Tag Archives: childhood memories

A marathon reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ by Arthur Ransome

On Saturday 21st October, local  ITV News interviewed Griff Rhys Jones and myself at Pin Mill in Suffolk. We were taking part in a marathon reading of Arthur Ransome’s iconic book ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ with other authors including Libby Purves, Francis Wheen, Christina Hardyment, Julia Jones and Marc Grimstone. Ivan Cutting of Eastern Angles and Dan Houston, editor of Classic Sailor, also read chapters. You can read more about the event here.


~Pin Mill on the Owell ~ photo: Anthony Cullen(c)~

The story begins at Pin Mill where the Swallows – John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker, along with their mother and Bridget-the-ship’s-baby, are waiting for their father to take up a Naval posting nearby at Shotley. The four children didn’t mean to go to sea at all but somehow ended up sailing to the Netherlands in a terrific storm. I was asked to read the last chapter.

Griff Rhys Jones and Sophie Neville at Pin Mill 21st Oct 2017

~Gryff Rhys Jones and Sophie Neville appearing on Anglia Television~

The reading, which lasted nine hours, was held to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the book’s publication in 1937. It has been profiled in the magazine Classic Boat and on the BBC News website. The event was organised by Peter Willis of The Nancy Blackett Trust who spoke at length to Lesley Dolphin on BBC Radio Suffolk

Julia Jones, Francis Wheen and Sophie Neville - photo by Anthony Cullen

~Julia Jones, Francis Wheen and Sophie Neville with a photograph taken by Arthur Ransome when his yacht Selina King was being built. Photo: Anthony Cullen~

You can read about our adventures sailing Nancy Blackett this summer in Country Life magazine:

Sophie Neville profiled in Country Life magazine 12 July 2017

There are also photos of our cruise through the Netherlands on the Nancy Blackett Trust website, as well as a six page colour feature in Classic Sailor magazine. You can watch the ITV News clip here.

Nancy Blackett in Classic Sailor

Going back twenty years: Members of The Arthur Ransome Society alerted me to a BBC Children’s Television programme, which shows Griff Rhys Jones at Pin Mill in 1997 when he met Taqui Altounyan who knew Ransome when she was a girl. The Swallows were originally based on her family who learnt to sail in two clinker-built dinghies called Swallow and Mavis when they stayed at Bank Ground Farm (Holly Howe) above Coniston Water in the Lake District. I recently discovered the secret that Taqui was also the model for Captain Nancy in Ransome’s well-loved books. This episode also contains clips from the 1963 television adapation of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, with Susan George playing ‘Kitty’. Forgive the series titles – it is worth viewing:

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Meeting up with Peggy Blackett – from the film ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974)

Lesley Bennett in 1973

When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She can be seen here on location at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District.

For the last thirty-four years, Lesley has been living in the Netherlands. I met up with her for lunch at Schiphol Airport on my way back from sailing Arthur Ransome’s cutter, the Nancy Blackett, through the inland waterways of Zeeland. (Please see the last two previous posts.) I nearly didn’t make the meeting. A man had been arrested for planting a bomb on a train just north of Middleberg, but the authorities must have acted quickly as I wasn’t delayed for long.

Lesley had brought along a blue file of documents and a number of black and white movie stills that she’d been given by Richard Pilbrow, the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on one of our last days in Ambleside after filming had finished. We could both remember them spread out on a table at the unit hotel so we could each chose the ones we appeared in. I had picked one where Lesley and I are sitting together, our hair bobbed in line with the 1930’s, I wearing a cream silk dress, Lesley in a dark top looking very pretty:

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming

~A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, published in the Guardian and other newspapers~

Lesley’s parents, who lived near Tonbridge in Kent, originally learnt that Theatre Projects were looking for children to take part in the film when the Associate Producer, Neville Thompson, wrote to their local sailing club. Lesley explained that her father, who was very well organised, kept a copy of the letter sent to the Secretary of the club in January 1973.  Plans were made for Lesley to be interviewed for a part with her younger sister Lyn, who sadly fell ill and couldn’t make the audition. The letter contains a mistake that might explain why Lesley ended up playing Peggy when she was thirteen years old.

