Swallow, the dinghy that starred in ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974)

Sten Grendon as Roger and Sophie Neville as Titty rowing Swallow
(c)StudioCanal

BBC Antiques Roadshow featured Swallow, the dinghy used in the original feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in their first episode at Windermere Jetty repeated recently on BBC One. You can read about how she was valued by Rupert Maas on an earlier post on this blog here.

I wrote a little more about her history in an article for Practical Boat Owner, Britain’s most popular sailing magazine, this October. The story opens in 2010, when I nearly bought her myself:

Swallow is coming up for auction,’ my father said, sending me the details of a clinker-built sailing dinghy stored in Mike Turk’s warehouse in Twickenham. It was the Spring of 2010. I took one look at the online photographs and wept.

Swallow stored in Twickenham

The letters WK were carved on her transom. It was the twelve-foot, all-purpose, run-around vessel built by William King of Burnham-on-Sea that had been purchased by Richard Pilbrow in 1973 to feature as Swallow in the original feature film of Arthur Ransome’s classic novel Swallows and Amazons.

Swallow built by William King of Burnham-on-Crouch

I knew the little ship intimately. She looked a bit dried out but my husband thought we ought to buy her. I had played the part of Able-seaman Titty, the nine year-old girl who Ransome so cleverly made into the heroine of the story when she grabbed a chance to capture the Amazon, which enabled the Swallows to win the war set to determine ‘who should be the flag-ship’. In mooring her prize overnight near Cormorant Island, Titty witnessed Captain Flint’s stolen treasure chest being buried and was eventually able to rescue it. She was rewarded by the gift of a green parrot.

‘Did you know how to sail before playing Titty in Swallows and Amazons?’ people often asked. The truth was that I had crewed for my father in a similar dinghy and felt confident in a boat. I had grown up living by a lake in the Cotswolds where we had a Thames skiff, which I was used to handling. This was important as Titty does quite a bit of rowing in the film. She and Roger become galley-slaves rowing back from the charcoal burners’, they row out to Cormorant Island and she takes the Amazon out of Secret Harbour. This I did alone, in one take, later rowing some distance from Peel Island with the lighting cameraman and his 35mm Panavision Camera onboard. No one had thought about the implications of this when we first tried out the two boats on Windermere but being aged twelve, rather than nine, I just about coped and grew adept at launching Swallow and moving about in her. As the book was written in 1929, we did not wear life-jackets.

Swallow with Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton (c) StudioCanal

Arthur Ransome described Swallow as being thirteen-foot long with a keel, rather than a centre board. In the illustrations she is painted white, a common way of protecting wood in the 1930s. I am pretty sure that Richard Pilbrow, the producer of the movie, bought the dinghy we used when we where in Burnham-on-Sea to audition for the parts in March 1973. She was varnished but had, or was given, the red-brown sail and balanced lug-sail as described in the books.

Simon West who played Captain John, aged only eleven, was a capable sailor with an understanding of the wind that enabled him to cope with gusty Lakeland conditions. Swallow had no buoyancy. In the scenes when we first sail to the island she was laden with camping gear, including heavy canvas tents, the lighthouse tree lantern and a shallow basket of kitchen utensils I shifted every time we went about.

My father on the shore of Coniston Water

My father was an experienced sailor, used to racing yachts having frequently crossed the Solent in his own clinker-built dinghy as a boy. He was looking after us children when he agreed to appear in costume as a ‘native’ aboard the MV Tern on Windermere, which bares down on the Swallows in the story. He watched, terrified, as we sailed towards it. The Victorian steamer only had a notch throttle and an inexperienced skipper. He realised that Claude Whatham, the film director had not anticipated the fact that we would lose our wind in the lee of the passenger ferry and gave Simon a cue over the radio that was far too late. We only just went about in time, being pushed away from the larger vessel by the bow wave. Watch the film and you can see how very close we got. I was about to reach out and feebly fend off.

Dad spoke sternly to the producer that afternoon, pointing out that we could have all gone down. Sten Grendon, who played the Boy Roger, was only aged eight and could hardly swim. I could have become entangled in the camping gear. My father tested the old BOAC life jackets we wore for rehearsals and to travel out to film locations. They failed to inflate. He nearly took me off the film.

