A boaty biography

Sophie Neville

I grew up with boats in the garden. My father owned eight at one time, including two coracles and a vintage river launch called Ottor that he renovated himself.

Martin Neville with friends on the Norfolk Broads

As a young man, while setting up a team to develop the fibreglass hull, Dad raced on the Solent, volunteered on a tall ship, and wrangled an Atlantic crossing on the maiden return voyage of the QE2, taking us children around the liner when it reached Southampton.

Sophie Neville with her younger sisters aboard the QEII in 1969

I learnt to sail dinghies at Newport Bay in Pembrokeshire, later making my own sail for a Thames skiff so that I could take it down the lake where I grew up in Gloucestershire. My father wanted a Mirror dinghy, but since they were beyond his budget we had a dubious one-design with a ? on its sail.

A family holiday in a Hullabaloo boat on the Broads – off season

Dad bought one of the first Toppers, which seemed quite daring at the time. It had no halyards. Its arrival caused much excitement. Called Earwig, the fibreglass hull was portable but proved precarious, soaking the crew as waves sloshed over her orange deck. I wasn’t much good at withstanding the cold and grew to loath setting off with wet feet.

Sophie Neville rowing to Cormorant Island
Sophie Neville as Titty and Sten Grendon as Roger rowing to Cormorant Island

Playing Titty in original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ involved quite a bit of rowing, which I kept up first as a member of the Collingwood Ladies Four at Durham University and later on the crew of The Drapers’ Shallop, a ceremonial barge that can be spotted on the Thames and River Lea, the Dart or Poole Harbour.

Rowing the Drapers’ shallop down to Runnymede

My dedication to fixed thwart rowing enabled me to take part in a Jubilee Pageant for The Queen at Henley, transport a copy of the Magna Carta to Windsor, and man an oar of the royal barge Gloriana in the Boat Race flotilla at Putney a year when Cambridge won.

Sophie Neville rowing in black cap on the River Thames at Putney

Belonging to the rowing club, City Barge, enabled me to take part in the Voga Longa in Venice – a 35km marathon – with the gold medalist Ed Coode as stroke. I later rowed a sandalo down the Amstel into Amsterdam standing to row Venetian-style, getting used to the idea of using a forcola in windy weather.

In the bows of a sandalo on the River Amstel in Amsterdam

We navigated the shallop down a tributary of the Loire in Brittany, leading a procession of two hundred and forty traditional boats into Nantes for the Rendez-vous de l’Erdre. I was asked to take the helm on the way back, great Dutch barges bearing down on us.

With the presenter and crew of France 3 news

One of my favourite vessels is a two-man canvas canoe my sister found on a rubbish dump. I nearly drowned after getting stuck in a kayak and prefer an open dugout or fibreglass equivalent. These have taken me on adventures in Papua New Guinea, across Lake Malawi and through the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Bird watching on the Boro River – Sophie Neville with Jez Lye

Back in 1978, I helped my father, Martin Neville, to restore a 1901 steamboat called Daffodil, which they kept near Oxford at Port Meadow on the Thames.

SL Daffodil on the River Thames

We would steam down to Henley each year for the royal regatta or upstream towards Letchlade. You can read about how we renovated here here.

We took a Humber Yawl that Dad built to take part in a Steam Boat Association rally on Windermere and pay homage to launches used in the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ kept by George Pattinson at the Steam Boat Museum, now known as Windermere Jetty.

Lullaby undersail, playing the Teasel on the broads

I a lot of time on the water while filming the 1984 BBC adaptation of ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’ when we spent three months filming on the Norfolk Broads. The series starred a yacht called Lullaby from Hunter’s Yard, which you can now hire for holidays.

I went away from my wedding in a punt, Dad polling while I sat with my new husband, holding an umbrella while a rainbow appeared over the water.