Lesley got on well with Kit Seymour who ended up playing her elder sister, Nancy Blackett – ‘terror of the seas’. Both girls would sail well and enjoyed being out on the lakes. Lesley told me that the reason why she held her hands between her legs in this photograph is that it was so cold when we were filming on Peel Island.

‘Kit would fold her arms and I’d try to keep my hands warm.’ Although I wore a cardigan in this scene, Swallows had been cold too. I remember thinking that at least the Amazons wore knitted hats. Otherwise their costumes were simple short-sleeved shirts and long shorts with black plymsols, worn without socks.

~Kit Seymour as Captain Nancy and Lesley Bennett as Mate Peggy in 1973~

Lesley told me their hats had been quite a problem – not quite a full-blown movie disaster but a they caused consternation in Consiton. The first scene the Amazons shot was set in the garden of Beckfoot, the Blacketts’ house. Although it does not lie on the ‘Amazon River’ at the northern end of the lake, Brown Howe on the western shore of Coniston Water was used as the location and the crew set up the 35mm Panavision camera, along with reflector boards and enough lighting to bring sunshine to Westmorland. When everyone on the production was ready, Gareth Tandy, the third assistant led the Amazons down to the set wearing red knitted stocking caps – with no bobbles. Beanies were not quite what either the director or producer had expected. Lesley has a photo showing the great discussion that ensued:


~Director Claude Whatham, Producer Richard Pilbrow, 3rd Assistant Director Gareth Tandy, Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King, Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan and Associate Producer Neville Thompson with Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe on Coniston Water in May 1973 ~

In the end Claude Whatham shot the scene with the girls bare-headed, their hair blowing all over the place, even though it was meant to be ‘dead-calm’ in the story.  This looked natural as they were at home but they needed to look like pirates in every other scene.

~Nancy and Peggy running down to Amazon at the Blackett’s house Beckfoot~

Wooly hats with ‘longer ends’ were knitted locally at some speed. Red is not a good colour on the screen. I remember a couple of bright pink ribbed bobble-hats arrived when we were filming on Peel Island but they were deemed a complete disaster and rejected in favour of scarlet ones originally described by Arthur Ransome even if the colour might look a bit jarring on screen.

No one on the production knew anything about knitting or subtle shades of wool and Emma Porteous, the costume designer, was back in London. When the third pair of hats arrived we were all a bit worried about the fatness of the bobble-end, as they didn’t quite match the illustrations in the books, but no one knew what else to do. Time ran out and the producer was forced to compromise. ‘They were warm but prone to flop about,’ Lesley said, ‘and sometimes flopped forward, which looked a bit silly.’ I’d never noticed this but it was captured in one photograph:

~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett as Nancy and Peggy Blackett on Wild Cat Island in 1973~

Mum was given the pink version of the hats. She kept them for years but no one ever wore them.

To be continued….

 

 

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Call for poets to enter Lakes competition

I have been lying in the bath dreaming up a poem to enter this wonderful competition. So far, I have:

If you ever go for tea 

at Bank Ground Farm, you’re sure to see

the field where the Swallows waited

for the telegram that stated

they could go to sea.

 

IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN

has become quiet well renowned

as a response to Health and Safety

when adult natives get too hasty

or turn adventure down.

 

Did Arthur Ransome ever think

that a feature film might one day link

Lucy Batty to a famous movie star

like sweet Virginia McKenna

while at her kitchen sink?

 

‘I put a paddlock on the gate,

obliging them to wait

until they paid a decent fee

to use my property

and reinstate

my lino.’

 

But if you stay at Bank Ground Farm’s

rooms in the house, the stable block or barns

you’ll be certainly

welcomed personally

with open arms.

 

 

I think I need to try I littlhe harder. Here are the competition details:

NorthWest News and Features

A new competition for poets is being launched at a Lake District farm with a strong literary heritage.

The owners of Bank Ground Farm, on the eastern shore of Coniston, are asking poets to write about their visit – or about Swallows and Amazons, the children’s classic story which is set in the area.

S&A tearoom

The entries will be judged by American poet and author David Whyte who is visiting this summer to run a residential school. Whyte, the Anglo-Irish poet now living in the USA, is the author of eight books of poetry and four books of prose. With a degree in Marine Zoology, he has traveled widely, including living and working as a naturalist guide in the Galapagos Islands and leading anthropological and natural history expeditions in the Andes, Amazon and Himalaya.

