Sailing the Nancy Blackett in Dutch waters – part two

Nancy Blackett, the 28 foot cutter that Arthur Ransome bought with Spanish gold, as he called his royalties from ‘Swallows and Amazons’, is an old lady now. Built by Hillyards of Littlehampton in 1931, she turns eighty-five this year and yet looks pristine. If you ever wanted to sail the Goblin in ‘We Did Mean To Go To Sea’ you must know that it was Nancy who took this starring role in Ransome’s novel, first published eighty years ago.
Nancy Balckett in Middleburg photo Sophie Neville
Nancy Blackett
I arrived in the Netherlands this summer to find Nancy receiving visitors at a nautical festival in Midddleburg, while a jazz band played on the quay.  She was moored by a lifting bridge in the centre of town, neatly rigged and ready for anything. After taking a look at a number of old gaffers, her crew enjoyed a cold beer and walked down the canal to vittel-up at a supermarket before having dinner in what was once a packing house for silks and spices imported from the East Indies.
Nancy seen through the bridge in Middleburg
Nancy seen through the swing bridge in Middleburg
As the swing bridge rose the next morning, we made way and motored down the wide canal to Veere, mooring up by the grassy port bank. 
Hollyhocks of Veere
Hollyhocks of Veere
After being granted permission to go ashore, I passed the historic town well and walked down lanes bordered by hollyhocks to visit the museums of this ancient port. They house a number of charts and medieval maps that would have delighted the Swallows, along with old photographs of Dutch natives in traditional dress. I was tempted to buy a pair of clogs to take home for Bridget.
The waterways of Zeeland
The waterways of Zeeland
We left Veere to explore the islands and creeks of the Veersemeer before sailing down-channel and through a modern lock into the Oosterschelde estuary formed by the River Scheldt. It was once an important shipping route that bought wealth to the Netherlands but is quieter now. I spotted a seal and watched a cormorant swallow a large eel, that wriggled and jiggled inside its gullet.
Windmill of Zeeland
A windmill of Zierikzee
After negotiating the impressive Zeelandbrug that spans the delta, we sailed down to Zierikzee where you can climb the church tower, if you dare, and look out across the once fortified town. The windmills, ornate spires and ancient buildings help one to imagine what life must have been like in the 1500s when it became famous as a trading centre for salt and madder. I found scold’s stones and a whaler’s kayak from Greenland at the Stadhuis Museum in Zierikzee where Veronica Frenks was once the curator.
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The lock gates of Zierikzee
Our skipper, Ian McGlynn, wondered if we could sail back under an arch of the Zeelandbrug instead of waiting for one section of the road to lift. Built between 1963 and 1965 the Zeeland Bridge is more than five kilometres long and hardly comparable to the arch of Potter Heigham but Mate Judy Taylor didn’t want to take any risks. We had Nancy’s new mast to consider.
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Crewing the Nancy Blackett
It was only on our last evening-but-one that rain hit us. We’d had blue skies and sunshine all week. As the salt water was washed away from Nancy’s portholes I opened the pages of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ to find Ransome’s illustrations and read the final passages of the Swallows’ unplanned voyage to Holland. The book is eighty years old this year and yet moves me still. There is Nancy, portrayed as the Goblin moored up in a foreign port, which is where we left her to be enjoyed by other members of the Nancy Blackett Trust.
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Nancy Blackett in Zeeland
 A marathon reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ is planned, to celebrate the 80 year anniversary of its publication, at Pin Mill Sailing Club on the Orwell in Suffolk on Saturday 21st October 2017.
Pin Mill from the Water
To read more about Nancy or join the Nancy Blackett Trust please click here
Nancy has been featured by Country Life in a July issue you can read here
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We Did Mean To Go To Sea by Octavia Pollock

Taqui Altounyan on Peel Island

Amazon, originally known as Mavis, now rsiding at the Coniston Museum
Amazon, originally known as Mavis, now residing at the Coniston Museum

People come from all over the world to visit Mavis, the traditional gaff-rigged dinghy known to all those who love the Arthur Ransome books as Amazon. She has been lovingly renovated but, still being a bit leaky, is on permanent display at the Coniston Museum in the Lake District. It was in this clinker-built dinghy and another little ship named Swallow that the Altounyan children learnt to sail on Coniston Water in the late 1920s.