Swallow and Amazon on the Puffin cover

Another tricky scene to film was when John, Susan and Roger set off from the Landing Place on Wild Cat Island leaving Titty to guard the camp and light the lanterns as they hoped to capture the Amazon and sail home after dark. I had push them off, grabbing the telescope at the last minute. Since Swallow’s mast was liable to catch in tree branches, I needed to wade out and give her a hard, one-handed shove. I slipped on a rock and fell up to my waste in water. Knowing it would be difficult to set up the shot a second time, I struggled to my feet and waved them off, dripping wet. By this time John had the mainsheet out as far as the knot and stood to grab the boom to avoid a Chinese gybe as Swallow was hit by a fresh gust of wind as he cleared the headland at the northern end of the island and sped northwards toward Coniston Old Man.

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton at the helm of Swallow with Stephen Grendon in the bows, while Sophie Neville looks on from Peel Island.

Having spent nearly seven weeks filming in the Lake District, the film was post-synced at Elstree studios. We arrived to sing out our lines to find Swallow there. She had been set in a tank so that the sounds of sailing could be captured. It is something you tend to take for granted as a viewer while it draws you into the experience. I last saw Swallow looking dejected outside the studio and was worried about what had become of her. Although she was offered to someone who had advised on the film, she was kept safely at Mike Turk’s prop hire company. Richard Pilbrow was hoping to make another film in the series.

Swallow at
Swallow at Mike Turk’s store in London

When Mike retired, many boats that had featured in movies came up for auction. I knew Swallow would be costly and in need of renovation. After fans of the film and members of The Arthur Ransome Society contacted me, we clubbed together to make a bid. In the end about eighty members of a hastily formed group called SailRansome spent approximately £5,700 on the purchase.

I contacted Nick Barton of Harbour Pictures, the film producer who was gaining the rights to make a new movie, hoping we could be able to re-coup costs by renting her back to him. Nick came up to Coniston Water to watch me re-launch Swallow in April 2011, sloshing brandy wine on her bow in true Ransome style. I helped him to raise finance for the new film, which was made in the summer of 2015 and released in 2016, starring Kelly Macdonald as Mrs Walker, Rafe Spall as Captain Flint and Andrew Scott as a Russian spy. In the end, he decided to use fourteen-foot RNSAs dinghies for Swallow and Amazon as they satisfied the film insurance company who demanded that two identical dinghies were used for Swallow.

This article was first published in Practical Boat Owner magazine

Joining SailRansome was pivotal for me as I was asked by the Nancy Blackett Trust and The Arthur Ransome Society to give a series of talks on how the old film, and the BBC serialization of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ was made. I ended up speaking at a number of literary festivals, on BBC Radio and even ITV’s News at Ten, promoting the societies and urging people to help get young people out on the water. I ended up taking Swallow out on Ullswater, the Orwell and River Alde, remembering how difficult she is to turn, but enjoying her speed. She ended up being featured on BBC Antiques Roadshow when I brought movie memorabilia up to Windermere Jetty museum for two episodes first screened in 2021.

Sophie Neville with Swallow on Coniston Water
Sophie Neville after re-launching Swallow on Coniston Water in 2011

You can sail Swallow yourself, in the company of an experienced skipper, by contacting SailRansome.org who are looking for volunteers to help care for her. As you can see from this clip, she was in need of restoration when first acquired by Sailransome

You can read more about the adventures we had making the original film in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)‘ by Sophie Neville, published by the Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, online retailers and to order from all good bookshops including Waterstones.

An article by Sophie Neville first published in Practical Boat Owner. A subscription to this bestselling UK magazine makes a great Christmas present.

Sophie Neville speaking at the Southampton International Boat Show #SIBS22

Inspirational speaker, Sophie Neville
Southampton International Boat Show 2022

Swallow, the iconic dinghy who starred in the original film Swallows and Amazons is currently on display at the Southampton International Boat Show, greeting families as they arrive.

Sophie Neville who once played Titty Walker with her good little ship

I have been giving talks on filming afloat and how we made the movie on location in the Lake District nearly fifty years ago.