Swallows and Amazons, loved by generations of children – and adults – opens at a farm called Holly…

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What did you think of ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’?

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

‘I’ve just read this delightful ebook – thank you so much for writing it! I’m sure you must get messages all the time like this, but I hope you will deservedly enjoy hearing that I absolutely adored the film of S&A and learned your name, along with all of the other actors and actresses off by heart from the record, which I played and played.

LP of Swallows and Amason with vinyl record

‘I also had the jigsaw of the campsite scene, which I thought was an incredible piece of merchandising (and it was, for its day).

5664403747_508e9eb7d7_n

‘I read my first S&A book (Swallowdale, but never mind) in the summer holidays when I was 7, and rapidly recruited my best friend Linda to being a fan. One of our mums spotted that the film was on at our local cinema in Dundee that Christmas, but the next day was the last date it was showing – so we were collected early from our school Christmas party, so that we could make it in time. We were in heaven. The next Easter, our families took us to the Lake District (staying in Coniston) for the first of many holidays there. We remember “finding” Gondola submerged in the reeds, and sailing with our dads over to Bank Ground and seeing the two dinghies named Swallow and Amazon. We soon found a favourite picnic on the shore close to Peel Island, and in later years, my dad and I rowed over to the Island in a rubber dinghy, which was tremendously exciting. Fascinating to hear about the artificial shingle beach!

I was interested to read that one of your qualifications for getting the job was that you could row, and that you’d practised at home in a Thames Skiff.  Many thanks again for giving me such a delightful film to immerse myself in as a child. Helena Smalman-Smith

Fan letter for Swallows & Amazons -

‘We love your book and tales of filming.’  Love Ambleside – on Twitter

‘…the girls adore your film of Swallows and Amazons. In fact, I fear it is thanks to your film rather than the book that my Swallows and Amazons camping weekend was full to bursting. I also have friends in Suffolk who would happily hot foot it across the country with their three children to hear you!’  Grainne Dennison (teacher and Ransome fan).

‘My daughter is 11 today & this is her favourite present!  Titty was always Moira’s favourite character from the books AND the film, she is thrilled!’

Fan mail

‘My daughter LOVED your book! She couldn’t help sharing gems & finished it in a few days on hols. Magic! My turn now!’

‘I have been hesitating to write, but I do want to tell you how much I enjoyed reading ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’. It made watching the film so much more enjoyable. I came to Arthur Ransome late in life, but I’ve read all of them, and have a complete collection of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adventures.’ Mark Cheng, Bedford

Puzzels

‘I really love the Swallows and Amazons movie. I actually went to see it at the pictures in London, with my family when it first came out, but I was only about 4 or 5 years old, so I don’t remember much about that day. But of course I have watched it many times over the years and since I have the DVD I make a point to watch it at least once every year. You are my favourite as you are so charming!!’ Robert Newland, Dorset

If you have a memory of the film, do leave a comment in the box below.

If you would like to write a short review on Amazon, here is the link for readers in the UK

A publicty photograph for 'Swallows and Amazons'

Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginia McKenna, Simon West and Kit Seymour gathered at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water

 

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Memories of making the original movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’

The phone in my office rang at about 6.30pm.

“Is that my little Titty?” a voice asked.

“Well…”

“Do you know who I am?”

I had no idea.

“I haven’t seen you since 1973!”

“It’s Jean!” It was Jean McGill ringing from Bowness in Cumbria. She had been our driver and the unit nurse on the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in the Lake District from May to July 1973, released a year later in 1974.

Jean our driver and location nurse operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

Jean McGill our unit driver and location nurse with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

“I’ve never seen the film,” Jean declared, “but I loved your book about making it.  It brought back such memories.”  I urged her to tell me more. “I remember when Suzanna Hamilton cut her hand whittling wood. It was bleeding like anything. I bandaged it up nicely but the director was horrified and made me take the dressing off again.”  I think this was when we were in the middle of filming on Peel Island. The accident put an end to our wood carving hobby, which was a shame. We’d been using a Swiss Army knife to make our own bows and arrows with Bob Hedges the prop man.

Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne and the call sheet for the next day ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Ronnie Fraser outside the dining bus on location with a paper cup of champagne

” You children persuaded me to go out to dinner with Ronnie Fraser! Why I went, I haven’t the foggiest. He was a rough character – very coarse.” Ronald Fraser was the movie actor playing Captain Flint. “I used to have to drive him to the local hotel in the mornings and order champagne to sober him up.”

