‘Titty from Swallows and Amazons’ often gets typed into the Goggle search engine but when I attempt to use it as a ‘tag’ a message pops up saying: ‘Sorry, you are not allowed to assign the provided terms.’ I can only conclude that Google lacks literary enlightenment .
‘Memory picks and choses,’ as Arthur Ransome said in his autobiography (p33) but those who love his novels often wonder what would have happened to the characters when they grew up. It dawned on me that this might be one reason why people are interested to know what we all did with our lives. I played Titty Walker in Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. In 1962, the film actress Susan George played the same character in the black and white BBC television serial of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with her hair in pigtails. She was called Kitty, apparently with Arthur Ransome’s approval. BBC Films decided to call the Able seaman ‘Tatty’ in the 2016 movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’, when she was brilliantly played by Teddy-Rose Malleson-Allen who went on to star in ‘Four Kids and It'(2020).
The character was inspired by a real little girl, Titty Altounyan, who stayed at Bank Ground Farm (or Holly Howe) when visiting her grandparents who lived above Coniston Water. In 1939, Miss Joyce Cartmell acquired a signed note from Arthur Ransome explaining that, ‘Titty is short for Tittymouse which is what she was called when she was a baby. Nobody ever calls her anything but Titty now’. It appears that Ransome was also asked for a photograph of himself, to which he responded, ‘Too ugly’.
Edward Thomas (1878-1917) described Arthur Ransome as ‘exuberant, rash and intelligent.’ In 1973, I can only assume the film director Claude Whatham was looking for the same spirit, captured by Wilfred Josephs in the film score.
What constantly impacts me is the number of people who write in to say how much they wanted Titty to become their best friend. In many ways the characters from Ransome’s books become friends for life. You can easily gain others who have the same outlook on life by joining The Arthur Ransome Society, who offer activities and grants for young people as well as adults with a literary bent.
You can read more about making the movie in the multi-media ebook entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’.
This Sunday 9th May, BBC Antiques Roadshow returns to Windermere Jetty in the Lake District at 7.00pm.
Swallows and Amazons fans expressed great excitement when the first episode was broadcast from the museum on Sunday 21st February as it featured ‘Swallow’, the dinghy from the original movie made on location in the Lake District in 1973 and brought to cinema scenes in 1974.
‘Such an iconic film,’ the expert Rupert Maas, commented, admitting that it once inspired him to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.
He chatted to Rob Boden who looks after Swallow for the organisation Sail Ransome before placing a pretty high value on the old girl.
They had just enough wind to sail off into the sunshine.
I had been invited along for the second episode, recorded the next day, when it poured with rain. While others were arriving with exquisite treasures, I staggered into the museum with two carrier bags of old photographs and what my family regard as clutter.
Rupert Maas was busy valuing a painting by the waters edge but came to say Hello in the lovely new cafe at Windermere Jetty while we watched the expert, Marc Allum value another item.
Marc later walked around to inspect my collection of ‘movie memorabilia’ relating to the film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974), filmed in the Lake District forty-eight years ago. He liked the programme from the premier and the original black and white film stills, along with the flags kindly sent to me from America by Richard Pilbrow who produced the movie now distributed by StudioCanal who have a remastered cinema Bluray and DVD with Extras.
The camera crew seemed adept at keeping their equipment dry, but lining up shots was tricky since everyone had to be carefully distanced.
I knew that signed, first edition copies of Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazon’ are worth up to £11,000. A note sold in an envelope addressed to a Miss Cartmell postmarked 1939 and accompanied by a small card signed by the author with a pen and ink sketch of a sailing boat, sold recently with an estimate of £1,000-1,500 but I did not think my collection of movie memorabilia from the early 1970’s would be worth much.
Marc invited me to take up the bow an arrow, whittled on location during the filming and fletched with feathers from a ‘Red Indian Headdress’ purchased from a toy shop in Ambleside in 1973.
