Ride the Wings of Morning is selling well. It is about the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ type of lifestyle that I led in Southern Africa after leaving the BBC. It is a book of letters, illustrated with sketches and maps that are in keeping with the inheritance Titty left me. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer of the movie Swallows and Amazons has kindly reviewed it ~ please seeReviews page
I didn’t know that we would spend that Sunday cooking on the camp fire.
I didn’t know that Virginia had come up with her husband Bill Travers.
I still don’t know how Lee Electric managed to get so many lights working out on Peel Island. I can’t remember having them for any other scene. They must have had the generator on the bank and run cables under the water. It looks as if it was a pretty dark day. It was wonderful having the flood lights – they kept us warm.
There was a hushed reverence when Virginia McKenna was on set. Gone were the saucepan jokes. Funny really, as it was frying-pan scene. ‘I waited til no-one was looking and jumped out of the pot and escaped!’ The pemmican potato cakes she made me were delicious. And very hot.
Working with Virginia and Arthur Ransome’s dialogue was altogether an exercise in charm, or managing charm. I hope I didn’t over-cook it. I was rather pre-occupied by my loose tooth but loved being involved in a proper scene around the camp fire.
Then Virginia was gone and I was a saucepan once more. A saucepan now with a very wiggly tooth indeed. Saucepan-lid, kid. No more lights. I was sitting up a tree above Coniston Water in my navy blue knickers, and descended feeling a bit like Pooh Bear.
It is still there, the mossy tree. You can climb it.
It was Sunday and a much needed, formal day off for the crew of Swallows and Amazons. It was also a day of rest for the ‘Artistes’ as Claude Whatham, the Director called us. The crew called us ‘Saucepans’. Saucepan lids : kids. It is Cockney rhyming slang. There was a lot of that about in Ambleside that year.
My parents were still in bed, exhausted on that Sunday morning. To keep me busy Mum had me writing letters to my Headmistress, Sister Ann-Julian and to my Housemistress, Sister Allyne. Amazing! I wrote them.
My father’s idea of a day out in Westmorland was to drive over the hills and up the Hard Knott Pass taking car rugs, a picnic and his volcano. This is a brilliant item of equipment with which you can boil enough water to make a cup of tea using an old newspaper. I am sure I’ve read that Arthur Ransome had one… I think my mother just pulled on her Charlotte Mason College of Education sweatshirt and came too.
The highlight of the day was a trip on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, through the National Park to the coast and back. You can still do this today. The historic line was opened in 1875 to ferry iron ore from the mine near Boot to the coast at Ravensglass by steam locomotive. They say that nowadays:
“Four steam locomotives are currently in regular service, ranging from River Irt, the oldest working 15″ gauge locomotive in the world, to Northern Rock, one of the most powerful. The locomotives names, with one obvious exception, are those of the local rivers, the Esk, Mite and Irt, the last mentioned flowing from Wastwater just a few miles away from the railway.”
My father has always loved steam. He’s also rather enjoyed using the self-timer on his camera.
I am guessing that we sitting on part of the Hard Knott Roman Fort near Boot with the fells behind. Built between AD120 and AD138 at the Eskdale end of the Hard Knott Pass it must have been one of the furthermost outposts of the Roman Empire. As children we had grown up on a diet of Frankie Howard, dressed in a Roman tunic, telling us ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’. I didn’t know until this week that it was Richard Pilbrow who brought this production from New York to the West End, where the play that he produced ran for two years.
The hotel I mention was the Kirskstone Foot Hotel, at the top of Lake Windermere, in Ambleside where Richard Pilbrow and the senior members of the film crew were staying. Mum must have left her camera there.
My father has always grabbed a chance to go to the Lake District. As a young man he once took advantage of a military travel warrant to climb in the hills and later made it his job to visit the Colfast Button factory in Maryport, every month, when he worked for BIP. He would stay at the Pheasant Inn at Bassenthwaite Lake, latching visits onto a weekend, so he could explore Cumbria.
This was in the late 1950s. When I came along he took us to stay at Goosemead Farm. We climbed Castle Crag and you only have to glance at the photographs to see how happy I was to be there. We had a sheepdog called Luppy who came too. She was a great character and much loved. Found as a stray before I was born she was still around when I left home to be in Swallows and Amazons.
Arthur Ransome had been Dad’s favourite author as a boy. He said that he would wait in anticipation for another book to be published. He’d bought me the whole set, collecting them from various second hand shops. I had read the whole lot, bar Coots in the North, by the time I was twelve. He set my destiny.
My father left the dogs at home on 26th May so that he could drive my younger sisters up to join us for two weeks and watch the filming. He found Peel Island on Coniston Water and was there to meet us when the boat came in at the end of the day. My sisters stood smiling on the rocks, dressed for the weather in matching red jerseys, duffle coats and gumboots.
My parents had booked a Bed and Breakfast in Ambleside across the road from the Oaklands Guest House. I immediatley noticed a sign declaring that you had to pay 10p to have a bath. ”Ten pee!’ Mum glarred at me, furious. ‘Do be quiet, they’ll hear you’. I had moved to share Suzanna’s room, since Mrs Price had a long-standing booking for the back room Mum and I had been using. Her guest house was full to bursting since she had students from the Charlotte Mason College of Education lodging with her aswell as all of us and her own three children. The only real problem was that we had nylon sheets and the bedding kept slidding off in the middle of the night.
