When I look back on our lives as they were forty years ago I can’t help smiling. Whilst one is impacted by fashions that were too unfortunate to be revived – those collars we thought so groovy – other things haven’t changed at all. I don’t think sailing shoes or jean jackets have ever been out of circulation.
In July 1973 Claude Whatham, pictured above in his Levis, had my sisters and I in a series of three Weetabix commercials that depicted life in 1933, forty years before, when the Great British breakfast cereal was first launched on the market. There seemed to have been a wider difference between the thirties and children’s lives in the seventies than in the last forty years. But am I right?
Whilst we had never seen stocks of corn until we went on the set especially constructed for the advertisement, Percy Baxter had made them himself back in 1933 when he lived and worked on the Cotswold hills.
The Land Rover in this behind-the-scenes shot could the same vehicle used on a film set today.
Meanwhile, my mother was presenting her afternoon television programme for HTV West called ‘Women Only’ – dressed in her Donny Osmond hat. I would happily wear her suede coat today and can often be seen in the hat. The lace-up boots looked good recently with a Wonder Woman fancy dress outfit but were terribly uncomfortable. My sister still hasn’t forgiven me for giving them away.
As always, well made things of quality have endured, and those faithful goods from Land Rovers to Levi jeans, Puffin Books and Weetabix are, thankfully, still being produced.
I have been writing about life in England nearly fifty years ago, reflecting on how our lives have changed. Can you help me?
I’d love to receive comments (below) on how you remember aspects of growing up in the early 1970s. What did you eat then? Where did you go on holiday? What was it about 1973 that impacted you?
My husband remembers long hair, flared trousers and shirts with massive curved collars. I always longed for an embroidered t-shirt with wide sleeves or a cheese-cloth shirt but loathed the feel of acrylic jumpers and ribbed polo-necks. Stripy ones.
The food was pretty applauding. My friend Suzanna has just reminded me about the innovation of Italian cooking. Spaghetti was the highlight of our lives; a treat that we might have on Saturdays or for a party when red candles would be pushed into wine bottles and checked paper table cloths could enhance a Bistro image. However prawn cocktail was the pinnacle of popular aspiration, although us children preferred picking of the shells off prawns ourselves.
At parties you’d be offered chunks of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks stuck into a half a melon that had been covered in tin foil. I always rather longed for the melon. Homemade beer was regrettably all the rage, along with freezing your own runner beans. The process was quite fun (we enjoyed sucking air out of the freezer bags with a straw) but the beans were stringy and disgusting.
My family thought having to bring-a-bottle to parties was a great idea but we loathed the fact that cigarettes were smoked everywhere you went.
Colour televisions were only just beginning to arrive in people’s homes. They were terribly expensive. We had to make do with our crackly black and white screen, watching Blue Peter,Animal Magic and Tony Hart presenting Vision On with cartoons such as Marine Boy until Childrens’ Television ended with The Magic Roundabout just before Daddy came home from the Works in time for the 6 O’Clock News.
We were allowed to stay up to watch Dick Emery , Benny Hill, and ‘Titter ye not’, Frankie Howerd along with dramas such as The Onedin Line. There was one sit com starring Wendy Craig entitled Not in front of the Children, which of course we all wanted to watch. What influence did this have on our young minds?
Mummy worked for HTV West presenting an afternoon programme called Women Only with Jan Jeeming. She also read the letters on Any Answers?, which was produced by BBC Radio Bristol by Carole Stone. I was so impressed – amazed – to meet a female radio producer.
Our holidays were spent camping in Wales when we used an orange dome tent and yet slept on fold-up sun-loungers. Sailing was all about Mirror dinghies, which you could buy in kit form and make out of plywood. We couldn’t afford one. but in the late 1970’s Dad bought a fibre-glass Topper, which was the height of cool. He called it Earwig.
My family were very keen on taking home movies. Dad usually took slides when we went on holiday, which were viewed along with the supper-8 footage at Christmas time when he pushed the furniture back, took down a painting and projected our memories onto the wall.
What have I forgotten? Do post your own recollections, especially of sailing and camping in the early seventies, in the comments below.
“The Duchess of Cambridge showed she was fully prepared when she braved the snowy weather to visit a Scout camp in the Lake District today.” (22nd March 2013)
“Her Royal Highness, who is a volunteer in the Scout Association, joined fellow adult volunteers as they trained to work with Beaver and Cub Scouts at the Great Tower Scout Camp near Newby Bridge in Cumbria.
