On a wet but beautiful day in Cumbria we set off on a quest to find some of the locations used in Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons.
To my delight our journey started with a drive down through the streets of Rio (Bowness) and along the east shore of Windermere to Haverthwaite Railway Station at the southern end of the lake (or Antarctica as Titty labeled the region). It was here that we spent our very first day filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ back in 1973. I had not been there since.
We had a chat to the train driver who explained that they now run six journeys a day. From Haverthwaite the steam locomotives run alongside the River Leven to Lakeside Station. From here you can take a native steamer back up to Rio (the Bowness pier) or to the Far North (Ambleside, which is the town at the head of the lake where we lived whilst filming in that long distant summer when I was twelve years old.)
Whilst we used engine number 2073 in the movie, this steam locomotive 42085 was built in 1951. It uses about two tons of coal a day but it utterly magnificent. The driver probably uses rather a lot of steam oil too. It’s a smell I relish, familiar since childhood days spent on steamboats. I remember it from the SBA steamboat rally held on Windermere in 1991, which I describe in Funnily Enough.
Curiously, Haverthwaite Railway Station looked cleaner and shinier than when we used it as a film location in 1973. I can only suppose it was still in the process of being restored back then, when Simon Holland our set designer cluttered it up with push bikes and luggage trolleys. Much to our surprise, the yellow taxi we were transported in during the filming was actually driven along the platform.
We climbed aboard the train and I explored, as Titty would have done, discovering people seated inside from far distant lands.
David Wood’s screenplay for the film of Swallows and Amazons, directed by Claude Whatham, opens to find the Walker family cooped up in a railway carriage compartment as they travel north for their holidays.
We saw this distinctive carriage in a siding as we steamed down the valley. Funnily enough when I reached home, later the next day, I came across a photograph on the internet I had never seen before. It was of Virginia McKenna, playing Mrs Walker, reading a magazine inside the compartment. Strangely it turned up when I Googled my own name – Sophie Neville.
The train is not included in Arthur Ransome’s book of Swallows and Amazons, written in 1929, but he does feature locomotives in his later novels, notably Pigeon Post. I clearly remember filming the BBC adaptation of Coot Club at what must have been The Poppy Line, a steam railway in north Norfolk when Henry Dimbley, playing Tom Dudgeon, jumped aboard the moving train and met Dick and Dorothea.
I jumped off the train at the Lakeside Station to meet up with Peter Walker of Mountain Goat. Peter has carefully researched and put together a Swallows and Amazons tour, exploring ‘High Greenland’, the ‘Forest’ and ‘High Hills’ to discover the places where Arthur Ransome lived. We set off in search of the places where he fished, wrote, and drank beer. It was fascinating – and proved an excellent way to spend a day in the Lake District despite the rain.
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.
16th May 1973, was the third day of filming the original movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, recorded in this letter that my mother wrote to my father who was at home in Gloucestershire with my two younger sisters.
Mum kept her letters, my diaries and scrapbooks in a smart carrier bag. It once contained an expensive velvet dress bought for me in Carnaby Street when we met Claude Whatham, the director of Swallows and Amazons back in April 1973
1970’s English food ~
The food at our guest house was talking its toll. It was not a good idea to feed children on packet soups and baked beans in the days when 35mm film stock was so extremely expensive. No one realised why, but the ingredients made Sten hyper-active, or as my mother put it, ‘causing a little hoo hah.’ A visiting journalist wrote, ‘By the end of the day Roger, aged seven, had mown down the entire film crew using a hammer as a mock machine gun. He had fallen down several times and emerged with grazed knees all splattered with mud.’
Location catering ~
Suzanna Hamilton, who was playing Susan, simply refused to eat the revolting food. Mum said, “I couldn’t get her to eat anything.” Location catering is excellent now but back in the early 1970’s it could be pretty basic canteen food produced from a ‘chuck wagon’. We’d queue up for a tray of meat and two veg, which was usually consumed in a red London double-decker converted into a dining bus. There were no salads, no fruit, just a working man’s lunch with coffee in plastic cups and paste sandwiches provided later with tea. The tea was good.