Over 103,000 people are expected to visit the show this year. Although busy, it does not feel crowded. There is a lot to see and do.

Speaker Sophie Neville
Sophie Neville speaking on the Foredeck Stage at #SIBS22

Thanks to the help of excellent technicians, my presentations proved popular, ‘inspiring talks on the Foredeck Stage’.

On the cover or Britain’s bestselling boating magazine

I later sign copies of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons‘ at Future Publishing’s corner stand. It has been a great opportunity to meet film fans, readers and feature writers.

Nick Jeffery the yacht publicist with Sophie Neville at the Southampton Boat Show

You can find a four-page feature on how we clubbed together to buy Swallow in this month’s Practical Boat Owner magazine.

A 4-page feature article in the bestselling magazine Practical Boat Owner

You can apply to SailRansome to take her out yourself. She is sea-worthy but we are looking for sponsorship from a boatbuilding company to help re-varnish her and repair a small hole in her bow.

Sophie Neville with Swallow from Swallows and Amazons (1974)

If you were are unable to get to the Southampton International Boat Show this year, you can watch an in-depth interview released this week by Your Take:

Your Take interview Sophie Neville on Zoom

Speaking about filming ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ on the Norfolk Broads

Sophie Neville with Titmouse

~Sophie Neville with the star of ‘Coot Club’~

I was invited to talk about making the BBC TV classic serial ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club to help celebrate their 80th Anniversary. Titmouse, then 1930s dinghy owned by Hunter’s Yard had been brought down from Ludham for the occasion.

The bonus was that I was able to go sailing in one of the classic boats gathered at the club for their Open Day.

Geoff and Rose Angell kindly took me out on Pippa, their beautiful yacht with brown sails that appeared in ‘The Big Six’. I am sure Arthur Ransome would have loved her.

Back in 1983, I spent nine months working on the BBC production when it had been my job to cast the children and teenagers who appear in the drama, many of whom needed genuine Norfolk accents.

Coot Club - book cover

We had been looking for young actors who could swim well and were able handle boats. We then spent three months filming in East Anglia when I looked after the children and helped rehearse their lines. I set up this shot for the cover of the Puffin paperback that accompanied the series.

~Author Sophie Neville giving a talk at the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club~

At a forum organised after my talk, Pat Simpson from Stalham Yacht Services explained how he found one of the stars of the series – an old lifeboat suitable to play the Death and Glory. She had been brought from where she is kept at Belaugh for the evening. You can see more photographs of her in the previous blog post here.

'The Death and Glory'

Pat provided a number of other vessels for the series including Buttercup and support boats such as the safely boat, a large modern cruiser used as a school room along with another for the costume and make up personnel. He explained that this came as a god-send as boat rentals had not been good that summer. Working on the series was harder than he imagined, ‘We once had to take a boat from Regan to Horning Hall overnight’ but he was pleased that ‘after three months of concentrated work, we got it all done.’

~Robin Richardson~

Robin Richardson, who co-owned Pippa back in 1983, explained how the shot of her being cast adrift was achieved. This wasn’t as easy as first thought as even when Simon Hawes, who was playing George Owdon, flung her stem line on the deck, a gentle breeze was blowing her back against the staithe. ‘Pippa didn’t want to go anywhere’. Robin had to stage the action by throwing out a mud anchor, climbing under her awning and pulling on the line to create the effect of a boat drifting out of control into potential danger. Pippa’s white canvas cover is pulled back here, but you can imagine the scene.

He was on location when Henry Dimbleby, who played Tom Dudgeon, was attempting to tow the Teasel under Potter Heigham bridge. He was rowing Titmouse, pulling hard on the oars but nothing was happening. ‘Stop for lunch,’ Robin advised the director, ‘and the tide will turn.’ This they did, and Henry we able to row under the bridge, towing the Teasel quite easily. Hunter’s Yard, who own Lullaby, who played the Teasle, could not bring her down for the weekend as she had been leased out with other boats, but they sent her transom, painted with her stage name.