At the Brewery Arts Cinema in Kendal for the launch of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ and the 40th Anniversary DVD

While serving as President of The Arthur Ransome Society, I gave twelve Q&As at cinemas. Members of SailRansome have often come along with the little clinker-built dinghy used as Swallow, which I helped purchase when she came up for auction in 2010.

I am often asked to write articles about my life afloat, and have spoken at literary festivals, on BBC Radio and on ITV News when I nearly capsized.

On ITV News at Ten with Nina Nannar

It is with The Arthur Ransome Society that I have been able to sail an historic wherry down the Norfolk Broads, take an old German ferry to Lundy Island and cruise down Coniston Water on SL Gondola.

Aboard Wherry Maud – photo Diana Dicker

As a member of the Nancy Blackett Trust, I’ve sailed on the Orwell, in the Solent and through the inland waterways of the Netherlands, visiting Middleburg.

~Nancy Blackett in the Netherlands~

I enjoyed crossing the Veersemere to Zierikzee in the wake of my own forefathers.

Over the years, I’ve grabbed the chance to sail yachts to Salcombe, up the coast of Norway and through the Mediterranean but I still love taking out a small boat in the Lake District or on the Norfolk Broads.

At Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads

You can read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available on line.

Ten reasons why imagination is so important – inspired by the author and travel writer Arthur Ransome

The Arthur Ransome Society invited me to speak at their bi-annual Literary Weekend held recently at the Royal Agricultural University. The college is situated outside Cirencester in Gloucestershire, a ten minute drive from the Golden Valley where I grew up next to the Thames and Severn Canal. I spent my A’Level years at Cirencester College just down the road. Just before leaving school, we were invited to a formal dinner at what was then the Royal Agricultural College, in the Gothic hall where The Arthur Ransome Society dinned. I remember gazing up at the high ceiling with its carvings of bunches of carrots and other vegetables. My father was asked to be the after-dinner speaker that night. A quiet man, he did not relish the idea of public speaking but he delivered the most inspiring talk on travel. It gave me the confidence to launch out into the deep.

In the early 20th century, by embarking on a career as a foreign correspondent for the Daily News and Manchester Guardian, Arthur Ransome was able to travel to Cairo, China and through Russia. He sailed home from the Baltic in his own yacht and kept on sailing, taking a small dinghy with him to visit the Altounyan family in Syria. These adventures inspired his writing for us to relive. Our own travels can be guided by walking in his footsteps, even to half-imagined places such as Swallowdale above some great lake in the north.

While Arthur Ransome transported us to snowy lands by re-telling Old Peter’s Russian Tales, his series of Swallows and Amazons books have the attraction of almost being within our grasp. We could reach most of the locations he describes in our own holidays. Theses twelve novels are essentially about travel of a kind that engages the imagination. Gathering enough food and gear to survive on an island is bound to get you thinking. ‘Are you sure you haven’t forgotten anything?’ By including books such as  Robinson Crusoe that stimulated Ransome’s own imagination, as well as frequent references to South America, he takes us on a literary journey, inspiring us further.