The fruit bowl in our bus ~
Mum started to order fruit and we relished it. Back then, it was a huge treat to have bananas or melon, oranges and grapes. A bowl sat in our bus where we were given lessons on Formica tables downstairs. The upper deck was used by Terry the Wardrobe Master as as our changing room. It was furnished with bunk beds. Mum made us rest in these after lunch. I don’t think she could pin down the Amazons easily but she made me use them. I know I objected at first but I must have needed to lie down and rest properly, especially when it was cold.
Molly and Richard Pilbrow on location with the two red London Double Decker buses where coffee was being served ~ photo: Daphne Neville
The film crew ~
Apart from Sue Merry the ‘Continuity Girl’ the film crew consisted entirely of men, forty-five of them. I include the Hair and Make-up Designers, the Wardrobe Master, the Art Director, Set Dresser, Propmen and Carpenters, Sound Recordist and Boom Operator, the Director of Photography, Camera Operator, Focus Puller and Grips with the Electricians from Lee Electric who looked after the lights and generators, Lorry Drivers and Sailing Director, the Director, three Assistant Directors and the Production Associate and Producer. I think there might have been a Film Accountant and Location Manager. Being a feature film we had a permanent Stills Photographer and a Publicity Manager. And this was a small crew as Terry seemed to cope without Wardrobe Assistants or Dressers. They all knew each other pretty well from being on previous movies. I have a list of where they had digs in Ambleside. It’s quite interesting to see who shared with who. Whenever we needed boats up to six local boatmen could also join the queue for the chuck wagon – and the mobile loos. Mum wouldn’t let me use them. They were looked after by a ratty looking chap who later managed to persuade one of the Ambleside girls that he was the film’s Producer.
Neville Thompson, who was effectively the on-line Producer, had a production secretary called Sally Shewing, but she must have been stuck in the production office as we never saw her. Molly Friedel, Richard Pilbrow’s girl friend and assistant, was often on location. We adored her. She was American, tall with long brown hair and always had time for us. I remember her working on the lighting design for the next Rolling Stones Concert by the shore of Lake Coniston while we milled about, playing on the rocks.
We had our tutor, Mrs Causey and a wonderful mini-bus driver called Jean McGill. She had been a top British Airways air hostess but had returned to Cumbria to look after her ailing mother and was driving us around the area she so loved to keep busy. As soon as my mother found out that she was also a qualified nursing sister she made sure that Jean was taken on as the official location nurse, which was great as it meant she could be around the whole time and we never had to wait for the bus. We found we soon needed a nurse too. Someone was always hurting themselves.
So in all, with our chaperones there were usually about six women around as well as journalists, friends and relatives who came to watch. It was a huge circus with often eighty people milling about. Certianly the Call Sheet asks the caterers to provide lunch for seventy on normal days. It would be much more when we had crowd scenes such as when we explored Rio.
The male:female ratio on crews is very different today. There are often more women than men, perhaps not on movies but certainly on BBC drama crews. It was already different by 1983 when Richard and Molly Pilbrow came to visit us on the location of Coot Club in Norfolk, where there were about equal numbers of men and women on set. It made for a better, family atmosphere, certainly more appropriate with so many children involved. Since he still held the rights to Arthur Ransome’s series of Swallows and Amazons books, Richard was the Executive Producer on the BBC serial Joe Waters produced. It was so good to see him again. I gather he is still going strong having just been awarded the Knights of Illumination Lifetime Recognition Awardfor more than 50 years of work in theatre lighting.
It is aways wonderful to hear how the film of Swallows and Amazons has effected people’s lives. I have just had such an interesting e-mail from Australia that I asked if I could post hit here. I only wish that Claude Whatham was alive to read it.
Did anyone else know about the the clock on the mantelpiece at Bank Ground Farm?
I can not tell you how much I am enjoying your website. I’ve searched for scraps of material regarding the making of Swallows and Amazons for decades, but you post more information in one day than I gleaned in a lifetime. It’s a fabulous insight, and one I really appreciate.