Mavis in the Coniston Museum

In later life they used Mavis to teach their own children and grandchildren to sail. She was kept in Brigit Sander’s (ne Altounyan) boathouse at Slate Quay, which so resembles Ransome’s illustrations of the Amazon boathouse.

SUZIE, TAQUI, BRIGIT
Suzie, Taqui and Brigit Altounyan

One of the secrets of  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that the character of Captain John, was, if anything, loosely based on a the eldest girl in the family. Arthur Ransome obviously needed to balance genders and have two boys and three girls instead of only one boy, as in real life. Taqui Altounyan seemed to take this in her stride, giving him what advice she could. She has detailed this in her memoirs of the family’s lives:  In Allepo Once and Chimes from a Wooden Bell  – excellent books that have become much sort after.

Roger Wardale, author of many books about Arthur Ransome and the locations he used in his stories, kindly sent me these photographs of Taqui that he took when she was showing him some of the places where she played as a girl.

Taqui on PEEL Island -
Taqui Altounyan on Peel Island, Coniston Water

The Lake District, where her Collingwood Grandparents lived, was obviously a special place for her.

Taqui at Beacon Tarn
Taqui Altounyan pointing to the rocks from which they would jump into Trout (Beacon) Tarn.

These photographs of Roger’s show her walking back in time,

TAQUI VISITS PEEL I

visit Mavis in Coniston Museum

Taqui + MAVIS
Taqui Altounyan looking at Mavis, who was later renamed Amazon

and go aboard SL Esperance on Windermere,

Taqui, _You can sweep up_
‘You can sweep up’ Taqui Altounyan in Esperance

soaking up the atmosphere in her cabin.

Taqui HOUSEBOAT PICNIC
Taqui Altounyan with Roger Wardale and some of his former pupils inside the Esperance, which was the model for Captain Flint’s houseboat

Very many thanks to Roger Wardale, whose own books can be found listed here.

For more photos of Amazon please click here

You can read about making of the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here:

Titty Altounyan

I am assured that Titty’s family will not be offended if I re-publish these news clippings. She has become well-loved by many who I know would like to learn more about her. The Times used her Christian name of Mavis, but she was always known as Titty.

Titty obituary - The GuardianTitty Altounyan 001

Although she was heralded as Arthur Ransome’s muse, I know that Titty Altounyan had no wish to be famous. If anything she gradually disassociated herself with the character in the books, who struck her as being so good and clever. But Titty was her name. It was a name I have lived with too, for I played the part of Titty in the film of Swallows & Amazons produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973. Children and adults alike still call me Titty all these years later. One summer, when I was sailing Swallow, the dinghy used in the 1974 film, someone took this shot of me. It is as if I am still flying Titty’s inspirational flag, which I do with humility and with honour.

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Sophie Neville lowering Swallow’s sail on Ullswater in 2014

Titty Altounyan in 1938

Titty Altounyan with the Ransome’s flotilla on the Norfolk Broads in 1934 (?)

Mrs Ransome wrote to Titty’s mother, Dora Altounyan, from Wroxham. This postcard was kindly shown to us by Ted Alexander who rescued it from certain destruction.

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I thought I was far too fair to play Titty but Mrs Ransome approved.  Despite Ransome’s book illustrations of girls with dark hair, she was most decisive about casting “An English rose” to play Titty and that the children should have British colouring. The idea was that viewers could easily associate with us. I am of Scots/English/Irish heritage, like Titty’s  grandmothers, but my second name is Rose.

Sophie Neville receiving a Titty haircut

Hairstylist Ronnie Cogan giving Sophie Neville a Titty hair cut on location

I don’t know if Titty ever saw the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She might have done. I only hope that we captured the sense of adventure experienced by the Altounyans when they were little and went camping on Peel Island during the weeks when they stayed with their grandparents, Mr and Mrs WG Collingwood, at Lane Head at the northern end of  Coniston Water.

Titty alone on Wildcat Island

Sophie Neville as Titty on Peel Island (c) Studiocanal

Although they are seen wearing shorts as young children I have been told that the Altounyan girls sailed in dresses, which they tucked up into their knickers if they had to wade ashore, much as I did in the film.

BW Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour

Sophie Neville as Titty (c) StudioCanal

The reference to Titty’s name coming from the tale of Mrs Tittlemouse in the article feature in The Times above is incorrect. Titty’s name was based on a character in fairy story Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse by Joseph Jacobs published in 1890, that begins when Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse go leasing (or gathering) corn. Here is a later edition. Titty ‘never could resist anything in print.’