  • Our imagination helps us to examine possibilities and predict danger, anticipate the enemy, access risk: Packing, alone, forces one to focus on what might happen. When you set sail in a small boat you need to be alert: ‘At the end of Darien there might be rocks.’  You learn to trust your decisions based on projections and possible outcomes, becoming a better leader, much like Captain John.
  • We use our imaginations to plan ahead. Nancy’s tactical schemes include anticipation of how others would probably behave.
  • Our imagination generates ideas, helps us solve problems or conflict: ‘If anyone was sailing after dark, we could hoist a lantern up there.’ Ultimately it is Titty, the youngest girl with the most active imagination who dreams up back stories for strangers, renames places, draws, writes, casts herself as Robinson Crusoe and wins the war for the Swallows.
  • Imaginative stories help us remember things.
  • By imagining how others might feel we gain the gift of empathy, which enhances our social skills, engaging unity of purpose. Providing children camping on an island in the Lake District with gooseberry tart and buckets of hot porridge is an obvious example, leaving carved fish for burglars to unearth is slightly more cryptic.
  • Imagination expands our perception and enhances our lives, making us more resourceful: ‘Everything had grown smaller except the lake, and that had never seemed so large before.’ The hay bags were being brought to the island by Mr Jackson.
  • Humour demands subtle forms of imagining, lifting us above the mundane, making the prosaic bearable. Titty turns Lakeland farmers into natives, her mother into Good Queen Bess.
  • Our imagination lifts us above the necessary enables our minds to travel. Ransome himself must have longed to voyage further afield. His novels are drenched in references to South America, Africa and ‘the Caribees’. We have the ability to dream big dreams and find a way of achieving them.
  • There are dangers – we can be wrong.  Titty was not at the camp as John and Susan imagined. She was alone in a clinker-built dinghy, without a blanket, out on the lake, witnessing a criminal behaviour. My Granny’s imagination descended into worry, which became rather irritating. I can only hope her pessimistic imagination fuelled ardent prayers for our safety.
  • An over-active imagine can raise expectations too high. Titty’s own imagination was liable to go over the top but she retained her sense of humour: ‘Might be a tidal wave’. Some poor souls become delusional fantasists. Broken dreams can plunge us into despair. Ransome’s own dreams crashed from time to time and probably drove him overseas. Russia was the one place he could escape his first wife. It ended up being the place where he met his second.

I quote from the Jonathan Cape edition of Swallows and Amazons. Re-reading this is a voyage in itself.  I discover something I never noticed before every time.

CR Milne, wrote of his father, AA Milne saying: ‘A writer is a craftsman and a designer. Another man might have made things with his hands; he made things with his imagination.’ It is clear that Arthur Ransome travelled in his imagination and reported on what it was like.

This summer I joined friends to sail up the Norwegian coast to Bodo above the Arctic Circle. I packed with some trepidation, imagining it could get cold and very wet but we enjoyed excellent, clear conditions. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the reality of sunny Summer day, after sunny Summer day, as if floating through the pages of a storybook. It was a dream fulfilled.

Travel and you are stretched, spoilt for the ordinary. ‘Of course, really we are going the other way,’ said Susan, ‘but it doesn’t matter.’ I know why my father wanted us to travel after leaving school. He knew it would increase our self confidence, extend our ability and help build skills beyond those stretched by taking A’levels. ‘Just pack a bag and go,’ he said. ‘There will always be a way. You’ll find there’s a bus that will link to a boat. Don’t worry about getting stuck – you’ll find something will turn up.’

~Sophie Neville off the coast of Norway, sailing across the Arctic Circle, 2019~

My father appreciated the fact travel is expensive but he always managed to work something out, taking advantage of his military travel pass to take a train to the Outer Hebrides and used his annual leave to sail on the Norfolk Broads in the 1940’s. He found a factory in Maryport to visit as part of his job with BIP. This enabled him to drive around the Lake District in the 1950’s. He worked in exports through the sixties and seventies so that he could fly worldwide. Marketing cable-ties and electronic components enabled him to take the QEII to America and planes to places as far afield as South Africa and Japan. These were the days when agents and customers would take him on tours of their country as part of a trade mission. Such journeys would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive. After retiring, my father sold his collection of early sailing books to cruise the Baltic. The question I now ask is: who inspired him? One major influence was the author Arthur Ransome.

Do think of joining The Arthur Ransome Society and coming to their Literary Weekends. To find out more please click here.

Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District

Letter from Arthur Ransome

~An illustrated letter from Arthur Ransome, 1955~

I have been sent a copy of a letter written to a reader by Arthur Ransome in June 1955, revealing where some of his ‘Swallows and Amazons’ locations can be found. I was interested to read that, ‘the lake is mainly Windermere with some things stolen from Coniston.’

One summer, we spent a long weekend with The Arthur Ransome Society when we managed to find quite a few locations around Coniston Water that are featured in Ransome’s books.