I became a film-maker largely because of Swallows and Amazons. I’ve written a small piece about this, which is going to be published in a promo for one of my film-making books. As a nine year old, I stumbled across Wild Cat Island just days after seeing the film. I was so thrilled to be standing where the film had been made, and so excited to see how clever use of the camera could exaggerate the feeling of a location and capture the magic of performance, that I set out to discover everything I could about film. It was a life-changing moment.
My daughters (5 and 7) adore Titty, and we are all impressed by your acting. I’ve directed my girls in a couple of things, and I know they gained confidence from having seen you perform. When Tabitha, my eldest daughter, saw the film for the first time, she burst into tears at the end. It was a release of pure joy, and is testament to the quality of the film.
I live in Australia now, but returned to the island in 2010 with Tabitha and Harriet (rowing all the way from the other end of the lake). We stayed at Bank Ground Farm. This months we went back and were lucky enough to sail Swallow into the Secret Harbour. It was a windy October day, and quite a frantic sail, but I can honestly say it was one of the highlights of my life.
When reading your recent post about set dressing at Bank Ground Farm, I wondered if you’d noticed that the clock on the mantlepiece is still there. It’s on the other mantlepiece, I believe, but it is still there. I have no idea whether it is a prop that was left behind, or whether the film-makers used the clock that belonged to the farm.
Our set designer or ‘Art Director’ on Swallows and Amazons was Simon Holland. He worked tirelessly with his assistant Ian Whittaker and team of Prop men, making every effort to use absolutely authentic props and set dressing. It must have involved quite a bit of research. Holly Howe, for instnace would not have had mains electricity or back in 1929, so he made sure oil lamps were on set. These would have been modified by the Sparks so that it looked as if they lit the room in those evening scenes when we were busy packing.
The people of the Lake District still remember Simon asking if he could buy old tins of food. It seemed such an unusual request. When it came to making labels for the cans of ‘Pemmican’ he painted them himself ~
Simon had worked as the set dresser on the thriller Callan starring Edward Woodward, that we all saw in 1974. He had earlier been the Art Director on Bartleby, which featured Paul Scholfield with John McEnery in the title role. Swallows and Amazons must have been one of his first features. He was only thirty-two that summer of 1973.
Simon Holland went to to work on well known movies such as Equus, Greystoke, Quadrophenia, The Sleeping Dictionary set in Sarawakand Tales of the Riverbank which starred Stephen Fry as the Owl and Miranda Hart as Miss March. He sadly died in 2010 at the age of 70 but will be remembered fondly by us all.
I have found the entry that Suzanna wrote in her diary at this time when we were filming at Bank Ground Farm. She drew a picture of the blue and white checked dress she wore and drescribed an interview with a reporter.
This is the newspaper clipping that Suzanna stuck in her dairy that featured Virginnia McKenna and the six of us children in one of the old motors that Simon Holland found to dress the Railway Platform set at Haverthwaite Station on the first day of filming.
Ext : Ulverston Railway Station ~ filmed at The Haverthwaite Railway Station
On the first day of making the original movie ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in May 1973, a huge effort was made to ‘dress’ Haverthwaite Railway Station, at the southern end of Windermere. The aim was to bring across the feel of a bustling 1929 holiday destination. Local people had been previously fitted with costumes in the Ambleside Church Hall, there was a horse and cart, porters’ trolleys laden with trunks and a number of old bikes, which were all of great interest to us.
Having stepped down from the steam locomotive, where the Times photographer must have taken this shot, we children were piled into an open-topped period vehicle, for further publicity photographs. I liked sitting on the car but thought the photograph was silly, especially since Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett, who played the Amazons, were wearing ordinary clothes rather than period costumes. The result was later published in both The Guardian and Woman’s Realm. Virginia McKenna was interviewed by journalists while we were hurried away to get on with our lessons. Our tutor taught us Art. I drew the a picture of the motor car.
The yellow motor used in the film for our taxi was superb. I can only imagine it was far grander than a real Lakeland taxi would have been. Sten, playing Roger, hung out of the window as the director, Claude Whatham, ‘filmed us driving out of the station, along the platform at top speed,’ as I recorded in my diary.