My sisters, Tamzin and Perry, who must have been about eight and nine, struck up an instant rapport with Suzanna Hamilton. She asked them to baby-sit her pet slow worms. These had come up from London with her in a small glass aquarium, which she had put in the fire place in our room. I don’t know what Mrs Price thought. I wasn’t very keen on handling them and have no idea how she fed them but Perry was intrigued. Suzanna had also brought her ukulele. She would sit on her bed playing Ain’t She Sweet, Sunny side of the Street, Playing on my Banjo and other Norman Wisdom numbers, completley fluently and with great gusto. My sisters were entranced. They may have even shared the room with us and the slow-worms. Mum can’t remember.
Dad had already made plans for sailing that first Bank Holiday, when Richard Pilbrow had scheduled a break.
I remember the Hula-hula girls well. Although it was only May they suddenly appeared on what seemed to be a remote, inaccessible island, clad in garish, brightly coloured bikinis – the kind that had little frilly skirts to them. We watched them splash about and swim in complete wonder as, although it was sunny, we knew how cold the water was.
We had seen something of the same kind of savage the day before. I can remember the dismay on the First Assistant’s face when he realised it really was the Saturday of the Bank Holiday. We had had Peel Island to ourselves, indeed it had become ours – our special place, our magical camp, our home. And suddenly it was being invaded by brash women from Manchester who certainly had no respect for anyone making a film. I don’t know how they got out there. they seemed to arrive from no where when we were in the secret harbour, which was suddenly a secret no more. It was their holiday and there was no stopping them or their over-weight and noisy children. They were quite frightening.
The horrific Bank Holiday traffic queues were also unexpected, but my father took us up into the mountains and out on Derwent Water. He must have been trying to teach my mother to sail for decades but she has never begun to get the hang of it. She was in mourning that weekend as she had watched her favourite hat blow across the water and sink to the bottom of the lake. It was a bulbous pink and white Donny Osmond cap that Claude Whatham had enjoyed wearing on set to amuse us. She was able to find a yellow and white one to replace it but he never liked it as much. Said it didn’t suit his colouring.
If you take the East of the Lake road along Coniston Water you will find Bank Ground Farm. It lies between Brantwood, John Ruskin’s former home, and Lanehead where Arthur Ransome’s friends the Collingwoods lived. Ransome was particularly good friends of Dora Collingwood, who married an Irish-Armenian doctor keen on sailing called Ernest Altounyan. They went to live in Syria but every five years or so would bring their children to visit their Grandparents for the holidays. The would stay at Bank Ground Farm next door. Ernest bought two 14 foot sailing dinghies called Swallow and Mavis in which his family learnt to sail.
It was for the five Altounyan children, Taqui, Susie, Titty , Roger – and Bridget, the ships’s baby, that Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons after they gave him a pair of bright scarlet Turkish slippers as a birthday present. I don’t think I knew that Titty was a real girl when I played her in the film, but I did know her character in the books and only felt rather bad that I didn’t have her thick dark hair.
Bank Ground Farm is much smarter now. Lucy Batty, who let us take over her home in 1973, is still around but the guest house is now run by her grandson Jonathan. You can either stay in the main house, where there is a lovely corner bedroom with views right down Langdale, or you can take a self catering cottage or flat, since they have been able to convert the barn and stables into further accommodation. I’ve just received post from Peter Willis of The Nancy Blackett Trust who said,
“I stayed at Bank Ground in the summer – it was utterly lovely, exactly as it ought to be – Jonathan Batty and his wife are really hospitable, and one of the great pleasures was the friendliness and interstingness of the other guests, who included a Japanese Ransome fan. Do have dinner if they’re doing it. Food’s great, but so’s the sociable atmosphere.”
Int: Holly Howe ~ Bank Ground Farm near Coniston
It was grey and raining in the Lake District on 15th May 1973. Instead of filming the scene when Roger tacks up the field, Denis Lewiston, the Director of Photography, lit Mrs Batty’s living room at Bank Ground Farm for an evening scene. Simon Holland the Art Director dressed the room in the style of a Cumbrian farmhouse in the 192os with oil lamps, Bobby the prop man brought in all the camping gear we were to be packing, while Virginia McKenna was having her hair done up and we had lessons in our red double-decker bus. Then we recorded a scene, the dialogue of which was never used in the finished film.
You do see Susan packing bars of soap and me making heavy weather of sewing our flag, my hair pinned back in a hideous way, with rather a modern reel of white cotton laying on the desk. John packed the telescope in a biscuit tin, which to me now seems a mistake as we used it on the voyage, very much not in a tin, but then one always re-packs many times before an important trip.
After lunch we shot the scene when Mother is teaching us how to erect a tent on rocky ground, as she did with Father when they were young. Titty asks if she is really old.
‘Not really. But I was younger then,’ Virginia McKenna replied looking dubious.
This is rather how I feel now, all these years later, especially when I walk into a room when people are expecting me as Titty. I’m not really old, but I do look different from when I was only twelve. This always happens when I return to Bank Ground Farm. Everyone is a bit taken back by my height but say I sound just the same. And I am married now with a family of my own. It is a bit like when Peter Pan flew back to see Wendy and found she looked just like her mother – not least because in the play the adult Wendy is always played by the actress who formerly takes the role of Mrs Darling.
I was standing outside the front door of Bank Ground once, talking to Lucy Batty, when two Japanese girls arrived to stay at the farm. They were fans of the film. They looked up at me and declared, ‘Ooo Titty!’ and bowed their heads whilst clasping their hands together in greeting. They had come from the other side of the world and yet recognised me immediately. Perhaps I haven’t changed that much after all.
The weather must have cleared up a bit by teatime on 15th May as we recorded the scenes in the boat house when John discovers Swallow, brings her out to the stone jetty and steps the mast. I’m pretty sure that the sunlight comes from an arc-lamp. They must have had to take the generator down to the lakeside. Suzanna got her shorts wet as she pushed out the clinker-built dinghy but we loved being by the water.