Category Archives: Travel

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

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Filed under adventure, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, boating, Sophie Neville, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized

Sailing the Nancy Blackett in the Netherlands – part one

This 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 ~

This year we joined Nancy when she had already made the crossing to the Netherlands but we 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 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 ~

~ Looking out for Dutch barges ~

Local author Veronica Frenks came out with us 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 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

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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.

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Filed under Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, British Film, David Wood, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, filmography, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, sailing film, Sophie Neville, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, titty, Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized, Vintage Film, Virginia McKenna

My Family Roots in East Africa – Part Two

sophie-neville-at-usa-river-in-tanzania

~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.

a-walk-in-africa

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.

sophie-at-usa-river

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

african-school

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

tame-lemur

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

landrover-outside-farmhouse

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.

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

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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.

 

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Filed under adventure, Africa, Autobiography, Biography, Diary, Family Life, Memoir, Sophie Neville, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized

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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Filed under adventure, Africa, Autobiography, Biography, Family Life, Memoir, Sophie Neville, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized, Virginia McKenna

‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’ along with a letter from Mrs Ransome herself

Members of The Arthur Ransome Group on Facebook have alerted me to the fact that ‘The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome’ is currently available for viewing on BBCiPlayer.

Griff Rhys Jones

This beautifully made documentary, presented by Griff Rhys Jones, examines Ransome’s life as a war correspondent in Russia from 1913 to 1919 when he was so close to the action, in dialogue both Lenin and Leon Trotsky, that the question has been raised as to whether he was a British spy.

Hugh Brogan, Ransome’s biographer explains that he’d originally ran off to Russia to escape from his melodramatic wife, Ivy Walker in 1913. After using his time to record Russian fairy stories, that can still be read today in his book, ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales‘, he was employed by a national British newspaper to report on events leading up to the Russian Revolution. Black and white archive footage, along with photographs Ransome took himself, illustrate this well.

The BBC’s erstwhile political correspondent John Sergeant, explains the significance of certain survival strategies Ransome used, such as using ‘his practical skill to outwit people’, over extracts from the feature filmSwallows & Amazons, produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973.

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West above Derwentwater in 1973

Suzannah Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville and Simon West, 1974

The scenes from the movie also show how the story Ransome wrote when back in the Lake District, was in many ways an outworking of feelings accumulated while he was working in Russia. By being away and concentrating on his writing, he neglected his daughter just as Uncle Jim was not around for the Blackett girls.

Captian Frlint with Nancy and Peggy

In the dramatised documentary, the beautiful actress Alina Karmazina plays Evgenia, the girl Ransome fell in love with while he was filing reports from Petrograd.  They later escaped over the border, trading her copper kettle for freedom of passage.

If the BBC had contacted Richard Pilbrow he would have been able to send them this letter. It was written to Neville Thompson, the online producer of the film, by Evgenia, who had become the second Mrs Ransome. It has never been published before. She gives the address as her retirement home near Banbury but it shows what kind of girl she was:

Mrs Ransome1

Page two:

Mrs Ransome page 2 trimmed

When Mrs Ransome saw the finished film in 1974, her only comment was that the kettle was of the wrong period.

Suzanna Hamilton playing Susan Walker with Stephen Grendon as Roger Walker camping on Peel Island, Conioston Water in Cumbria

Was Susan a portrayal of Evgenia? Here she is played by Suzanna Hamilton.

The story of the Ransome’s escape from Russian has been told by Hugh Lupton, Arthur Ransome’s great nephew, who gave us a rendition recently at The Arthur Ransome Society meeting near Bungay. It can be listened to on CD, available on CD from Burning Shed.

The Homing Stone by Hugh Lupton

The Secret Life of Arthur Ransome can be watched on BBC iPlayer

by clicking on the photo here

Griff Rhys Jones - BBC

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Filed under 1973, adventure, Arthur Ransome, Biography, British Film, Family Film, Film History, Lake District, Letters, Memoir, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, Travel, truelife story, Vintage Film

Very Happy Christmas from Sophie

Ride the Wings of Morning - Lulu paperback_html_mdc1541

Hoping you find time to relax with a good book.

*******

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