Charcoal Burners at Hill Top – Arthur Ransome’s last home in the Lake District

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.

Circular stone base of a charcolburners’s hut

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.

Meeting the charcoal burners’s adder – a scene from the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) StudioCanal

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.

Stone hearth near Ealingshearth

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.”

Hill Top farm, near Ealinshearth where Arthur Ransome lived with his wife Evgenia

Charcoal burning in the Lake District

Charcoal HayBridgeEarthburn 004
Brian Crawley sent in these unique photographs of his charcoal burn in Cumbria, telling me:
‘I am a ‘retired’ charcoal burner and we still do an occasional traditional charcoal burn in the same area of south Cumbria.’
He says that this burn was, ‘…done at Hay Bridge Nature Reserve only about a mile from the site where your charcoal burn took place.’ This was when Richard Pilbrow produced the film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows & Amazons on location in the Lake District in the summer of 1973. ‘As you can see there is a charcoal burner’s hut on the site like the one used to be on your site.’
Charcoal HayBridgeEarthburn 007
I was fascinated to see how the turf had been laid.
Charcoal HaybridgeEarthburn 006
Brian also sent photographs of the dip in the woods where I was shown around a similar hut in 1973 . He tells me, ‘I was shown the site by an acquaintance who lives close by and watched the filming as a young boy.’
Brian sent a photo of our old film location in the woods, taken about ten years ago, when you could still see the stones of the fireplace once set inside the hut. I remember the fire well. It was very smoky.
Brian also sent me a scan of the postcard published by J Salmon showing the burn site, taken in 1972 about a year before Swallows & Amazons was filmed, featuring the same collier who helped us. ‘The postcard photo was probably taken by a local photographer and I also have other copies of charcoaling photos, taken about that time, from a book by the same photographer but they will be covered by copyright.’
Fortunately Simon Hodkin has just sent me this article that he’d kept in a scrapbook with a programme from the cinema:
Charcoal Burners article probably late 1973
I’ve also found two of my mother’s shots of filming the sequence in 1973 that haven’t been published before. The continuity girl’s typewriter stands on a folding table in the foreground and a section of camera track can be seen to the right.

Charcoal Burners- longshot1
Behind-the-scenes on the film set of Swallows & Amazons (1974)

We were busy shooting the scene when the Swallows are being shown the charcoal burner’s adder, kept under the bed for luck.

Charcoal Burners- with Sophie
Director Claude Whatham, John Franklin-Robbins, Sophie Neville and Jack Woolgar. The 35mm Panavision camera can be seen to the left of shot.

For earlier posts describing the filming of the charcoal burner scenes please click here
‘…we still do an occasional traditional charcoal burn in the same area of south Cumbria.’ Brian explained adding, ‘The DVD that I have is also copyrighted but a video of one of my burns is on YouTube and can be viewed via our Coppice Association website.
Stephen Sykes, who lives at Hill Top, where Arthur Ransome once lived, has sent a link to a picture of Charcoal Burning near by at Bouth by Alfred Heaton Cooper. Please click here

Hill Top - Panorama 16-lr

You can read about the evidence of charcoal burning that he has found in his own wood here.
You can read about the making of the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here:
The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

The Real Charcoal Burners ~ who we met whilst filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on 14th June 1973

Sophie Neville at the Charcoal Burners
Sophie Neville as Titty Walker visiting the charcoal burners on a cold day in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

On 14th June we were back at Ickenthwaite Forest, in Cumbria, to film the sequence when the Swallows visit the Charcoal Burners.

14th June ~ my diary aabout the charcoal burners

The real charcoal burner
Norman Allonby, the real charcoal burner outside the hut. Behind him the 35mm Panavision camera is being mounted on a small crane and short section of track ~ photo: Daphne Neville

‘He doesn’t look much like a son.’  The real Young Billy was almost indistinguishable from the actor. He seemed to take a wry interest in the filming but what he thought of us, of the crew, I dread to think. We were aliens on his planet. Terribly bossy ones.

The real Charcoal Burner with the actor
The charcaol burner Bill Allonby chatting to Jack Woolgar playing Old Billy

Our polystrene coffee cups look so out of place. They were. How much had changed in the art of producing charcoal between 1973 and 1929 when Arthur Ransome set our story?