~Low Yewdale Farm, near Coniston ~

The curator of the John Ruskin Museum took us on a walk around the village of Coniston and under the Yewdale Crags towards Tarn Howes. We passed Low Yewdale Farm where Arthur Ransome stayed as a young man. It is just as I imagined Swainson’s Farm in the book ‘Swallowdale’. The footpath takes you down to the beck where Ransome fished for brown trout. I could imagine Roger attempting to tickle trout there.

If you follow the path on south, then branch left up the East of Lake Road around Coniston Water, you will find another footpath leading to Bank Ground Farm.

A hand-painted sign guides you through fields, where Galloway cows maybe grazing. Look up and you will literally find yourself at Holly Howe, the long white farmhouse where Mr and Mrs Jackson live in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. You can imagine the Walker children running down the meadow to the Peak of Darien.

Ernest Altounyan sailing Mavis on Coniston

~ Dr Ernest Altounyan rigging Mavis on Coniston Water~

It was here that the Altounyan children, Taqui, Susie, Titty, Roger and Brigit spent one summer holiday in 1928, while visiting their grandparents who lived next door at Lane Head. They learned to sail on the lake in two dinghies: Swallow and Mavis, later re-named Amazon, who can be visited at the John Ruskin Museum in Coniston.

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~Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria where the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) was made~

The barn, inside which we filmed some of the night sequences for the original movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’, has been converted into self-catering holiday accommodation that can house a number of families quite easily. From here you can run down to the boatshed where John, Susan, Titty and Roger found Swallow and imagine them setting off  on their voyage to Wild Cat Island leaving the Fair Spanish Ladies on the stone quay.

~The boatsheds below Bank Ground Farm, on Coniston Water~

Wooden jetties have been added recently and it is possible to either launch your own boat or hire a kyak from Bank Ground Farm.

~The northern end of Coniston Water~

We had a bedroom in the barn that looked north towards the Langdales. If you walk up the farm drive, you can look back towards Coniston Old Man, or ‘Kanchenjunga’, as the Walkers and Blacketts call it in ‘Swallowdale’.

~Bank Ground Farm with the village of Coniston beyond~

Arthur Ransome was taken up the Old Man of Coniston as a tiny baby. You can climb it today but wear more than sand shoes. Stout walking boots are called for. The task of reaching the summit should not be underestimated.

We were able to get out on the lake to find a few more locations. This red-sailed dinghy, named Peggy Blackett, is a copy of Arthur Ransome’s Cochybundhu, used as the model for Dick and Dorothea’s boat Scarab.

~Sailing on Coniston Water towards the village of Coniston~

It is a long way down Coniston Water to Peel Island but it is there that you will spot the Secret Harbour, instantly recognisable as belonging to Wild Cat Island. We went there in the SL Gondola, that now belongs to the National Trust. Ransome knew the steam launch as a boy when he made friends with the captain.

~ Secret Harbour on the southern end of Peel Island, Coniston Water ~

In the cemetery of Coniston village we found the grave of Titty Altounyan, the girl who inspired Arthur Ransome’s well-loved character. I never met her but was with her niece Barbara that long weekend in Coniston, when we both thoroughly enjoyed walking, sailing and steaming along in Ransome’s footsteps.

~ Sophie Neville visiting Titty Altounyan’s grave in Coniston ~

For details of more locations at the southern end of Coniston Water that are featured in the Swallows and Amazons series of books, please click here.

Think of joining The Arthur Ransome Society and come looking for locations described in his books. You will find the details here.

You can find illustrated maps and a chapter guiding you to some of the locations in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ and this less expensive ebook:

What Sophie did next –

TWT Ride 2018 Sophie Neville with 14 riders

The 4th Waterberg Trust Challenge Ride, which set off on 21st January 2018, proved fast, fun and fulfilling. Thanks go to all those who sponsored me on Justgiving.com and helped me to raise funds in other ways.