You can read the original story here 

Titty and Tatty book

 A version of the story published in 1949

With thanks to Roger Wardale who showed me the handwritten letters that Titty sent him. She had the most beautiful writing.

Raising Swallow’s flag higher

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For some time now we have been doing a variety of things to raise interest in Arthur Ransome and his books, particularly the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series originally written for children.

The Royal London Yacht Club recently hosted a Swallows and Amazons weekend for the combined yacht clubs of Cowes on the Isle of Wight and in doing so raised quite a bit of money for charity.

Sophie Neville talking in Cowes
Sophie Neville giving a talk on ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

Glenridding Sailing Centre in Cumbria have been running Swallows & Amazons Adventure Days on Ullswater and promise to hold more.

Official film still from StudioCanal
Sten Grendon as Roger and Sophie Neville as Titty rowing Swallow (c)StudioCanal

SailRansome have made Swallow, the original clinker built dinghy used in the film, available for families to use there.

Sophie Neville sailing Swallow
Swallow, the dinghy used in the 1974 film on Ullswater this summer

We’ve been using the Draper’s shallop to teach children how to row on the River Lee under the auspices of Countryside Live. We have now taught hundreds of children most of whom have never been in a boat before. The idea is to inspire them to join the Sea Scouts or a local rowing or canoeing club.

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Countryside Live at Lee Valley 2014

Another boat you can sail is the Nancy Blackett portrayed as Goblin from We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water.

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Arthur Ransome’s cutter the Nancy Blackett sailing on the Orwell

It only costs £25 a year to join the Nancy Blackett Trust. This is wonderful for anyone living near the Orwell as Ransome once did.

The Nancy Blackett

The Arthur Ransome Society, known as TARS, is welcoming new members to its six regional branches.

President of The Arthur Ransome Society
Sophie Neville in Suffolk

Next year an international gathering is being planned in East Anglia over the May Bank Holiday when we hope to be able to take short trips on the wherry Albion and visit Hunter’s yard to meet Teasel, Titmouse, Dreadnaught and Death and Glory ~ the boats used in the BBC dramatisation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’, when the Albion played Sir Garnet skippered by Jack Watson. Revelation Films have digitally remastered the series, which they have available as a new release entitled ‘Swallows & Amazons Forever!’  I’ve been asked to give a talk on how the BBC serial was made.

Sophie Neville with Titmouse in Norfolk
Sophie Neville with Titmouse in Norfolk – photo Diana Dicker

I’ve been promoting StudioCanal’s re-release of the 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons on Radio Cumbria, Premier Radio, Lakeland Radio and Channel 5’s live TV programme The Wright Stuff. There’s a lot going on in the media with recent pictorials in Country Life, The Lady and Cotswold Life magazines as well as newspapers and colour supplements.

Sophie Neville Q&A in Kendal
Q&A with a large cinema audience in Kendal this August

We brought the 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons back to cinemas in London, Ambleside, Kendal and to Hastings on Pirate Day. I took Captain Flint’s trunk along and wore a tricorn hat only to be told by one little boy in the audience, ‘I hate pirates. They are my enemies.’  Other children asked,  ‘Did you enjoy being in the film?’ and ‘Were the spiders in your tent real?’

Announcing the film to the pirates of Hastings

When we were in Kendal, the curator of the Museum of Lakeland Life gave a talk to the cinema audience bringing along the actual red slippers given to Arthur Ransome by the Altounyan children in 1929 which inspired him to write Swallows and Amazons.

Swallows & Amazons on the Houseboat
An official still from the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (c) StudioCanal

Some schools have Swallows and Amazons as a set book. I was invited to give a talk at Walhampton School who claim a ‘Swallows and Amazons ethos’. They aspire to giving their pupils as much of an exciting outdoor education as possible with sailing and exploring on the curriculum. School House magazine backs this up saying, ‘There is a distinct ‘Swallows and Amazons’ spirit that burns brightly here.’

Sophie Neville having unveiled the plaque to Arthur Ransome at Rugby School

The Arthur Ransome Trust have a range of exhibitions, displays and resource materials. Do check out their website and future events. Meanwhile All Things Ransome have been quietly offering a veritable library of information along with a media vault. The Arthur Ransome Society has a large library of books in Dumfries where the 2016 IAGM will be held.

Swallow on Coniston
Swallow sailing from Wild Cat Island (C) StudioCanal

What could you do to keep Ransome’s writing on book shop shelves?