I suggested the director might like to take a shot of the ML Tern as she passed but visibility was too low. Marc concentrated on my collection, which had nearly been thrown out in a fit of de-cluttering years ago. He valued it at far more than I ever would have imagined.
I wondered if my item would ever be included, thinking it could easily hit the cutting room floor, but this well a kind reader alerted me to the Radio Times billing here
To see more photos of BBC Antiques Roadshow at Windermere Jetty, please see the previous post here
You can find the illustrated book on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ here:
For details on the BBC Antiques Roadshow website, please click here They tell me they, “would be delighted to hear of any developments that may occur following the transmission of the programme. For instance, further information about the history of an item occasionally comes to light or a decision is taken to put the featured piece up for sale. Should you have any such news, please contact the Antiques Roadshow Office at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Imdb, the International movie data base, list Billy Mayerl’s composition ‘Marigold’ as being included in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. This intrigued me. I looked up the music as I couldn’t think where it had been featured. Listen to the original version and see if you can recognise it:
It was ‘played’ on the radio in the chandlery in Rio, laid over the scene when the film was dubbed at Elstree Studios. We didn’t hear it when we were in the actual shop.
The Swallows bought ‘grog’ (ginger beer) and rope for the lighthouse tree. Postcards and wicker shopping baskets hung in the chandlery, which had weighing scales on the counter.
This shot was taken during the filming on the corner of Woodland Road, Bowness-on-Windermere during the filming in June 1973. I wonder who the people in the background were – possibly members of the film crew. The man in the blue top looks like Gareth Tandy the third assistant director who would have been asking passing traffic to wait while filming was in progress. The building looked like this in 2012 but I need a more up to date photo.
Jenny Maconchy wrote in to say, “It may be of interest that we still have the bamboo fishing rods that were used in the film. They belonged to my father Leslie Borwick and lent to the film crew. They are rather worse for wear but still treasured as I was a big fan of the books when I was young. Unfortunately I was living abroad when the film was made so have no memories of it.”
As a boy, Arthur Ransome had his own perch rod with a colored float to use at Nibthwaite. Towards the end of the filming, Claude Whatham gave Simon West a similar fishing rod, which Ronnie Fraser taught him to use on Derwentwater.
A member of the Arthur Ransome Group wrote, "I did not realise that the Lakeside Railway had only just re-opened in time for the filming. Of course, although Lakeside Station does get a mention in one of the books, it was the Windermere Station where the Swallows always travelled to. Although Lakeside Station would have been far more convenient from Beckfoot,the Great Aunt always insisted on Windermere as it meant less changes for her. Incidentally both Lake Windermere and Coniston Water had rail connections years ago (which is the likely route for the slate from Slater Bob’s mine although this is not mentioned being outside the scope of a childrens’ story).
“‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) was instrumental in helping me through a very stressful period of my life, and writing was a great healer for me. The results of my efforts are in the The Arthur Ransome Society library : ‘Prospectors Afloat’ and ‘Coots in the North’ a completion of the short portion which was published. I will be obtaining ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ and no doubt many more of your other publications in due course.” Charles H Ball
I’ve just read that in Zulu folklore, the swallow is known as Inkonjany – the one who points the way to summer. “The swallow, and other birds like it, is regarded by our people as a symbol of effort and hard work as well as of unity, because you will see these birds gather together in large groups as they come and go. The name Inkonjany means the little pointer, and it comes from the verb komba, which means to point out something. It was said that if you saw a lot of swallows in the sky, it meant that the summer and the harvest would be very good.” I felt this applied quite well to the Walker family migrating north for their summer holiday and working hard as being the best crew they could be.
One of the film fans has called her hens Titty and Nancy. I’m sure Mrs Jackson would approve. Do use the comments box below to write in with any connections you have to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and the original film.
You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from libraries, bookshops or direct from the publisher . The Nancy Blackett Trust have signed copies and it can be purchased online here:
There is also a similar multi-media ebook entitled, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons'(1974). You can see inside the first section for free here
“One pandemic discovery for my family was 1974’s ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ a charming British film about kids just playing on a lake. On their own, they’re plenty capable of making their own tents and adventures”, the US film critic Jake Coyle wrote in a review for the Associated Press of a new movie released on Netflix called ‘Yes Day’.