TWT Ride 2018 Sophie Neville with giraffe at Ant's Nest - photo Ant Baber

Crossing the game reserves of South Africa was a joy, especially since we encountered a number of newborn animals.

TWT Ride 2018 with zebra - photo Ant Baber

50% of funds raised go to Save The Waterberg Rhino to support the war against wildlife poaching.

TWT Ride 2018 photographing rhinos

50% of funds go to community projects that uplift the people of the region. You can see more photos of the projects supported here

TWT Riders 2018 learing about community projects in the Waterberg

Riders paid their own travel costs. We had a great team who’d worked hard on both their fitness and fundraising.

TWT Ride 2018 cantering up to Jembisa

Some days were long but we were blessed with good weather. When the going got tough, we dismounted and walked.

TWT Ride 2018 dismounting to tackle a steep hill - photo Sophie Neville

Seven different game reserves were traversed in six days, with 187kms being clocked up on the GPS.

TWT Ride 2018 coming to the end - photo Ant Baber

I felt hugely encouraged by everyone who supported me on social media and returned with dreams of exploring further afield. You can see more photos of the ride on The Waterberg Trust website.

TWT Ride 2018 Sophie Neville against sunset

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What you can do to help

Sophie Neville with Save The Waterberg Rhino game scouts

Very Happy New Year!

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‘I’d like to go to Africa and see forests full of parrots!’

I’m not sure about the parrots but I’m off on an African adventure soon – details to follow in my next post.

Very Happy New Year to one and all. May 2018 prove fulfilling.

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

Sailing the Nancy Blackett in the Netherlands – part one

One summer, I grabbed the chance to sail Arthur Ransome’s favourite little ship, the Nancy Blackett. If you recognise her it might be because she was his model for the Goblin in ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea‘, possibly the most exciting and touching of the Swallows and Amazons series of books. I re-read it while we were in Dutch waters aboard the main character herself.

   ~ Nancy Blackett under sail on the Veersemeer in Zeeland this June ~

~ Beach End Buoy at the mouth of the River Orwell in Suffolk ~

In the story, the Swallows – John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker – promise their mother that they will not go to sea, but disaster strikes when the Goblin slips her anchor in thick fog, while her owner is ashore, and gets swept out past the Beach End Buoy at Harwich. The wind rises and the children find themselves sailing across the North Sea in a terrific storm before a friendly Dutch pilot guides them into Flushing.

~ Nancy in the old lock at near the medieval port of Veere ~

I was able to join Nancy when she had already made the crossing to the Netherlands but did take her through an old lock built in the same style as the one the Swallows encountered, all be it at the other end of the Dutch canal. It was as if we had sailed into the pages of the book and lived out the adventure ourselves, learning about ropes and reefing each nautical mile.

Mooring up could be tricky, especially since Nancy is an old lady with a bow-sprit, but unlike Susan and Titty, I never felt sea-sick for a moment.

~ Learning how to hoist the mainsail ~

~ The Nancy Balckett undersail on the Veersemeer in the Netherlands ~

~ Sophie sailing in salt water ~

~ Keeping a look out for Dutch barges ~

Local author Veronica Frenks came out one morning, taking us up a creek to see the traditional Dutch barges and historic ships that she often writes about. She soon made plans to write about Arthur Ransome for Spiegel der Zeilvaart, a Dutch periodical. Here she is with me, at the helm:

To read about sailing Nancy on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where she is based. please click here.

To read about sailing Nancy on the Beaulieu River and the Solent, please click here

If you would like to grab a chance to sail Nancy or find out more about the Nancy Blackett Trust, please click here

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photographs by Veronica Frenks of Ma Plume, Judy Taylor and Sophie Neville

Questions about filming ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) and tips for camping

3rd June 2017, marked the 50th Anniversary of Arthur Ransome’s death – a day to remember his books and the inspiration they have brought to our lives, not least since he encouraged the pursuit of outdoor activites such as sailing and camping, along with reading, writing and keeping a ship’s log. I’m not sure what he’d think of some of the conversations I’ve had about Swallows and Amazons but at least his well-loved story is being talked about.