'TEASEL'

Robin Richardson owns the ‘Slipstream’ class dinghy called Spindrift who played Shooting Star in the serial. She was built by her father but couldn’t be with us as they were not able to complete her winter maintenance in time but Richard Hattersley said she came tenth in this year’s Three Rivers race when only 15 of the 98 entries actually finished. It’s a 24 hour endurance challenge, which they completed despite light winds. He sent me this shot, ‘of her battling it out with much larger Thames A Raters.’

I was shown a wonderful black and white photograph of the vessel used to play the Cachalot. She was skippered in the series by the film actor Sam Kelly in the role of the unnamed pike fishermen who the Death and Glory boys simply called ‘Sir’. She is seen here with John Boswell, her real owner who has sadly passed away. His son, the artist Patrick Boswell, brought along an album of behind-the-scenes photos.

The theme of the weekend was ‘Boats of the 1930s’. I explained how Swallow, the dinghy used in the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ originally came from Burnham-on-Sea where she was made by W. King and Sons to be used as a run-a-round boat. She was stabilised by a keel that ran the length of the hull, as Ransome described. It makes her rather difficult to turn. You can sail her today and is in the Lake District right now. Please see Sailransome for details.

There was quite a bit of interest in memorabilia from the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’. I bought along the white elephant flag captured from Captain Flint’s houseboat in the 1974 film, which was approved by a young Amazon pirate.

After a celebratory dinner, David and Nicky Talbot invited me to spend the night in the comfortable for’ard cabin of Kingfisher, a 1970’s motor yacht moored at the club.

I woke early on the Sunday morning to find mist hanging above the water as the sun was rising on what proved to be another sunny day with a fair wind for sailing.

After breakfast aboard, I was invited out in the 1930s river cruiser ‘Water Rail’, who had also appeared in the serial. We took her down the River Bure to her mooring in Horning where she is still part of the scene.

It was wonderful to be out on the waterways of Norfolk, passing traditional buildings. This was a stretch of river never featured in the television drama as Rosemary Leach, who played Mrs Barrable, took Dick and Dorothea from Wroxham to Horning in a trap pulled by Rufus the pony. One reason for this was that in 1983 we had to use the North Norfolk Steam Railway, since Wroxham Station had been modernised but Joe Waters, the producer, said he wanted to add variety by featuring a pony rather than a motorboat.

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We encountered a number of period cruisers, although Janca, who we used to play the Hullabaloos’ Margoletta, sadly could not be with us, as she is still under repair.

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However, by motoring into Horning ourselves, we passed The Swan Inn and Horning Staithe where a number of scenes had been shot, including some that featured Julian Fellowes and Sarah Crowden, playing the hated Hullabaloos. You can see photographs of them in an earlier post here.

~Horning Staithe in Norfolk showing The Swan Inn~

Another vessel that interested me was a river launch that reminded me of the 1901 steamboat Daffodil, which I renovated with my father in 1978. I have photographs of her here.

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You can read more about the traditional boats used in the series by clicking here.

Gerry Spiller, has written from Woodbridge in Suffolk, to say that she has found an oar labelled TITMOUSE, bought at a boat jumble. Could this date from the early 1930? Does anyone have the pair?

Blade labelled TITMOUSE

The DVD of the serial is now available on a re-mastered DVD, available from Amazon here

(Do not be tempted by the old version with a more colourful cover as the image quality is very poor)

Swallows and Amazons Forever
Swallows And Amazons Forever! (Coot Club & The Big Six) SPECIAL EDITION [DVD]
Additional photographs by Richard Hattersly

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.

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 three of Titty’s  grandmothers, but have no Armenian blood. I rather wish I did. It’s nuisance having such fair skin. 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 and John bringing Swallow into the secret harbour
Simon West and Sophie Neville bring Swallow into the Secret Harbour on Wildcat 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.

Titty Altounyan's neice, Barbara Altounyan with Sophie Neville.
Titty’s niece, Barbara Altounyan, with Sophie Neville at a TARS Weekend.

If you would like to read more about the amazing time I had playing Titty in Swallows and Amazons, the first section can be leafed through, free of charge here:

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 over the May Bank Holiday.

Revelation Films have digitally remastered the serial of Coot Club and The Big Six, 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 also 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 pictorials in Country Life, The Lady, Cotswold Life and Practical Boat Owner magazine 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 original 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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