictional work.

The Ransomes owned Hill Top from 1960 until 1968 when Evgenia sold the property the year after Arthur died. In fact, following their arrival for the summer in 1963, they never returned to London – Hill Top finally having been supplied with electricity.

You can read more about charcoal burning in the Lake District in relation to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here.

To read about filming the charcoal burner’s scene in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) please click here.

To rent the converted barn at one end of the farmhouse, which now comprises luxury self-catering holiday accommodation for two couples, please click here

Sophie Neville visited Hill Top with members of The Arthur Ransome Society who admired the astonishing views across Cumbria. “It occurred to me that the fireplace and low stone walls of the charcoal burners’ wigwam, once abandoned, may have made up the basis of the igloo built by the Swallows and Amazons in Winter Holiday, which has a fireplace.”

Hill Top farm, near Ealinshearth where Arthur Ransome lived with his wife Evgenia

Sophie Neville being interviewed on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’

Lakeland Arts, based at the Windermere Jetty Museum, ask how the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made on location in the Lake District in 1973 –

You can find out more in the illustrated paperback, suitable for all age of readers, entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which makes a good Christmas present when combined with the 40th Anniversary DVD with DVD extras.

The original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ featured in the Radio Times as Film of the Day on Sunday 30th August 2020

‘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 is 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, published on 1st December 1930. There are 12 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.

Props used in the original film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

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). His 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.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Sten Grendon as Roger

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.

Kit Seymour as Nancy & Lesley Bennett as Peggy Blackett sailing Amazon

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)

Swallows and Amazons
Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton receiving the telegram from Father.

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’.

A Theatre Project by Richard Pilbrow

Richard Pilbrow describes in his memoir, ‘A Theatre Project’, 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. It 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.

Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham at The Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water
Producer Richard Pilbrow with Director Claude Whatham in Secret Harbour on Peel Island, Coniston Water

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 said 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..!!

If you would like to learn more about the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ there is now a paperback entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’  It can be ordered direct from the publishers and is available from Waterstones

A second edition of the ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons(1974), the first section of which you can read for free here.