Last time I gave a Q&A about the 1974 movie of ‘Swallow and Amazons’ at a cinema, I was interviewed by the actress Diana Quick, which was wonderful as she was so easy to talk to. She asked a few questions that have not come up before.

 

Did you children feel the film was like the book?

Very much so, I’d read most of the books in the series and ‘Swallows and Amazons’ twice. Richard Pilbrow, the producer was aiming to keep as close to the Arthur Ransome’s well-known story as possible. I never saw David Wood’s script, but simply sung out Titty’s dialogue from my Puffin paperback. It was amazing to find ourselves in Secret Harbour, just has Ransome had depicted it. We were rather disappointed that the storm scene was cut but could appreciate that ‘you can’t have everything’.

 

How much time did you have to get to know one another?

Not long, only two or three days. The weather wasn’t that good but we were taken out sailing which was fun and Virginia McKenna was wonderful at getting us to play games that broke the ice. We played consequences with folded strips of paper, the results of which made us laugh a great deal.

Would you have felt able to take a boat out as Titty does, on your own at night?

Yes, I managed to launch Amazon and row her out of Secret Harbour in one take, but I was aged twelve, rather than nine, which is Titty’s age in the book. Amazon was a very easy dinghy to handle and had been used in the BBC serial made in 1962, when Ransome was alive.

Although he claimed to have read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ forty-two times, David Blagdon, our sailing director, forgot that Titty was meant to sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island, so I never practiced taking the helm, or sailing her alone. In the end the Mate Susan took my place, which I felt was a bit of a shame as in the book Titty sailed her back with John crewing.

It is interesting that Titty, the most adventurous character was played by you who have gone on to lead an adventurous life.

It may be partly the way I’d been raised. My father grew up reading the first editions of Ransome’s books in the 1930s and we often went camping as a family, certainly every summer holiday. My mother still goes camping at the age of eighty.

Perhaps the director, Claude Whatham recognised an adventurous spirit. I always need to see around the next corner. I was hugely inspired to travel by my father and by friends at university, particularly Alastair Fothergill who has spent his whole life travelling while making wildlife films, most recently African Cats, Chimpanzee, Bears and Monkey Kingdom for DisneyNature.

Have you got any tips for camping?

Yes! There is an art to camping:

  • You can always fill a metal water bottle with hot water at night and use it as a hot-water bottle in your sleeping bag. If you get thirsty later you can always take a drink without having to get up.
  • I usually keep my clothes for the next day with me in my sleeping bag so they stay warm and dry.
  • It’s important to keep tents clean. Never brush your hair inside a tent and never let anyone step of the fly sheet when they are folding it up otherwise you risk having footprints on the ceiling.
  • Make sure you keep a supply of dry firewood.
  • There are dangers to camping: always set down a cup on the ground before filling it with boiling water from a kettle. It is too easy to get burnt by super-heated water if you hold it.
  • I pack a leather glove or pot holders for cooking over camp fires.
  • Take care about where you place knives, barbeque grids or pans as it is easy for others to tread on them in the dark.
  • Make sure your torch is in the same place every night. I keep a small torch in my washbag.
  • Take a hair-dryer. If there is ever an electricity supply you can use it to heat your tent or dry out wet clothes and sleeping bags. We got soaked riding through New Zealand once but arrived at a sheep shears’ shed and found great comfort in drying our socks. I gave this task to rather an annoying German man who took such pride it doing the job thoroughly that he regained our respect on a number of levels.
  • Enjoy every moment.

If anyone has any questions, please leave a comment below.

If you would like to read more about my current adventures please click here

StudioCanal hold a vast selection of the best photographs from ‘Swallow and Amazons’ in their libray and have an on-line shop here.