Charcoal Burners during the filming of Swallows and Amazons
John Franklin-Robbins playing Young Billy, chatting to Norman Allonby of Bandrake Head  during a coffee break on set ~ photo: Daphne Neville

The Call Sheet for the day scheduled Scene 110 with the adder, but I recorded in my diary that we had completed that the previous day.  I must have meant my part in it.  The Director, Claude Whatham, was probably using the time to pick-up the shots of Young Billy working with his dampened fire.

Much later, when I asked Claude what made a good director he said, ‘You need to use your time well.’  This probably makes you an employable director, but I think Claude had other assets. We all adored him for one thing, and would do anything for him. We knew that he wanted us to keep going, no matter what happened. Susan really did leave her basket behind at the Charcoal Burners’. When Old Billy called her, she was truly taken aback and sweetly ran to collect it. It’s something that rings true, a natural quality that Claude brought to the film.

The interior of the hut must have been tricky to light. I think we had a real fire burning in the stone grate and Claude was keen for the scene to be atmospherically smoky. The wood smoke itself was fine but the crew were working with smoke guns, since they were more directional and considered more controllable. The acrid fumes produced by their oil canisters choked me but Jack Woolgar was absolutely stoic and kept our attention. I loved drawing with the charcoal. I wish I had drawn him.  Apart from the amount of smoke it was lovely inside the mossy wigwam. I could have stayed there quite happily. It was nice and warm.

Charcoal Burners Movie Call Sheet ~ Swallows and Amazons

Albert Clarke, our Stills Photographer, later gave us his unwanted contact sheets to stick in the scrap-books we kept of the filming. Amongst them are these photos he took of the Producer Richard Pilbrow with the charcoal burners of Ickenthwaite Forest.

Audrey Steeley told me that the older chacoal burner is Jack Allonby who lived at Spark bridge, a well known local character. However, Myles Dickinson has written in to say that it is Norman Allonby, Jack’s brother, who lived at Bandrake Head.  Audrey thinks the other chap could be Bill Norris, who was an authority on charcoal burning and also from Spark bridge, but that the picture doesn’t look much like him.  I think it might be Bill Allonby, Jack’s brother. Does anyone else remember them?

The Real Charcoal Burners 2
John Franklin-Robbins as Young Billy with Sophie Neville, Sten Grendon & the adder. Richard Pilbrow and the charcoal burner. John Franklin-Robbins & Jack Woolgar chat to the real charcoal burner, Bill Allonby.

As the Call Sheet decreed, we were scheduled to to move to Bank Ground Farm after lunch to film the receiving of despatches, a scene I look forward to describing in the next post.

You can see photos and read more in ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons(1974)’, available online here

'The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)'

Visiting the Charcoal Burners ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on 13th June 1973

The Charcoal Burners - Swallows and Amazons
Jack Woolgar as Old Billy with Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton,   Sophie Neville and Stephen Grendon ~ photo: Daphne Neville

‘Let’s just run though our lines, shall we?’ Old Jack Woolgar said, in a gentle Cumbrian accent. We were waiting about for some reason, so did just that, sitting by a wood stack.  Titty had a lot to say in the scene where we went to see the charcoal burners, but the dialogue was straight out of Arthur Ransome’s book so I it was easy. Or I thought so, until there was Old Billy saying – ‘Ehh, then you’ll be climbing into that mini-bus and off back to Ambleside, I expect.’

I thought, ‘That’s not in Swallows and Amazons! That’s real life.’

‘Eee, lass! You forgot to come in on your cue.’ I had too. I was so entranced by Old Billy, so lulled by the music of his voice, that I had simply gone on listening to him.

Jack Woolgar, Simon West, Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon and Suzanna Hamilton with Director Claude Whatham. Sue Merry is seated in the foreground with her continuity sheets ~ photo: Daphne Neville

We were still having problems with the weather. It was grey at first but grew to be a bright sunny day in Cumbria, cold with a gale blowing that was knocking the tops of the trees about and making life hard for Graham Ford, the Sound Recordist. This was all a bit difficult as it was meant to be dead calm. ‘It’s blowing up a bit,’ Old Billy put in. I don’t think anyone watching would have noticed if we’d left it at that but our hair was blowing about so madly that Young Billy had a few savage-like words with John about why we weren’t sailing. These are not in the book.

