Tag Archives: Coniston Water

Captain Flint’s Houseboat revisited

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SY Gondola on Coniston Water today

When people see the Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston today, in all her re-built glory, she seems rather plush to have been cast by Arthur Ransome as Captain Flint’s houseboat. The main reason for assuming that she was used as the model for the illustrations is because Arthur Ransome grabbed a post card of the Gondola and drew on it to give the first illustrators of Swallows and Amazons some idea of his vision. However Ransome’s biographer Roger Wardale tells me it was a former steamer on Windermere that he had in mind: the S.L Esperance. Ransome was known to have been spotted looking through her cabin windows and much admired her distinctive bow, designed to cut through cat ice as she went daily up the the Lakeside Railway station.  

Houseboat  bay in 1963

Esperance in Rayrigg Bay, Windemere ~ photographed by Martin Neville in about 1963

When I was first taken up to the Lake District in 1963 my father found what he thought was houseboat bay on Windermere and took this shot of a vessel that must be SL Esperance. She does look very like the first professional drawing submitted to illustrate Swallows and Amazons.

Stephen Spurrier's unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint's houseboat

Stephen Spurrier’s unused illustration of Swallow sailing past Captain Flint’s houseboat

Arthur Ransome’s terse note reads: ‘The ass has forgotten the mast’. Today the Esperance is lying at the Steamboat Museum on Windermere, where we went to visit her in 2011. Built at Rutherglen in 1869 she is nearly 65 foot long with a 10 foot beam.

Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

SL Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

She did not always have such a traditional appearance. Roger Wardale kindly sent me this photograph showing what she looked like in the 1930s.

'Esperance' in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.

‘Esperance’ in the 1930s when she was owned by Sir Oliver Scott.

The cabin has since been removed from her rear end.

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SY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in 2011

SY Esperance now looks more like this illustration – or could do. Although she has a setting for a mast the reality is that she has seven windows, whereas Clifford Webb’s illustration shows her with only six.

Clifford Webb's illustration of Captain Flint's houseboat

Clifford Webb’s illustration of Captain Flint’s houseboat

I have no idea if anyone could film aboard her today when safety regulations are so strict.

Claude Whatham discussing plans with sailing director David Blagden (in the white hat) and Richard Pilbrow on the aft deck of the houseboat with Molly Pilbrow looking on ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Claude Whatham took advantage of the larger cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater whilst filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973 ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Back in 1973 Richard Pilbrow was obliged to use the Lady Derwentwater, still owned by the Keswick Launch Co. She has quite a different stern from the illustrations but was licensed to carry 90 passengers, which must have allowed him to take a seventy-strong film crew on board. At least she was given a mast. You can envisage Ronald Fraser, as Captain Flint, angrily stamping out the firework on the roof.

One advantage of the Lady Derwentwater was that the windows of her cabin enabled the director to get a good view of the lake, which he made use of when Captain John rowed over from Peel Island to visit Captain Flint and pass on the charcoal burners’ warning.  She couldn’t be moved to another lake, but Derwentwater is surrounded by such dramatic fells that the director, Claude Whatham used this to his advantage. A postcard of Friar’s Crag near Keswick was used by Ransome to give his illustrator an idea of what the Peak of Darien was like, even though he had originally based this on the rocky promontory at Waterhead on Windermere. Roger Wardale tells me the Ransomes would sail there in Swallow and stop for tea before heading back south.

Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

Sophie Neville at the Windermere Steamboat Museum

Was the Gondola so very different? Ransome had known her since spending his own childhood holidays on Coniston, when she was in service.  While staying at Nibthwaite he became a good friend of the Captain, or so the story goes. Back in 1973 the Gondola looked like this – her roof too curved to run along, her bow rising up a little too dramatically to accommodate the foredeck of a retired pirate busy writing up his devilish crimes while his a cannon lies glinting in the sunlight, ready to fire.