Many people have fond memories of watching the original movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when it first came out in cinemas nearly forty-seven years ago and list it in their Top Ten feature films of all time.
David Kerr wrote: “I first saw the film while I was a junior projectionist. I was 17 at the time. My cinema was called the Astor in Bromley, part of south east London. While an independent cinema, we took the ABC circuit films. Somewhere, I have the LP record and a poster of the film. I went on to a career spanning 40 years in international film distribution.”
“It remains one of my top ten films even to this day. I worked for 20th Century Fox…Polygram…and United International Pictures which distributed Universal, Paramount and Dreamworks films. I had a good career and witnessed the good the bad and the ugly during my travels.”
“From memory, I can recall that the film was released over the Easter school holidays in 1974. It’s just been helped as I have found a press ad online and it lists South London unusually running the film first on April 14th.”
“I believe the film was supported by ‘The Lion at Worlds End’ …the documentary that Virginia and Bill Travers made with George Adamson about returning an African lion to the wild. I know I ran the film again either in 1975 or ’76 as an afternoon matinee only with a Kung Fu adult programme in the evenings.”
“The film means a lot to me and has done so since 1974. It made me revisit the books…which I still read (currently dipping in and out of an old hardback edition of ‘Pigeon Post’) but I believe I had only read one during my childhood, which I think was ‘Swallowdale’. I also embarked on a number of holidays in the lakes because of the film. That first year I camped on a farm at Torver on the west side of Coniston.”
“The reason I include it in my top ten is simple. It is pure storytelling that takes the viewer on an adventure. You do not notice the individual aspects of film making you just become engrossed in the story. And that is what a good film should do. I watched it again just last week on a streaming service… It makes me smile ….what more can I say.”
John Rose wrote: “I can remember watching the film in 1974 with my mum and grandma when I was a nine or ten year-old, at the then called Mecca Cinema in Horsham, Sussex (sadly now demolished). I remember loving the natural setting and the adventure in the film and remember it being thrilling and suspenseful! Still my favourite film, so cheerful and up-lifting. The lovely music! All still brings a tear to my eye. Back then in the ’70s we didn’t have the lakes but at every opportunity our little band of local children would run off over the fields playing, building camps and climbing trees in the woods – such happy, carefree days.”
Last time the film was broadcast on BBC Two, David Stott, who worked as a unit driver on ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when he was fresh out of college, wrote in to say: “I remember how cold you all were whilst filming the swimming scene. The lily pond scene brought back memories of a very wet day on Pull Wyke caravan park. Most of the day was spent in the two double decker buses that were your school room and the canteen waiting for the rain to clear. Everyone was so grateful to pack up and go home.”
“I had many incidents with the parrot that I had to collect in the morning and return at night. I hated the bird, often it was let free in a bathroom at Kirskstone Foot and l would have to catch it and put it in its travel bag. I notice in the film that it is chained down whilst it is sitting on your shoulder.”
“I would spend a lot chatting to Ronnie Logan the hairdresser while the shooting was taking place, such a nice man.”
“The day they filmed the walking the plank scene I remember very well. I took Ronnie Fraser to the Lodore Swiss hotel at lunchtime and he was really very well plastered by the time I got him back for the afternoon filming. I suppose it was the only way they managed to get him in the water. He was not a happy chappy that afternoon when I eventually took him back to Ambleside.”
“I had to put the rushes on the train to London in the evening and collect developed film (how times have changed). One of my treats was that I was allowed to watch the rushes with the production team in the evening. Watching it again this afternoon was a real trip down memory lane. I cannot believe that I was a student starting out in life at the time and now l am a pensioner. Where has all that time gone?”
Barbara Altounyan, who founded the charity, Hospice Biographers, interviewed me for Family-Talk, a wonderful project that she set up during Lockdown to unite families.
