People come from all over the world to visit Mavis, the traditional gaff-rigged dinghy known to all those who love the Arthur Ransome books as Amazon. She has been lovingly renovated but, still being a bit leaky, is on permanent display at the Coniston Museum in the Lake District. It was in this clinker-built dinghy and another little ship named Swallow that the Altounyan children learnt to sail on Coniston Water in the late 1920s.
In later life they used Mavis to teach their own children and grandchildren to sail. She was kept in Brigit Sander’s (ne Altounyan) boathouse at Slate Quay, which so resembles Ransome’s illustrations of the Amazon boathouse.
One of the secrets of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that the character of Captain John, was, if anything, loosely based on a the eldest girl in the family. Arthur Ransome obviously needed to balance genders and have two boys and three girls instead of only one boy, as in real life. Taqui Altounyan seemed to take this in her stride, giving him what advice she could. She has detailed this in her memoirs of the family’s lives: In Allepo Once and Chimes from a Wooden Bell – excellent books that have become much sort after.
Roger Wardale, author of many books about Arthur Ransome and the locations he used in his stories, kindly sent me these photographs of Taqui that he took when she was showing him some of the places where she played as a girl.
The Lake District, where her Collingwood Grandparents lived, was obviously a special place for her.
These photographs of Roger’s show her walking back in time,
visit Mavis in Coniston Museum
and go aboard SL Esperance on Windermere,
soaking up the atmosphere in her cabin.
Very many thanks to Roger Wardale, whose own books can be found listed here.
Arthur Ransome first visited the Lake District as a tiny baby. He said that his father, ‘carried me up to the top of Coniston Old Man at such an early age that I think no younger human being can ever have been there.’ Thereafter the family traveled up by train every summer, from 1884 – 1897, to stay on the Swainson’s farm at High Nibthwaite at the southern end of Coniston Water.
The four children were allowed to run wild in the hills or slide down the knickerbocker-breaker rocks above the farm whilst their mother painted and their father fished the River Crake. They had the use of a rowing boat, which they would take a mile up the lake to Peel Island for a picnic.
I’d love to take my family to spend a week at Low Water End, a holiday cottage at the southern tip of Coniston Water, which has boats, lake frontage and a small slipway.
Another lovely place to stay is Hill Top Farm, a traditional Lakeland house built in the 1700s and now owned by Martin Altounyan, son of Roger Altounyan and grandson of Dora Collingwood who was such a great friend of Arthur Ransome’s. They say you can see the Crake estuary from the garden. It is near Penny Bridge village, four miles from Coniston Water and just three miles away from Hill Top at Haverthwaite where Arthur Ransome lived at the end of his life.
As a young man Ransome escaped from London for a holiday in Coniston village and found himself invited to stay nearby at Lanehead by WG Collingwood, Dora’s father. Ransome writes in his autobiography that had originally meet the family in 1896 on Peel Island. ‘Mrs Collingwood told me that she remembered that meeting on the island and her surprise that my mother, who was a very pretty young woman, could have a family of such very ugly children.’
By 1904 Arthur Ransome was being taught to sail by Dora, Barbara, and Robin Collingwood in a heavy old dinghy called Swallow that they were able to take out on Coniston Water. He later stayed at Low Yewdale at the north end of Coniston, which I believe still offers Bed and Breakfast or a self-catering cottage. Ransome would set up ‘a tent on a small mound close to Yewdale Beck a hundred yards up the valley’ so that he could sleep outside when it was fine. In her guide-book,In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons Claire Kendall-Price shows you how you can walk from Low Yewdale to Ambleside via The Drunken Duck, a pub you can now stay at that I believe Ransome visited.
It is easy to see how all this experience, the houses Ransome loved and places he knew of since childhood were poured into his Swallows and Amazons series of books. You will have to tell me which of his stories were written here:
After many adventures in Russia and the Baltic, Arthur Ransome bought his second wife Evgenia to live at Low Ludderburn on Cartmell Fell above Windermere where they lived from 1925 until 1935. He loved the work room made for him at the top of the grey barn outside. They moved to Suffolk for a while but returned during WWII to live at The Heald, which overlooks Coniston Water.
It was here that Ransome wrote The Picts and The Martyrs. They had a jetty there where he kept his boat Coch-y-bonddhu, which is used as the model for the Scarab, a sailing dinghy bought for Dick and Dorothea Callum in the novel. The gardener’s cottage to The Heald has recently been rebuilt and is for sale.
In their later years, the Ransome’s loved at Hill Top Farm near Ealingshearth, where the views are stunning. It has been renovated but retains many of the original features.
I recently found a family photograph album with pages illustrating holidays spent under sail in the 1930’s.
Not all the black and white photographs are as horizontal or as sharply in focus as one might wish but they show the glorious boats available for hire.
They also reflect what fun was had out on the water.
We were rather shocked by the cigarettes held in the mouths of the young men but Joan, who is pictured with them, was still agile at the age of ninety-nine.
Having sailed up to Horsey Mere with friends, my father hired a Hullabaloo boat to take us out on the Boards when we were little.
We went out of season, when boat hire was cheaper. As there was no one on the water my father let me take the helm mile after mile, despite the fact that I was only about seven years old.
We loved living aboard and were often surrounded by wild geese.
It seems Arthur Ransome, who had fished on the Broads with Titty’s father, Ernest Altounyan, in 1923, also enjoyed cruising in the spring. His biographer, Roger Wardale, said that ‘Both the Ransomes liked to visit the Broads just after Easter, before most of the motor cruisers had started the season and it was the best time of year for birdlife.’ He went on to describe how Arthur Ransome kept a log of his three weeks spent in a Fairway yacht, the essence of which he used to write Coot Club in 1933/34. ‘As well as visiting Roy’s of Wroxham, tying up at Horning Hall Farm and watching the racing boats go by, towing through bridges, mooring beside a Thames barge at Beccles and watching a fisherman catching eels with a bab, there are numerous details that combine to make Coot Club a valuable account of the social and natural history of the Broads as they were more than 70 years ago.’
Roger Wardale illustrated his book Arthur Ransome Master Stroyteller, using wonderful photographs and sketches by Arthur Ransome, including a very jolly one of the Hullabaloos that had not been published before. Do get hold of a copy of the book, to read the chapter on Coot Club for yourself.