Was this the houseboat Arthur Ransome had in mind? ~ photograph taken by Martin Neville in 1973

Photograph of the Gondola on Coniston Water taken by Martin Neville in 1973

To read more about Esperance, please click here

For more about the Steamboat Museum with a photograph of Esperance, please click here

To read more, from another perspective please click here

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Filed under 1973, Arthur Ransome, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Film, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie stories, Photography, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story

Captain John, Master of the Swallow, played by Simon West in 1973

Simon West and Sophie Neville on Peel Island in 1973

Simon West and Sophie Neville  as brother and sister on Peel Island in 1973

I had dinner with Captain John last night. It was extraordinary meeting up after forty years; a lifetime had whizzed by.

Tall, with dark hair, Simon West is no longer recognisable as John Walker but he looks back fondly on our time making the film of Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons in 1973, when we spent seven weeks of the summer term on location in the Lake District. To my surprise he doesn’t remember being cold at all. I claim that he was given a few more clothes to wear than me and had more to concentrate on. He was at the helm whilst I was a mere able-seaman in Swallow. He said that he hated it when she was wired to the pontoon and he had to pretend he was sailing.

BW Swallow about to jibe

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton sailing Swallow from Peel Island where Sophie Neville stands shivering on the shore. Was this shot filmed from a camera pontoon?

Simon thought that I probably remember more about the experience than he did because my mother was there, chatting about what was going on every evening and naturally re-enforcing the shared experience.

‘I must have kept a diary, as it was part of our schoolwork, but I haven’t seen it since. I’ll look in my parent’s attic.’ Simon thought that it was his mother who put together an album from the black and white photos that Richard Pilbrow gave us after the filming.

Simon West as Captian John sailing Swallow . Sten Grendon plays the Boy Roger in the bows

Simon West as Captain John sailing Swallow near Peel Island on Coniston Water. Sten Grendon plays the Boy Roger in the bows.

Simon said that he remembers more about filming the six-part BBC serial, ‘Sam and the River’, in which he had the title role in 1974. Much of it was shot on the Thames Tideway east of London. ‘Of course all those places have changed enormously since then, whilst the Lakes are very much the same. I have never been able to find a copy of that series, which is a shame. I’d love to see it.’ We can’t find a copy in English, but there is a version in German entitled ‘Tom und die Themse’  currently for sale on DVD here.

Simon’s own children grew up watching Swallows & Amazons, which is still broadcast once or twice a year on television. He said that when they went to see the Warner Bros. Studios in Hertfordshire where much of the Harry Potter movies were made he felt hugely appreciative of the fact that we had been out on location the whole time, rather than boxed up on a film stage, acting against a green back ground.

Director Claude Whatham wearing his American Parker coat, looking on as Dennis Lewiston and Eddie Collins line up a shot over Derwentwater at dawn

Claude Whatham wearing his American Parker coat, as Dennis Lewiston and Eddie Collins line up a shot over Derwentwater at dawn

Simon did remember the great Parker coats that Richard and Claude found to cope with the Cumbrian weather. So do I. My father bought one too. They were blue-grey and enormous, lined with fake sheepskin, their hoods edged with Eskimo-like fake fur.

‘They had recently come over from America,’ he explained, ‘And were a real innovation. Before that we just had tweed coats.’

‘And Mackintoshes. Dennis Lewsiton wore a blue Mac.’

‘Those dreadful nylon anoraks,’

‘That are back in fashion.’

‘The American Parkers are fashionable now too – all that fake fur around the hood. Uggh.’

Suddenly the cogs of close association clicked in. Simon tossed his head in a certain way that I recognised as his own expression of humour. He said that he was really pleased that Bobby Moore chatted to him at the film Premier at Shaftesbury Avenue.

‘Sir Booby Moore? Was he there?  Did we meet him?’

‘Yes.’

I’d totally forgotten.

Simon said that he had become very attached to his Parker fountain pen from Aspreys, engraved with the words ‘Swallows & Amazons- 1973’, that Claude Whatham gave to each of us as a gift after the filming. ‘Stupidly I left in the boot of my car when I was in Paris, aged about twenty-seven. It was stolen with a load of other things.’ I had lost mine too. I dropped it on a footpath somewhere in Durham.