She used her training to help look after a group of Cub Scouts from Cumbria and Manchester taking part in a pack holiday event at the 250-acre activity centre close to Lake Windermere.
As part of their programme, the Cub Scouts will get a chance to try outdoor cooking, fire-lighting and tree-climbing under the guidance of The Duchess and the other volunteers.”
According to Claudia Joseph’s biography of Kate ‘Princess in Waiting’, the Duchess is distantly related, not only to Beatrix Potter, but to Arthur Ransome.
The Duchess is obviously fond of Donny Osmond hats. My mother wore one on location in the Lake District whilst filming SWALLOWS & AMAZONS (1974) . She can be seen here teaching Lesley Bennett, who played Peggy Blackett,to shoot with a bow and arrow for the scene on Wild Cat Island when the Amazons attack the Swallows who are occupying their camp.
Our Director, Claude Whatham took a shine to it and would put it on to amuse us, although in this instance he was wearing it for warmth, probably like the Duchess on Friday. Click on the photo above to see me wearing the original purple velvet, 1973 winter season designer version, bought in Carnaby Street. I wear it all the time. It is very useful in this weather.
Peter Walker has found more photos of the Duchess in Cumbria in the Westmorland Gazette ~ she was visiting a scout camp next door to Low Ludderburn where Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ about a mile above Blakeholme, the island on Windermere he originally envisaged as Wild Cat Island.
I am sure that as children we could be intensely irritating, especially when we were hanging around with not enough to do. Although we had found our lessons tiresome they’d kept us occupied and out of mischief. It was now a Sunday, right the end of the summer term and the red double-decker school bus was no longer with us. Neither was the large camera box that the crew put Sten in to keep him quiet.
Although the day was full of essential activity there was no major scene to focus on. It was the last day Ronald Fraser could be with us. Claude Whatham must have had vital shots to pick up so that the scenes set in the houseboat would cut together. It was probably just as well there was no dialogue to record. Ronnie, it has to be said, was a little the worse for wear. Although he managed to play the accordion as Swallow and Amazon sailed into the distance, Uncle Jim was still drunk from the Wrap party two days before.
Then, as a twelve-year-old I wrote:
“…now and again Captain Flint played his accordion to camera. They told us to lie on the floor. Ronald Fraser started throwing books at Sten. Four out of six missed him and hit me. One hit me in the face and the cover fell off. The others he hit. Then he threw all the parrot’s food over us. Plus the tin. ” Scandalous!
Perhaps I ought to explain that when the parrot’s cage was lowered into Swallow there was no parrot inside. Instead there were four children finding parrot seed that had made its way inside their costumes.
My father was not pleased to hear that Ronnie Fraser had flung books around the cabin, hitting me in the face. ‘They were valuable first editions!’
Our little ship still had much work to do. David Blagden was with us, making plans with Claude and Denis Lewiston to film more shots of us sailing in, what we hoped, would be sunny weather.
Claude was desperate to get the shot of us arriving for the first time at the Peak of Darien ~ Friar’s Craig on Derwent Water. He wanted to capture this just before the sun went down. Peter Robb-King, the Make-up Artist was insistent that the tans we had naturally gained over the summer be toned down. He had no help and preparation time had not been scheduled. Dabbing the four of us with a tiny sponge took ages. I don’t know why he bothered with my legs, as I really hadn’t changed colour, but he was a perfectionist. Mum kept saying that it was getting so dark no one would ever notice. ‘Who’s going to be looking at your legs?’ as Nancy Mitford’s nanny would have said. By the time we were ready the sun had set. Claude missed the chance to film this vital scene. Again. It was the second time we had arrived too late for it to be captured.
Did we feel silly travelling back to Ambleside in full costume? We were cheeky and full of beans one minute, shy the next. It is difficult to reach the balance between becoming confident and being over confident when you are twelve years old. But, we were learning, and we learnt a great deal on those days spent out on the water in the Lake District.
This home-movie footage my mother shot shows the actors and crew relaxing after lunch on the shore of Derwent Water in Cumbria. Suzanna Hamilton, Kit Seymour, Simon West and Sophie Neville wait for Ronald Fraser, playing Captain Flint, who walks down the jetty and leaves for his houseboat with hair stylist Ronnie Cogan and Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King. Sophie Neville can be briefly seen sitting in the motor boat wearing the yellow Donny Osmond hat. Daphne Neville appears at the end presumably having handed her camera to someone else.