Ext: Holly Howe ~ filmed at Bank Ground Farm by Coniston Water
Arriving at Holly Howe in the yellow taxi was truly exciting. It was not filmed the next day, as I think rain had set in. Claude waited for good evening light. But I remember the thrill of drawing up outside the farmhouse in the old car and pulling on my hat as we spilled out and ran past the big farm horses Mr Jackson was leading into the yard. I’m afraid our OOV (out of vision) dialogue was added later.
If you ever go to Bank Ground Farm near Coniston, named Holly Howe by Arthur Ransome in his books, you must run down the field to the lake as we did. As soon as you arrive. And at top speed. And you will be filled by the same feeling of elation as we were when we played the Walker children.
The slope, formed by glacial scouring and subsequent deposits long ago, is steeper than you think. You soon learn the art of glaumphing at which I became adept. What struck me when I returned to Bank Ground Farm one Spring, was that sadly the great trees have gone from around the old farm gate and the boatsheds down by the lake. They must simply have reached the end of their lives.
Ext: Peak at Darien ~ filmed by Derwent Water
Most Arthur Ransome devotees will know that the Peak at Darien, where once stood stout Cortez, is familiar to readers as it appears in two of the illustrations in the book. Sadly it can not be found below the farm. Mrs Ransome said that you could find the headland on Windermere. In April 2011, when I was on an early recce with Nick Barton, CEO of Harbour Picture Productions, we did pass one promising spot:
However Richard and Claude chose Friar’s Crag on Derwent Water for the location. I didn’t know it but Christina Hardyment writes in her excellent book, Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunkthat they had found the very place Ransome had in mind, “without the slightest idea that they were quite right to be doing so.” She found that Ransome had marked up postcard of Friar’s Peak for his illustrator Clifford Webb to work from in 1930. It feels completely right when you are there, with the iconic view of an island under the towering mountains. It was over a shot of this that they added the opening titles.
Sout Cortez, however, was not there. Neither were we children. By the time we had been transported from Coniston to Derwent Water for this scheduled scene the sun was going down. We’d been delayed by the make-up artist who was determined to tone down the tans we had developed. This took ages. He used a very small sponge. My mother was frustrated as she thought that this would never have shown up, but he put his foot down with the result that we were ‘late on set’ for the evening shots. Claude Whatham was very cross about it.
One of the big secrets of the film ~
One of the big secrets of the film is that the sequence when we run up to the Peak at Darien and first set eyes on the island in the lake was shot under an oak tree in Runnymede, near the River Thames. We were not an island at all. It must have been an expensive ‘pick-up shot’, but we enjoyed meeting up again immensely. Claude had made an effort to gather together the same crew members and I was back in my lovely silk dress once more. We knew how to act by then and the joy of being together again shows on our faces. The result was a scene to set the film off on the right foot. We were jubilant and so excited, that, like swallows, we could have taken flight.
The opening titles ~
I would have to check with Richard Pilbrow to be certain but I think that Simon Holland, the Art Director, penned the SWALLOWS and AMAZONS graphics for the opening titles. I remember a discussion about the font type. A very fashionable script used on the poster of the film was favoured. I said that I thought they ought to use the handwritten capitals that Clifford Webb had penned on the map in the opening cover of the book and copied by Simon Holland (and me) on our chart. This was chosen.
The Seventies’ font, above, had been used for the titles of Lionel Jefferey’s movie The Railway Children, which starred Jenny Agutter. As a viewer I felt that this soon dated it, whilst Swallows and Amazons sailed onto our television screens in the 1980’s and 1990’s, indeed into the 21st century, without being spoilt by what became most unfashionable graphics. Of course now that particular retro font is all the rage. For sometime a DVD has been available which gives you both films.
Arthur Ransome’s book was adapted for the big screen by David Wood. The first time I saw this script was early in 2011 when my mother pulled it from the back of a wardrobe. It’s really only now that I fully appreciate how beautifully it was crafted.