Barbara’s father, Roger Altounyan, was not only the inspiration for The Boy Roger in Arthur Ransome’s series of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books but qualified as a doctor, becoming the allergist who developed the Intal asthma inhaler. He experimented on himself so many times that he died prematurely, aged sixty-five. Barbara was able to interview him just before he passed away. The recording is so precious that she is keen to record the biographies of others.
You can listen to our interview here. It starts rather abruptly but is quite fun – a bit like Desert Island Discs without the music:
Do find out about Family-Talk and think of contacting Barbara yourself. She is able to conduct hour-long interviews on a Thursday and send the recording via We Transfer. Her service is completely free of charge. If you would like to be interviewed, please email Barbara at email@example.com
• All recordings are GDPR privacy compliant, ie they are strictly confidential and will not be shared.
• All interviews are currently conducted over the phone / WhatsApp
• A professional audio engineer ensures best possible quality sound.
• Family-Talk is available to absolutely anyone who wishes to have their life story recorded over the phone. It is great for those who wish to have a heart-warming conversation with someone from a different generation within their own family and the technology is able to connect lots of different people, on one line. UK Citizens can be connected with anyone across the country or abroad.
More information can be found on the website: www.family-talk.co.uk (Barbara says “No one will be able to find us without the hyphen!”)
Hospice Biographers, inspired by Roger Altounyan, also records memoirs free of charge. If you would like to find out more about this nationwide charity for end-of-life patients, please click here
I have used archive photos to profile Dr Roger Altounyan here
Since the experts on BBC Antiques Roadshow have been taking an interest in the original feature film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974), I thought I ought to add to a few facts. Although the movie was released forty-seven years ago, the cast list remains incomplete. A few credits are missing:
Jim Stelfox was in uniform, playing a guard or station master at the Haverthwaite Steam Railway station in the opening scenes, when the Swallows first arrive in the Lake District. He ended up appearing in some of the publicity stills that were used in magazines and newspapers. One features on a jigsaw puzzle that accompanied the release of the movie. The little boy leaning out of the train window is Robin Smith, who grew up in Ambleside. He came along with his mother Eileen and his brother, Alan Smith, who became a newsreader on BBC Radio 4.
Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Virginia McKenna, Simon West Suzanna Hamilton with Jim Stelfox, the station master.
David Watkin Price, also from Cumbria, played the native on the jetty in Rio. His speaking part was cut from the television version of the film broadcast on ITV but remains in the remastered 2014 cinema Bluray and DVD available online.
Mr Price played an important part in our lives when the film was being made as he owned and ran the Oaklands Guest House in Ambleside where we stayed. His daughter Jane, told me, ‘They wanted you to stay in a place that had a family atmosphere with other children.’ I expect that she did a lot to help.
Jane appeared with her two brothers as film extras in the Rio scenes, remembering that it gave her a day off school. Sadly, her little brother’s knickerbockers kept falling down. You can see Jane in a grey dress with long pigtails, hoiking them up in this behind-the-scenes shot. To see other photos of the Price family in costume, please click here.
The people of the Lake District have written in with other stories. Philippa Poulson knew the real charcoal burner, Norman Allonby – ‘I lived around the corner from him in 1973. He lived in a tiny one up, one down traditional cottage, walked everywhere, and made a lovely cup of tea. He was very interested in my English Literature A’ level course, being a keen reader. I wonder how many people know he knew Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, by heart, and in their entirety and could recite any part, at any time, on request. He would happily talk for hours on the subject, with a twinkle in his eye and his pickle catching front tooth. Lovely, gentle man, living life at the right pace.’ You can read more about the real charcoal burners of Grizedale Forest here.
Susie Trezise said, “I remember them filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – it was right in the middle of my O’Level exams and their walkie-talkies kept coming through my stereo speakers! It was fascinating listening. I lived at Stock Ghyll Mill, so about five miles away from the filming. The strangest thing was it still came through the speakers when they were turned off but still plugged in!”