My Family Roots in East Africa – Part Two

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~Drying coffee beans on our farm at Usa River near Arusha in 1972~

Days spent at our farm in northern Tanzania were full of colourful characters, including a cobra who lived in the trees overshadowing the house. He probably kept down the rodent population quite efficiently.

farmhouse-at-usa-river

My great-uncle Tony was probably more dangerous. He had a very sensitive nose and a legendary temper.

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My aunt kept tame lemurs. They marked their territory by peeing on their hands. This was understandable until they decided to climb over your face.

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My father loved travelling in northern Tanzania and was intrigued by the wildlife.

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I was fascinated by the people, many of whom wore traditional dress in the early 1970’s.

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Extended ear-lobes, names such as Libougi and bright beaded jewellery had me squinting into the sunlight.

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In a country where polygamy was the norm everyone seemed to have rather large families with any number of wives and children.

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Having your photograph taken was quite the thing. What the woolly lemurs thought of this, I do not know.

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There was always talk of the next expedition up-country. Careful packing was a constant preoccupation.

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Complicated arrangements were ever being made. Uncle Tony was an honourary game warden, with the power to arrest poachers.

baroness-reinhild-von-bodenhaussen-in-about-1970

My mother loved the idea of going on safari and urged him to include us as he toured areas where wildlife thrived.

my-mother-on-safari-at-usa-river-in-northern-tanzania-the-early-1970s

It was a privilege to be taken game viewing as a child by someone with such a depth of knowledge.

elephant

I began to sketch in the back of his Land Rover, while keeping lists of the animals we encountered and trying to learn their Swahili names.

buffalo

As we drove through the national parks, such as Lake Manyara we rarely saw another vehicle. The reason for packing so carefully was that there was no one around to help if anything went wrong. If you broke down or ran out of fuel you could be in serious trouble.

 

giraffe-under-tree

But there were always old  friends to visit and they were charming, most hospitable.

hilli-and-woolly

After driving for ages, we’d end up at another farm-house, playing croquet.

croquet

Nothing but croquet, all afternoon and evening. Somehow I survived. I did so by keeping a diary. It was the first of a whole pile of notebooks that have grown exponentially, forming the basis of quite a few books – with more to come.

croquet-2

To be continued.

 

My Family’s Roots in East Africa

Cover photo MW

‘I’d like to go to Africa,’ I declared as a little girl, ‘and see forests full of parrots.’ This I did. Everything I had ever hoped to see was spread out before me and the experience left a profound impression.

Mailer Estate in 1970

My great-grandparents began farming at Usa River, just west of Arusha in 1919. I first arrived in northern Tanzania in 1972, when my mother took these photographs of the house and garden where her family lived for fifty years. I longed to climb the ancient fig tree in the garden but was told a cobra lived there. It was probably on the lookout for parrots coming anywhere near it.

Makorongo's War by Sophie Neville - revised 30 November 2015_html_m50ecfa90 - Copy

By the early seventies the family were busy farming coffee and often had visitors to stay. My great-uncle Tony used the farm as a base for his safaris and served as an honourary game warden having worked for many years in the Kenyan Police Force and Game Department. He was well-connected and once took Bing Crosby bird shooting, although this fact was kept secret until 2015.

Makorongo's War by Sophie Neville - revised 30 November 2015_html_4b186671 - Copy

I loved the outdoor way of life, was intrigued by the kitchen that was seperate from the main house, and amused by the hot water system that consisted of small cylindrical  tanks known as ‘donkeys’. Everything smelt of wood smoke. The best thing was that I was able to sleep in a safari tent set up in the garden, in true ‘Swallows and Amazons’ style. It felt as if I was being swept along in an adventure portrayed in the film ‘Born Free’ when Virginia McKenna played the artist Joy Adamson who became well known for bringing up a lion cub called Elsa, eventually releasing her into the wild.

Makorongo's War by Sophie Neville - revised 30 November 2015_html_3c38f792 - Copy

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