Could you organise an event at your local sailing club? Or request a screening of newly restored version of the film at your local cinema?  One is being planned in Oxford with hopefully another at Wolverstone.  PictureHouse cinemas are particularly open to the idea of screening classic family films.

I am planning ‘An Arthur Ransome Day’ at my local Waterstones and another at our library. How can we make this special and attract people off the street?

Do add your ideas to the comments below.

Easy things you can do right now to help promote the books:

Request a book or DVD from your local library.

Add a review to on-line sites. This leads to increased marketing of books, audio books or DVDs. The Imdb site for the 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons welcomes reviews.

Click here for Books by Arthur Ransome on Amazon UK

Add a comment about the DVD of the film. Click here for StudioCanal’s DVD on Amazon UK

StudioCanal DVD cover

Click here for the Amazon UK site for the DVD of the BBC serial of ‘Coot Club and The Big Six’ Look out for the one with this cover:

Swallows and Amazons Forever
Swallows And Amazons Forever! (Coot Club & The Big Six) SPECIAL EDITION [DVD]

Other ideas:

Join The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook. They always have  lively discussions.

There are a number of Twitter sites you can follow.

Contact BBC TV to ask for your favourite TV or radio programmes on Arthur Ransome or his books to be repeated: Click here for the site.

Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree

You can read about the adventures we had making the original film with Swallow here:

Being a cormorant ~ filming more swimming scenes for Swallows and Amazons on 4th July 1973

Sten Gredon as Roger Walker being taught to swim by Suzanna Hamilton playing his sister Susan Walker on location at Peel Island on Coniston in 1973

Roger still couldn’t swim, but he was trying to. Very hard.  The production manager had kindly scheduled the second of our swimming scenes as late in the summer as possible. The weather was warmer – we’d elected to go bathing in a river up near Rydal Water on our day off – but it was still pretty chilly out on Coniston.

Whilst we tried to acclimatise by running around in our swimming costumes the crew were all in their thick coats as you can see from this home movie footage shot by my mother. We had bought her 8mm camera by saving up Green Shield stamps. (Can you remember collecting Green Shield stamps from petrol stations? They were an icon of the early 1970s all by themselves.) I remember someone on the crew calling out ‘Second unit!’ as Mum lifted what looked like a grey and white toy to her face. It was a bit noisy so she was not able to record during a take. You only see us before and after the sequences in the film, but her footage shows quite a few of the members of the crew – all smoking away, even when they were trying to warm us up after each sequence. You can watch Jean McGill, from Cumbria, our unit nurse who was dressed in red popping Dextrose into our mouths and giving us hot drinks to warm us up. Jean made Gareth Tandy, the third assistant, who was aged about 18, wear a sun hat because he had previously suffered from sun stroke. David Blagden can be glimpsed as one of the only other men with short hair.

The camera pontoon must have been left up on Derwentwater. Claude was obliged to shoot these scenes from what we called the camera punt, which was smaller but quite useful. Richard Pilbrow sent me a picture. He has included others in a new book that he has written about his career, including a section on the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ called ‘A Theatre Project’

Claude Whatham and his crew on the camera punt
First assistant David Bracknell, director Claude Whatham, grip David Cadwallader and DoP Dennis Lewiston (seated) with three local boatmen ~ photo: Richard Pilbrow

Do please let me know if you can tell me the names of the three Cumbrian boatmen featured in this photograph who helped us. Others are featured in the home-movie footage. They all look like pirates. Real ones.

Goodness knows that Health and Safety would say about that punt today. The DoP managed to get two sizeable electric lights, on stands, into a boat already overloaded with personnel and expensive equipment. You can see for yourself. Were these ‘Filler’ lights powered by portable batteries?  The Lee Electric generator was on the shore. I was in the water. Busy being a cormorant.

We had an interesting afternoon filming with both dinghies. At one point we had the camera with us in Swallow. I found these photographs of us on the internet.

Sophie Neville, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton

I was given the honour of clapping the clapper-board and calling out, ‘Shot 600, Take one!’ for a close-up of Suzanna Hamilton.

Suzanna Hamilton as Susan Walker sailing Swallow on Coniston Water in 1973

‘The worse possible kinds of natives’… Tourists were beginning to arrive for their summer holidays in the Lake District and we still had quite a bit more to film.

Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West sailing Swallow in 1973

You can read more about the adventures we had making the original film of Swallows and Amazons here:

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