I think Mum did well with her photographs. She only had a small camera but she tried to capture what it was like to be on set, involved in the filming, rather than just focusing on the story. Because her camera made a clicking noise she was only really able to take shots when we were in rehearsal, wearing our Harry Potter-like nylon tracksuit tops, me in a sun-hat, the rest of the crew wrapped up in their warm jackets.

When I watch this scene I notice one technical bit about acting that is never talked about much. You have to hit your mark. Without this being obvious. No looking down. Your mark is the exact position established when the shot is lined up.  The camera focus, certainly back then, required actors to be consistent and hit the same position in each take as established in the rehearsal. Look at the opening shot at the top of this post and you can see it is carefully composed – a nice triangle, with all our faces in vision. The important bit – Roger holding my hand is not masked. Do I spoil the magic if I say we are standing on our marks?

If feet can’t be seen a piece of tape was usually placed on the floor in front of the actors’ toes to provide an mark. I used to use different coloured tape for different artistes later on when I was an assistant director. We used chalk on tarmac roads. Tape didn’t stick to most of the locations on Swallows and Amazons  so we used sticks or tree bark, taking quite a pride in disguising  them. Sometimes a box would be placed on the ground so we could feel it and not have to look down. This could not be done at the charcoal burners’. We all came out of their dark wigwam blinking in the bright sunlight shuffling onto our secret marks, Suzanna glancing down quickly to check she was on her’s.

Filming the scene ~ Sound Recordist Robin Gregory in the foreground, Grip David Cadwallader. Actors Jack Woolgar, Simon West and Sophie Neville, Sue Merry seated, Director Claude Whatham kneeling, Boom Swinger Gay Lawley Wakelin, Bobby Sitwell with Camera Operator Eddie Collins ~ photo: Chaperone Daphne Neville

My diary read:

13th June - My diary page one

13th June - My Diary page two

13th June - My Diary page three

John Franklyn-Robbins as Young Billy with Director Claude Whatham. Prop men stand in the back ground with the real charcoal burner ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Was the charcoal heap was a real one? I’m afraid I think, since that hole had to start smoking on cue, that it was constructed for us with a prop man called Terry inside with a smoke gun. I know he suffered rather from getting too much smoke in his eyes and had to be treated by the nurse. There was certainly a great deal of smoke around, which had a wonderful effect.

Charcoal Burners' Adder
The Charcoal Burner’s Adder

Sophie Neville at the Charcoal Burners
Sophie Neville looking at the adder with Stephen Grendon and Jack Woolgar

Molly Friedel watching Robin Gregory plant a microphone for the adder. Claude Wahtham is hidden by a reflector board, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville and Jack Woolgar wait on their marks while the real charcoal burner looks on ~ photo: Daphne Neville

We could all see the adder but the Sound Recordist wanted to hear her so he buried one at our feet. She was a lovely serpent.  Suzanna, who loves snakes with a passion, got close to touching it. She was very disappointed that you can’t see this in the movie. I was a bit scared. Ransome had added that frisson of danger – real life danger – there for us to see.

Jean Woodhouse wrote to say that, ‘I came to watch Swallows and Amazons being filmed. It was the charcoal burner’s scene. We walked down from our village Primary School (Satterthwaite) but the scene was actually just down the road from where I lived… we were all terrified re-the snake.’ She was about 10 years-old at the time. ‘…because I used to go up and down through the wood each day, I knew the real charcoal burners who worked in there and so that scene in the film has always felt quite special to me.’

Filming the Scene: Simon West, John Frankiln-Robbins, Suzanna Hamilton and Jack Woolgar. Designer Simon Holland sits in the foreground. ~ photo: Daphne Neville

One of the most magical things for my mother was meeting the real charcoal burners. They looked exactly like the actors playing the Billies. I will include their photographs in the next posting, as we returned the following day to record the scene inside the wigwam.

You can find out the name of the snake wrangler and read more about the filming in the ebook ‘The secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’

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