Before Jean McGill arrived at the Oaklands Guesthouse in Ambleside, to transport us to the location, a letter arrived. It was from my Daddy who somehow must have found time to post a quick note while taking my sisters to school. We were, indeed, all looking forward to the wrap party to be held that evening. There was much to do before it started. Twelve scenes are listed on the Unit Call Sheet and it was pouring with rain.
Here we are – it was Ernie Russell who was in charge of the action and support boats. Does anyone know where he is now? The day proved difficult and wet, but everyone was in high spirits. It was the last day for most.
It was a great Wrap party, held at the unit hotel. Suzanna noted that it didn’t start until 10 O’clock. 10pm! Very grown up. It must have been the talk of Ambleside. Mum took off her Donny Osmond hat and wore a long high-collared dress in pink gingham. I wore the brown and black velvet pinafore dress Mummy and Daddy had bought me in Carnaby Street when we went up to London for my first interview with Claude Whatham. Everyone was kind and jolly. For a while the party revolved around us. We enjoyed the dancing so much didn’t want to leave, but it was evident that the adults wanted to start to play. As you can imagine, no one could persuade us to go to bed. Jean McGill saved the evening by organising a conga. Having led a sheltered life I had never danced the conga before and thought it the greatest fun. Luckily the Carnaby Street dress was well designed for the job. We conga-ed around the Kirkstone Foot Hotel with the entire crew. Somehow we ended up conga-ing into her mini-bus and were whisked back to Oaklands before midnight.
This clip shows Jean McGill (in red) with Sophie Neville (in blue tracksuit top) and Albert Clarke our stills photographer. Our Chaperone, Jane Grendon, is teasing Terry Needham, the second assistant director. Simon West, playing John Walker, stands by Derwentwater in costume. Neville C Thompson (in yellow shirt) smiles at our glamorous tutor Margaret Causey while Graham Ford and others get into a support boat. Actor Ronald Fraser walks towards the lake and waiting boat, followed by hairdresser Ronnie Cogan. You can see Swallow in the background whilst Jean McGill chats to my mother, Daphne Neville who is wearing her yellow, flowery Donny Osmond hat. She originally had a pink flowery version, which Claude admired (and wore himself) but it blew off and sunk to the bottom of the lake.
The boathouse at the Slate Quay where Arthur Ransome came on holiday as a child sits at the southern end of Coniston Water. How wise he was to write about the places, the culture and experiences that he knew so well.
As you walk down the foot path from the lane you come across interesting artwork, although it would not have been around in Ransome’s day.
~ Sculpture at Slate Quay by Andy Gormsly~
The boathouse came to be owned by Bridgit Sanders, nee Altounyan, who was the inspiration for the youngest of the Swallows Vicky, the ship’s baby, and went on to become the first president of The Arthur Ransome Society. She lived with her family in the house nearby, teaching her children and grandchildren to sail on Coniston Water. Roger Altounyan rented half the house after he had children and would take them sailing in Mavis, the model for Amazon, bailing like mad.
Whilst fish enjoy the reedy habitat small boys are reputed to enjoy the ‘Knickerbockerbreaker’ rocks that rise above what must be Swainson’s Farm at High Nibthwaite, featured in Swallowdale, which you can find by the road nearby.
We pressed on in search of more of the real places that made an impression on Ransome’s life. Although we had a very good driver this was not always as easy as one might imagine.
But I did find another representation of the crossed flags. Can anyone guess where?
~Kneeler embroidered by Jean Hopkins~
We drove through the gentle countryside south of Coniston Water passing a house called New Hall, once rented by Arthur Ransome and his wife, and on, climbing up past Gummer’s How and wiggling down to reach The Mason’s Arms, which I gather this was one of his favorite pubs.
Then, seemingly in the middle of no where, we came across the Holy Grail: Low Ludderburn and the erstwhile grey barn where Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’. He had a writing room on the first floor. Roger Wardale says he kept his car, the ‘Rattletrap’ in the wooden garage that you can see just in front of the building. It was private then, and is a private house now, but you can catch a glimpse of it from the lane that runs up and on, eventually taking you down to Blake Holme on Windermere, which he named as partly the inspiration for Wildcat Island.