~Comic strips based on the 1974 film found by Arthur Herbertson~
Joss Bundy wrote to say: “My Father, between being the technical director of the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre, worked with Richard Pilbrow at Theatre Projects in the ’70s. He had been a friend of Richard’s for many years. Theatrical lighting design was still in its infancy and designers tended to stick together. Richard and my Dad were the founders of The Association of Lighting Designers, along with various others.
“My mother, Rosemary Lindsay, had been a ballerina at the ROH, which is where they met. My Mother had sailed since a small child and had devoured each new Ransome book as it was published and loved them more than any others. When Richard mooted the film, my father mentioned what an expert Rosemary was and when the project was getting up on its feet she was given an early script to vet. Various things had been added in for dramatic effect and she vetoed one: Roger getting stuck on top of a cliff, as she felt John and Susan would never have let him get in such a situation.”
“I was clearing yet another box of theatre-related photos and as well as a couple of publicity stills.” One shows filming the Amazon boat house. “I can only assume Richard or Molly sent them back to my Dad, who would have been running Theatre Projects while Richard was away.”
“After the film was finished, Richard offered Swallow to my Mum, but she didn’t want the responsibility of another wooden boat. We still own the one she sailed as a child, a smaller version of a Swallow type boat. She also felt that a boat only sailed in fresh water would not necessarily do well in salt water.”
Do add any memories you have to the Comments, below. It would be lovely to hear from you.
It would be great to have some more review on the film on the International Movie Database. You can easily add one here.
When Lakeland Arts declared that Antiques Roadshow was coming to Windermere Jetty, I sent the BBC a photograph of some of the props used in the 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
I was hoping their expert on movie memorabilia might be interested in the film posters, but couldn’t think that a hand-whittled hazel bow and arrow could be worth much.
I was keen to talk about my scrapbooks and diaries kept on location and thought they might want to use photos my father took of George Pattinson whose collection of boats formed the basis of the original Windermere Steamboat Museum. He brought his 1900 steam launch Lady Elizabeth to Bowness-on-Windermere when we shot the Rio scenes there in the summer of 1973 . She is currently being restored at the museum.
I also suggested they featured Swallow the dinghy we used in the film. A group of us clubbed together in 2010 to purchase her when she came up for auction.
She was valued by Rupert Maas who is a great fan of Arthur Ransome’s books and watched the film himself as a boy. He liked the fact she hadn’t been over-restored. I didn’t know her ribs were made of elm.
The best photograph of Swallow under sail was used on the cover or the first edition of my book about making the 1974 film:
If you enjoy ebooks, ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ has links to behind-the-scenes home movie footage. It is available for £2.99 here
The billing from the Radio Times lists the other interesting items on the show. You can watch the episode, mostly shot on a lovely sunny day, on BBC iPlayer. Further details are reported here.
If you would like to find out about sailing ‘Swallow’ yourself, please contact Sail Ransome.
I might appear in the second of the two episodes broadcast from Windemere Jetty – the one shot in rain.
When the BBC rang inviting me to come up, it was clear that I was the antique they wanted to see. The first thing they asked me was my date of birth. This turned out to be due to Covid-19 restrictions but the director did, later, ask if she could call me Titty.
Filming was already in progress when we arrived at the museum. It was a typical day in late September, pouring with rain.
There was a great deal of impressive camera and lighting equipment in evidence but a number of marquees had been erected to keep everyone dry.
We were introduced to the designer, who whisked off various items I’d brought with me to display, and Marc Allum, antiques expert, author and long-time contributor to the Roadshow. He’s tough. It wasn’t freezing but the weather was far from warm.
Once at the water’s edge I met Debbie, the director who was surprised by the length of my hair. I explained it had grown during lockdown having not been cut for a year.
My position was marked by small sticks in exactly the same manner as during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ when I was aged twelve. Camera tape would not stick to the slate shingle.