“How would champagne have helped to sober him?”

“I don’t know. He told me it would.”

“I think he’d been divorced for a while at the time.”

“I wouldn’t have married him in the first place,” Jean assured me.

Terry Smith and Jean McGill on Derwentwater

Terry Smith wearing the safety officer’s wetsuit with unit nurse and driver Jean McGill

Jean had been taken on as the unit nurse after the first nurse proved rather out of her depth. I thought she was a State Registered Nurse but she corrected me. She had 26 years experience in nursing becoming a hospital sister but was never an SRN. “I was a driver for Browns (of Ambleside)” and as such was paid to work on the film. “I wasn’t paid to be the unit nurse. It didn’t matter, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

I only found out recently that my mother hadn’t been paid to be a chaperone either, despite the responsibility as well as her legal obligations. It was hardly a big budget movie. Like Jean, she was simply thanked with a bouquet of flowers at the end of the filming.

Jean was one of the few local people who worked on the film throughout the seven weeks we were on location. Her local knowledge made all the difference as she knew the roads well, took short cuts to avoid the traffic and knew the best swimming spots when the weather warmed up.

A Day Off in Blackpool

Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville (kneeling) Blackpool, 1973

I reminded Jean about the early 1970s – what we ate and how we dressed.  ” I bought a pair of jeans for the first time in my life. It was so hot that I changed into shorts while we were on set. You children took the jeans and stitched a big red heart on the backside.” There was a craze for adding embroidered patches to denim clothing. These were expensive to buy but we persuaded to Sten Grendon’s mother to make red hearts for everyone’s jeans. “It made walking through Ambleside very embarrassing.” Jean sounded as if she was still recovering from the indignity 43 years later. “It mucked me up!”

Jean went on to drive for Mountain Goat Tours in Cumbria and worked in a doctor’s surgery before becoming a registrar for ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’. “I’m a coffin-kicker now,” Jean told me cheerfully. She never worked on another film but kept a copy of the original screenplay and other memorabilia.

Not long after I spoke to her a brown paper package arrived in the post.  It contained an envelope with the writing,

FOR THE ATTENTION OF TITTY

‘Still looking for the photographs. Will send to you when I find them. 43 years old?  It was this tatty when I got same! Jean.’

And this is what the envelope contained:

Original Screenplay of Swallows & Amazons page 1

Here is Jean in her red top talking to my mother in her Donny Osmond hat:

 

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Sophie Nevilleová

Albatros Media in the Czech Republic are publishing a hardback edition of ‘Swallowdale’ by Arthur Ransome, illustrated by the great Czech artist Zdenek Burian.

Sophie Nevilleova

The forward has been written by me, Sophie Nevilleová.

I was commissioned by Ondřej Müller, Fiction Program Director, thanks to an introduction by Petr Korbel, a feature writer in Prague. My somewhat daunting task was to introduce the well-loved story that comes with classic illustrations.  I took the opportunity to recommend that readers book a holiday in Cumbria, which has been so badly hit by the recent floods. It’s always exciting to find the actual locations described in a novel, particularly one you know well.

Do tell any Czech friends or collectors of Ransome’s books about this publication. Click here for  the sales site.

Albatros Media bookmark

Here is the English version of my contribution:

Of all Arthur Ransome’s books, it was Swallowdale that inspired me to go camping. I have since pitched my tent all over the world from Papua New Guinea in the Pacific to Patagonia, which I crossed on horseback. I once spent six months driving down through Africa, sleeping in a tent and using all I had learnt from this beautifully written book. Not long after this expedition, I started to draw maps in the hope that I that might encourage others to travel and explore the world as the Swallows did.

Back in 1973 I had the great privilege of playing the part of Titty in the movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ that has been translated into Czech twice. Throughout my life I have received letters from people telling me how Arthur Ransome’s books have given them direction in life, encouraging them to set sail and explore unchartered waters.

If you ever visit the English Lake District take the charcoal burners’ advice and keep a good lookout for adders but in searching for Swallowdale one thing is for sure, you will be walking in Arthur Ransome’s footsteps. He was taken to the summit of Old Man Coniston, the mountain known in the book as Kanchenjunga, as a small baby and rowed into the secret harbour of Peel Island, or Wild Cat Island as the Swallows called it, when he was a boy.

The people of Cumbria still welcome visitors, indeed you can stay at the farm known as Holly Howe and it is possible to take a boat out on the lake below it. Coniston Water is not an exact replica of the map in the book, but you can enjoy looking for Horseshoe Cove and the Amazon boathouse. Rio can be found on Windermere where you might also find the Peak of Darien along with native steamers. Titty would encourage you to let your imagination take you further and I am sure Roger would suggest you take a fishing rod.

Even if travelling does not appeal to you, ‘Swallowdale’ is such a vivid story that you will sail back in time to 1931 quite effortlessly. This classic book is a full of wonderful imagery from ‘black wretched thoughts…crowding in like cormorants coming to roost’, to potatoes being in bad mood. It is enjoyable on many levels. I laughed when Titty decided, ‘Miss Turner could hardly be dead if she was complaining of cold plates’ and was uplifted by her joy at discovering, ‘the most secret valley that ever there was in the world.’

I am so pleased that Albatros Media are able to bring you this beautifully illustrated edition, to read, enjoy and perhaps pass on to others. 

Czech skull logo

Swallows and Amazons flags on the back cover

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Arthur Ransome, his boats and the Altounyan family

‘Paddling with Peter Duck’, John McCarthy’s  documentary for BBC Radio 4, can currently be listened to on IPlayer Radio. It is about the boats owned by the author Arthur Ransome and includes extracts read from his classic book Swallows and Amazons by Kate Taylor.

While the broadcast is a portrayal of Arthur Ransome and his boats, it touches on his friendship with the Altounyan family who inspired him to embark on writing the series of twelve Swallows and Amazons books. It is easy to understand this when looking at their photographs.

Family Photo with donkeys

The Altounyan children with friends in Syria.

The girls seem to be Taqui, Brigit and Titty

Could it possibly be Arthur Ransome sitting on the right? He visited the family in Syria in 1932, when he must have been about forty-eight, but was never known to have worn shorts, although it would have been exceptionally hot in the Middle East. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Possibly Arthur Ransome in bow of Peter Duck the boat he took to Syria

Is this Arthur Ransome ? sitting on the bow of Peter Duck in Syria, the chap wearing the same hat and clothes as in the photo above? He took this  dinghy out to Syria as a gift for the Altounyan  children and wrote his novel Peter Duck while he and his wife Evgenia were  staying with the family in Aleppo.

Possibly Arthur Ransome in the Altounyan's dinghy Beetle II on Amouk in Syria

Possibly Arthur Ransome sailing Beetle II the Altounyans’ gunter-rigged dinghy at Amouk in Syria

Dr Ernest Altounyan 1935

Ransome’s friend Dr Ernest Altounyan in 1935

Dora Altounyan 1935

Dora Altounyan (nee Collingwood) in 1935

Was she the model for Mary Walker, the Swallows’ mother who grew up in Australia?

Roger at Dovedale

Roger Altounyan as a boy


Roger sailing off Peel Island 1978 by Asadour Guzelian

Dr Roger Altounyan sailing ‘Mavis’ on Coniston Water.

Sadly there is no sign of the original Swallow bought at the same time as Mavis by Arthur Ransome and Ernest Altounyan in Barrow-in-Furness, and later sailed by the Ransomes on Windermere.  Mavis was later re-named Amazon by Brigit Altounyan, the youngest of the five Altounyan children, known as The Ship’s Baby.

Brigit seated

Brigit Altounyan as a girl

Brigit married, becoming known as Brigit Sanders and later became President of The Arthur Ransome Society. The original lugsail dinghy Mavis or Amazon can be visited in the Coniston Museum in Cumbria. To read more please click here to see this previous post.

Ernest Altounyan sailing Mavis on Coniston

Dr Ernest Altounyan on Coniston Water with ‘Mavis’, one of the dinghies that inspired ‘Swallows and Amazons’

These unique photographs were recently found in Cheshire by the antiques dealer John Jukes who asked me if I could return them to the Altounyan family. This I have done and show them here by kind permission of Roger’s daughter, Barbara Altounyan. Please do not copy these photos.

To listen to John McCarthy’s  Radio 4 broadcast, please click here

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