‘What did you spend your fee on?’

‘Oh, sailing dinghies.  It was good to know I had £500 in the bank around the time I was heading towards the British Championships. You know, at first we had ply board hulls but the time came when I needed to buy a fibreglass boat.’ It was with this that he became the National Optimist Champion. We agreed it was money put to good use.

After the age of about sixteen, Simon’s family became interested in orienteering. Maps seems to have had a strong influence on both our lives.

Simon West as John Walker studying the chart at Holly Howe before the voyage.

Simon West as John Walker studying the chart at Holly Howe before the voyage.

Simon and his wife now have four grown children. ‘We are split down the middle: three of us sail, three of us do not.’ But every year he takes the family up to the Lake District to go fell walking, something they all enjoy very much.

If anyone sees a brushed steel Parker pen on eBay engraved with the words ‘Swallows & Amazons 1973’ please let me know.  I’d love to be able to return it to Captain John.

Here you can see Simon appearing in ‘Sam and the River'(1975). This is the German version entitled Tom und die Themse:

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Zanna Hamilton

Swallows & Amazons ~ broadcast recently on ITV3

Behind-the-scenes while filming 'Swallows & Amazons' in 1973

Behind-the-scenes while filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973

Swallows & Amazons was broadcast recently on ITV3.

If you would like to know more about how the film was made you can find the details on this site.

Do leave any questions in the comments box below.

They will be answered by Sophie Neville who played Titty.

To read about our first day’s filming at Haverthwaite Railway Station click here and keep reading.

Sophie Neville having her hair cut on location for the part of Titty Walker in 1973

Sophie Neville having her hair cut on location for the part of Titty Walker in 1973

Do you know what lake we were on in the photograph below?  We were busy loading urns of tea into a run-around boat to take out to the film crew who might have been on Cormorant Island. If you click on the photo you will get to the page of my diary, kept in June 1973, which describes this day.

Wardrobe Master Terry Smith and Sophie Neville in her costume to play Titty. But what is the name of the boatman? Doers anybody know?

Wardrobe Master Terry Smith and Sophie Neville in her costume to play Titty. But what is the name of the boatman? Does anybody know?

There are still many questions about the making of the movie that remain unanswered.

A journalist on Peel Island

Does anyone know the name of this journalist who visited us on Peel Island?

This shot was taken while setting up the scene at Peel Island when Captain Flint brings Sammy the Policeman to question the Swallows.  If you click on the photo you will find the photograph that the journalist ended up with. Titty’s hand is still on Captain Flint’s arm.

Making a movie is very different from watching one. Here is a record of Titty rehearsing the shot when she moves the camping equipment for fear of a tidal wave. It was a cold day on Coniston Water. The jersey came off when they went for a take.

Sophie Neville with 35mm Panavision Camera

Here you can see Lesley Bennett playing Peggy Blackett careening Amazon at Beckfoot. The same 35mm Panavision camera was focused on Kit Seymour, playing Captain Nancy.

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Lesley Bennett as Peggy: Claude Whatham directing the scene with Kit Seymour

The location used for Beckfoot and the Amazon boathouse can be found at Brown Howe on the western bank of  Coniston Water. If you click on the photograph of Peggy you can read more about what happened that day.

Amazon Boathouse

Kit Seymour playing Nancy Blackett and Lesley Bennett playing Peggy Blackett

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, David Wood, Diary, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Steam train Haverthwaite Railway Station, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Zanna Hamilton

For the forthcoming book ~

With thanks to Richard Pilbrow and Theatre Projects who produced SWALLOWS & AMAZONS (1974)

Copyright Sophie Neville

~ but please share with your friends ~

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To read the filmography posts about the 1974 film please go to ~ https://sophieneville.net/category/autobiography/

The Gondola on Coniston Water in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

The Gondola on Coniston Water in 1973 ~ photo: Martin Neville

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Dinghy sailing, e-publication, Film, Film Cast, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Kindle, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story