I’ve always thought that Arthur Ransome must have been completly impervious to the damp, to cold and wet weather. I am not. By now it was raining so hard that my husband was wearing my pink beret, but we were still in good spirits.
It was not just British children who were saturated with the “Swallows and Amazons” novels of Arthur Ransome, as the review of “The Last Englishman,” by Roland Chambers, suggests (May 27). I grew up hundreds of miles from the ocean in Pittsburgh, wanting to be like Ransome’s characters. I wrote to him asking which of the English lakes was the right one. He sent me a postcard saying that it was “Windermere, with a few touches of Coniston, for the sake of disguise.” He ended with “You’ll be sailing some day!” and I lived on that.
So back to Windermere, and a long hot bath at Miller Howe, a lovely hotel that had a Jonathan Cape copy of Swallows and Amazons on the hall table. In the morning cloud was sitting on the high fells looking just like snow. I ran down to the lake to put my hands in the water, thinking, ‘This is the place for Winter Holiday’. But that is another book.
You can find maps showing these locations in the ebook of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ available from Amazon Kindle and other ebook platforms.
‘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?
As we set off from the Lakeside Railway Station on the southern shore of Windermere to explore Arthur Ransome’s world, I began wondering how many signs of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ we would find. Would we see the crossed flags that have become a symbol of the bestseller he wrote back in 1929?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My mother was very excited about meeting the actress Brenda Bruce who Claude had engaged to play Mrs Dixon. She had arrived on 10th June whilst we were filming the fishing scene at Elterwater where she found Claude keeping up our moral by wearing my mother’s Donny Osmond hat. I think he needed it for warmth. It was unexpectedly cold. I can remember being worried that Brenda Bruce would be chilly as she was only wearing a blouse and flip-flops. Now I understand that she ‘was of a certain age’ and didn’t feel the cold quite so much as skinny twelve-year-olds with opinions.
I shouldn’t have been worried about Mrs Dixon. She looked wonderful in the film – was wonderful – and very comfortable in her nice clean dairy. I had no idea that Brenda Bruce was so well-known, that BAFTA ~ the British Academy for Television Awards had named her Best Actress in 1963. “Yes, you do!” Mum said. “She was the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass.” She’d actually worked for Claude quite a bit and he trusted her to play a small part well. When I look back on Swallows and Amazons I can see that he made sure it didn’t become chocolate-boxy. You can tell by glancing at Mike Pratt’s costume. Mike Pratt who played Mr Dixon the provider of worms for our fishing bait, the lovely Lakeland colours of his garments contrasting with the harsh blues and reds of our 1970’s clothes.
What Richard Pilbrow and Claude Whatham did want to make the most of was the Westmorland scenery. In many ways they were making a landscape movie. I think what they most enjoyed was finding all the locations to put together Arthur Ransome’s imaginary lake as depicted in the end pages of Swallows and Amazons and I am often asked where the waterfall is. “It must be Niagara!” No, Sophie. It’s somewhere near Elterwater.
Kevin Burn sent me some suggestions with photos which made me feel pretty sure the actual waterfall is Skelwith Force. But Roger Wardale, who is an expert on Arthur Ransome’s locations, thinks not. “I don’t think it’s Skelwith Force which is more a series of rocky rapids in fairly level ground. I watched the film again yesterday and was reminded of the waterfall at Glen Mary (otherwise known as Tom Gill) the outlet for Tarn Hows dropping down to the Coniston-Ambleside road 4 miles from Skelwith Bridge.” So – any ideas most welcome!
What I can’t remember where Dixon’s Farm was filmed. The scenes set at Jackson’s Farm, Arthur Ransome’s ‘Holly Howe’ were shot at Bank Ground Farm by Coniston Water, but all I know about the location for Dixon’s Farm is that our tutor got terribly lost trying to find it…
Geraint Lewis of the Arthur Ransome Trust has written to confirm Kevin Burn’s theory about the location we used for Mrs Dixon’s dairy. ‘I had a long conversation once with Lucy Batty about her recollections of filming at Bank Ground in the house, barn, etc. She confirmed that they used the buildings shown as Tent Lodge Cottages on Google Maps – as Dixon’s Farm. That certainly seems to fit from the view of the lake and shoreline trees in the background.’
You can read more about the film locations and our antics in ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ available on Amazon Kindle and from all ebook providers: