Tag Archives: Coniston Old Man

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 locations can be found. I was interested to read that, ‘the lake is mainly Windermere with some things stolen from Coniston.’

This 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 ‘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 Amazons, 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 boat shed 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, Kanchenjunga, which the Walkers and Blacketts climb 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 I 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.

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Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland homes and places where you can stay

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.
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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.
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Peel Island on Coniston Water, which you can visit by boat.

Peel Island on Coniston Water, which you can visit by boat.

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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.
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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.
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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.’
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The rocks at the end of Peel Island where the Collingwood family traditionally had picnics

The rocks at the end of Peel Island where the Collingwood family traditionally had picnics

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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.
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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:
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Low Ludderburn

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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.

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The Heald, East of Lake Road, Coniston Water

The Heald above Coniston Water where Arthur Ransome lived between 1940 and 1945 ~ photo: Peter Walker

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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.

There are a number of books about the life of Arthur Ransome, not least his own autobiography published by Jonathan Cape from which I have quoted briefly here. I can recommend Arthur Ransome, Master Storyteller by Roger Wardale and The World of Arthur Ransome by Christina Hardyment – which has a photo of me on the cover.

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In search of Arthur Ransome’s locations ~ Part Two

Arthur Ransome must surely have fished here

‘Here we are, intrepid explorers, making the first ever voyage into unchartered waters. What mysteries will they hold for us?  What dark secrets shall be revealed?

We set off from the Lakeside Railway Station on the southern shore of Windermere to explore Arthur Ransome’s world full of excitement.  I was wondering how many signs of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ we would find, if we’d see the crossed flags that have become a symbol of the bestseller he wrote back in 1929.

Swallows and Amazons Tearoom ~ photo: Sophie Neville

We found the first sign the East of Lake road above Coniston Water. And there was Holly Howe where the Walker Family came for their holidays. It is so exciting to know that you can stay there too, or go for tea, and run down the field full of buttercups to dip your hands in the lake, just as the real Altounyan children – the real Swallows – must have done. We passed Lanehead, their grandparents’ house next-door as we drove down to Coniston. I gather it is for sale.

Bank Ground Farm the location used for Holly Howe

Coniston Old Man or Kanchenjunga, as the Swallows and Amazons called the mountain, was snoozing under a thick blanket of cloud but the challenge of climbing to the summit was for another day. Below the village, mooring up to the jetty at the Bluebird Cafe, was Ransome, the Coniston Launch. Peter Walker introduced us to the Captain who welcomed us aboard. He asked after Swallow the little ship from the film that we had re-launched from the very same jetty in April 2011. If you join The Arthur Ransome Society you can sail Swallow on Coniston this summer.

The Boatsheds at Bank Ground Farm

As we set off across the lake we could see Swallow’s boatshed clearly from the Coniston launch.  It has been renovated and repaired but the old stone jetty is still there, below the huge horse chestnut trees. I remember how cold the water was when we first brought Swallow out from the depths of that shed in May 1973 to shoot the opening scenes of the movie. Two sheep came down to see what we were doing. Richard Pilbrow, the Producer, gave me this black and white photograph that, unusually, shows Claude Whatham the Director setting up the shot. I was letting water drain from my shoe.

Finding Swallow

Simon West as Captain John standing in ‘Swallow’ at the stone boatshed jetty on Coniston Water with Ableseaman Titty and The Boy Roger. Director Claude Whatham knew how cold the water was that day in May 1973

The Coniston Launch can take you right down the lake to Wild Cat Island or Peel Island as it is really called. You can see the Secret Harbour best from a boat and imagine Titty trying to get out through the rocks in Amazon, in the dark, when she captured her from the terrifying Amazon Pirates.

We actually disembarked at Brantwood, John Ruskin’s House. It was here that the Altounyan children’s grandfather WH Collingwood worked as Ruskin’s private secretary. He painted him at his desk there. My niece has just graduated from The Ruskin School of Art in Oxford.

Peter Walker met us and drove us on down the lake to show us The Heald, a bungalow above the road where Arthur Ransome lived with his Russian wife, Evgenia and his dinghy, Coch-y-bonddhu. It was here that he wrote Picts and Martyrs Coch-y-bonddhu played the part of Dick and Dot’s boat Scarab. The original ‘Dogs Home’ can be found in the woods above the house. Rob Boden is very keen to restore it.

It was in the Grizedale Forest that we went to see the charcoal burners and met the real men in the process. And an adder. It was real too.

John Franklyn-Robbins, as Young Billy who is showing his adder to Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon, Jack Woolgar, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West at a location in the Grizedale Forest above Coniston Water

I looked back at the island where I spent so much of my childhood. It was difficult to imagine how a location catering wagon let alone two Route-master London double-decker buses could have driven down the winding East of Lake road. They parked in the field opposite the islands so the crew could at least eat lunch in the dry and we could have our lessons. The National Parks Authority had to ask the Production Manager to drape wartime camouflage netting over them. You must have been able to see the red buses for miles.

Sophie Neville on Coniston Water with Peel Island

The hat is a purple ode to the early 1970’s. My mother bought it at great expense in Carnaby Street. It is very good at keeping off the rain.

As you drive south you can look over the water to see Brown Howe, the house that we used as a location for Beckfoot in the film of Swallows and Amazons and shortly after, the Edwardian boathouse, which Claude Whatham used for the Amazons. I don’t think this was the one Ransome envisaged. His was at the mouth of the Amazon River – a reedy place. The pictures in the illustrations show a building with a low-pitched roof.

Peter took us down to a farm the south of Coniston Water where the real Ransome children spent their summer holidays. You can walk down the footpath they must have taken to dip their hands in the lake. And there I found what must be the real Amazon boat house.

The Slate Quay on Coniston Water ~ photo: Sophie Neville

Is this the real Amazon Boathouse?

To be continued…

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