A measuring rod was used to ensure we remained two meters apart, even whilst on camera, before I was asked to take up the bow and arrow I had helped whittle on location long ago.
The display included Swallow’s burgee. I did ask for the flags to be crossed, but the significance of this was lost on the design team. You will have to write in and explain the importance.
When it came to being given an estimate for the value of what my husband calls ‘my junk’, I was truly amazed, especially since I nearly chucked half of it away in a fit of de-cluttering.
I am sworn to secrecy, so you’ll need to watch the show to find out how much my collection of movie memorabilia is meant to be worth. It should be broadcast on Sunday 21st February 2021 – but will I be on? I know they will feature Swallow this week but my item could either be featured in a different episode or hit the cutting-room floor.
We talked about the film premiere and influence the Swallows and Amazons books have had in encouraging children to get out into the wild. As I walked around the museum afterwards, I found the Lady Elizabeth being restored, which you can see in a previous post here.
There is already a movie poster at the Windermere Jetty museum. I dug out a large, sepia poster designed for cinemas that has not been seen since 1974 but the BBC were not able to feature these for copyright reasons. Since receiving a valuation, I am getting it framed.
Movies are made for watching. In the end, they belong to those who love them and it is wonderful to hear of the impact they have had on people’s lives.
The screenwriter Caleb Ranson wrote: “You’ve no idea how thrilling this is for me to hear from you. Swallows & Amazons was a life changing cinema visit for me, set me off on my path writing/producing TV/films. I played the soundtrack album every night for years. And I love your book BTW, bought it when it first came out.”
Paddy Heron of Children in Read describes the movie Swallows and Amazons(1974) as “a national treasure of a film.”
Nigel Seymour wrote to say, “that the original film has an ambience which cannot be calculated. It sits in time, yet it is as fresh as if it was made yesterday!” An international musician today, Nigel believes, “It possesses a simplicity of life we’ve lost, so watching it is a refreshing reminder of great days… a journey into another dimension and another world steeped with love and belonging, adventure and moral understanding, which is shared between a family and accepted. The characters are brought to life almost as if they are an infinite, integral part of the immortality of the story, each giving that picturesque understanding the viewer finds impossible to explain. After watching this film one arrives back in real time with a resounding bang! We wonder why such a simple story can create such an iconic understanding. Why watching this film can make you feel happy, totally complete and yearning to return again and savour that wonderful, eternal landscape we have all learned to grow and love as the Lakes.”
Tracy Kenny from Ketts Books wrote: “Swallows and Amazons is a firm family favourite in our house and for a while there, your movie was the only film my eldest would watch!”
The author Catherine Randall said: “I lived and breathed Swallow & Amazons including your film. Knew nearly all the words!”
The fan letters continue to arrive. Each one treasured.
Nigel Young writes: “‘Swallows and Amazons’ is one of those films which sets itself in that timeless space no one can quite fathom or understand, almost verging on ‘Immortality’. I’m sure no one at the time working on it ever thought the film would achieve the cult status it seems to enjoy today. You are possibly smiling when you read this, but it’s a true reflection of a film, which is more than a film and touches on those beautiful innocent moments and times which have been lost forever.”
Charles H Ball wrote: “‘Swallows and Amazons’ was instrumental in helping me through a very stressful period of my life… I will be obtaining ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ and no doubt many more of your other publications in due course. “
C.H.B. left a review of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ writing: ‘the feelings of anybody who would have loved to have had the opportunity of actually taking part in the film are summed up by Nancy Blackett when the D’s are explaining how they managed to get to the North Pole a day earlier than planned. ‘And you two came by yourselves and got here through that blizzard?’ said Nancy. ‘However did you find the Pole?’ ‘The blizzard helped really,’ said Dorothea. ‘We were sailing,’ said Dick………..’And we’ve gone and opened the stores,’ said Dorothea. ‘And eaten some of them. You see we lost our food when the sledge turned over and the mast broke…’ ‘Capsized!’ cried Nancy. ‘Mast gone by the board! Oh. you lucky, lucky beasts!’ Some of us will forever envy the lucky children who had the opportunity of a lifetime.
I hope to include all these quotes in the 3rd edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, to be brought out for the 50th Anniversary of the films release in April 2024. Do leave a comment below or write in, letting us know what the film meant to you or how it effected your life.
A guest post by Stephen Sykes of Hill Top, Ealinghearth, Haverthwaite:
There are two farmhouses in the Lake District both called Hill Top and both once owned by famous children’s authors – and just a few miles apart. One, of course was Beatrix Potter’s, and the other was the last home of Arthur Ransome, which my wife and I purchased in 2012.
More recently we acquired the adjacent wonderful ancient woodland of some seven and a half acres. With its precipitous rock faces, mighty oaks, gigantic gnarled yews and dazzling carpets of bluebells in the springtime, Backhouse Brow (as it is known) entirely fulfils The Woodland Trust’s epithet: “home to myth and legend, where folk tales began”.
There are the evocative remains of long-gone human activities too. Coppiced sycamores evidence a traditional form of woodland management historically used in the area to satisfy the insatiable demand for charcoal required to service the long-ago thriving iron industry in Backbarrow, just a half-mile away over the hillside. And within Backhouse Brow can be found numerous archaeological remains left by the charcoal burners and their activities, once a common sight in this area of South Lakeland. Long-disused trackways still clearly make their way up and across the woodland. Levelled spaces – knowns as pitsteads or platforms – for creating kilns or piles to burn charcoal are still in evidence.
Ancient walls in various states of decay both encompass the woodland and subdivide it. And most evocatively of all, there are the more personal remnants of the lives of the charcoal burners themselves. In addition to a much-rusted shovel or two, can be found the tumble-down remains of a circular low stone wall upon which charcoal burners would have erected a shelter, much as Ransome describes in Swallows and Amazons:
At the edge of the wood, not far from the smoking mound, there was a hut shaped like a round tent, but made not of canvas but of larch poles set up on end and all sloping together so that the longer poles crossed each other at the top. On the side of it nearest to the mound there was a doorway covered with a hanging flap made of an old sack.
And indeed only a modest distance from our circular stone base, but at a somewhat higher level, lies the still identifiably levelled ground of a pitstead where a charcoal pile may well once have been tended by the men whose hut lay below. A strategic placing not only high above, but in a position which ensured that smoke was generally carried well away by the prevailing south-westerlies.
Quite separately, in a glade some distance away, there are also the isolated remains of a rather fine stone hearth, presumably used for charcoal burners’ more domestic chores.
So, with extensive coppicing, trackways, pitsteads, the circular stone remnants of a hut and a hearth of particular note, and all adjacent to Hill Top – indeed, all now within Hill Top’s grounds – begs the question: was Ransome aware of any of this? Whilst he would have certainly seen the coppiced trees, probably not the archaeological remains. Despite the central involvement of charcoal burners in his story, he makes only the most fleeting occasional mention of the woodland in his later diaries and there is no mention of his having entered. Nevertheless, it’s rather fitting that in his final years he should have found himself in immediate proximity to this iconic historic activity about which he wrote some three decades earlier in his most famous fictional work.
The Ransomes owned Hill Top from 1960 until 1968 when Evgenia sold the property the year after Arthur died. In fact, following their arrival for the summer in 1963, they never returned to London – Hill Top finally having been supplied with electricity.
You can read more about charcoal burning in the Lake District in relation to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here.
To read about filming the charcoal burner’s scene in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) please click here.
To rent the converted barn at one end of the farmhouse, which now comprises luxury self-catering holiday accommodation for two couples, please click here
Sophie Neville visited Hill Top with members of The Arthur Ransome Society who admired the astonishing views across Cumbria. “It occurred to me that the fireplace and low stone walls of the charcoal burners’ wigwam, once abandoned, may have made up the basis of the igloo built by the Swallows and Amazons in Winter Holiday, which has a fireplace.”