The opening scenes ~
The film opens with a shot of a steam train passing through Cumbria. This does not feature in the book but was a powerful first image and good way of introducing the Walker family, setting the period and the very Englishness of travelling up to the Lake District for the summer holidays. It was a wonder that this was possible; The Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway , with it’s restored steam train, had only been open and running for two weeks ~ on 2nd May 1973 to be precise. It was a private concern run by a bunch of enthusiasts on the old Furness Railway branch line. The engine was a Fairburn 2-6-4 tank locomotive of 84 tons, of approximately 1930s vintage, standard guage and coloured black-berry black
~ The crossings out were made by my mother, in the tradition of marking a scene that has been recorded ~
What I never knew until I read the third scene today was that we added quite a bit of dialogue. I can’t remember if it was improvised or given to me by Claude but I said quite a bit more than was scripted, and recoded the fact in my diary.
The railway carriage ~
Claude Whatham was keen to shoot the film in ‘story order’ as much as possible as he thought this would be easiest for us to comprehend. INT.RAILWAY CARRIAGE. DAY was, however, a difficult scene to execute. Once the railway carriage contained movie lights, the director, a huge 35mm Panavision camera, the cameraman and assistant, with microphones and an assistant sound recordist there wasn’t any room for me. When it came round to the shots of me I had to give my lines to imaginary family members. They were no longer there – the camera had taken their place. It also got extremely hot.
Story order ~
I look back on all this now and feel our opening performances, so vital to capture the audiences attention, were understandably rather wooden. Later on, when I was directing films that featured children I tried to schedule unimportant, ‘running around scenes’, which were easy for them, so that they could get used to working with the crew before tight close-ups were required. I found that even six year-olds were unfazed by recording scenes out of story order, in fact they were probably less disorientated than the adults.
With Virginia McKenna’s magazine, our picnic and Susan’s tapestry the matter of continuity in this scene was important. We greatly enjoyed learning about this technicality, so vital if the shots that make up the scene are to cut together smoothly. Numerous Polaroid shots were involved, which was exciting as these cameras had not been around for long and we enjoyed watching the photographs develope. We did our best to be helpful and keep an eye on the picnic, but somehow it all went wrong. The continuity in this opening scene is out. This probably because Sue Merry, the Continuity Girl could not get in – into the railway carriage, that is. There was simply no room for her.
A transcript of the entire screenplay of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) can be found by clicking here
…And so we spent the Sunday before the filming began sailing. I’m afraid I can’t remember a thing about it. I imagine we sailed out from the Kirkstone Foot Hotel on Lake Windermere.
I’ve always felt the cold. Back then I only had a terrible blue nylon anorak that I don’t think enabled me to enjoy the sailing, which is such a pity. I seemed to have got very cold even when sailing with the wind.
The Amazon has a centre board and was always a much faster boat than Swallow. It proved a bit of a problem during the filming as she always gained more distance when the director wanted a shot with both dinghies sailing together. But, even as old boats with very limited sail, they can go at quite a lick. I remember both were difficult to turn unless you did have a bit of speed up. Swallow’s long keel makes her roomy and stable but I sailed her recently and she’s not a boat that wants to go home. I’m used to modern rudders now, whereas Swallow and Amazon have shallow ones shaped like the letter ‘b’.
We had lunch with Virginia McKenna who was to play our Mother, Mrs Walker. She was sweet and so enthusiastic about what we were doing. I remember that she made a great effort to entertain us at the hotel, instigating games of Consequneces, which we adored. We roared with laughter as she read out the results.
As my father said recently, Virginia McKenna was completely right to play the part of a Naval Commander’s wife. A darling of the British public she is, and was, the star who carried the film. I knew her from having loved the animal movies she’d been in ~ Ring of Bright Water, An Elephant Called Slowly, Born Free and my favorite wartime story A Town Like Alice, for which she won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress.She was also nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Violette Szabo in the WWII story Carve Her Name With Pride and played Julie Hallam in The Cruel Sea, another superb wartime classic. Married to Bill Travers she had four children of her own by the time she made Swallows and Amazons. I don’t know how she managed to do so much, all with with so much grace and time for others.
Claude Whatham, the director, Richard Pilbrow, the producer and David Blagden, the sailing director were with us, along with Mum and Jane Grendon, Sten’s mother who was our other chaperone. Neville Thompson, the Associate Producer who was in charge of the budget and schedule, was also with us that first weekend. He later worked on the Mosquito Coast, Time Bandits, Sharpe’s Rifles and produced The Missionary with Michael Palin. He must have been a good man to have on board.