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 told me that 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 on her way to Lakeside Railway station.
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 SL Esperance. She does look very like the first professional drawing submitted to illustrate Swallows and Amazons.
Arthur Ransome’s terse note reads: ‘The ass has forgotten the mast’. I went to see the Esperance when she was lying at the Steamboat Museum on Windermere in 2011. Built at Rutherglen in 1869 she is nearly 65 foot long with a 10 foot beam.
She did not always have such a traditional appearance. Roger Wardale kindly sent me this photograph showing what she looked like in the 1930s.
The cabin has since been removed from her rear end.
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.
I have no idea if anyone could film aboard her today when marine safety regulations are so strict.
Back in 1973, when we made the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the producer 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 during the final scenes of the classic film.
Was the Gondola so very different? Ransome had known the steam launch 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.
I arrived back from holiday to find that, following the ITV report, daily newspapers in the United Kingdom have been writing extensively about a certain inspirational boathouse on Coniston Water that is currently for sale.
The Times calls it ‘Ransome’s adventure playground’. The Evening Mail published a photograph of him I hadn’t seen before. The Daily Telegraph admitted that the Estate Agents have had more inquiries from journalists than buyers.
What no one has picked up on was the useful wooden jetty in front of the boathouses that appeared on Countryfile, Big Screen Britain and Country Tracks presented by Ben Fogle for BBC One.
Geraint Lewis of the Arthur Ransome Trust tells me that the wooden part of the jetty belongs to Lanehead. The old stone part belongs to Bank Ground Farm. So far as we are aware, the wooden part is not included in the Lanehead boathouse sale. Sealed bids had to be in by 4.00pm on 12th September. Peter Walker of Kendal tells me, ‘According to the local boatmen… the Lanehead boathouse has not been sold… prospective buyers have been put off by access problems.’ (See comments below).
The Battys, at Bank Ground, have bought a floating jetty/pontoon, which was used by the National Trust’s Steam Launch Gondola during the Coniston Regatta in May. Geraint says,
‘This was quite a feat, as the jetty was a lot shorter than Gondola, whose prow was well over the land once docked.’
He tells me that Bank Ground intend to build a new wood jetty if or when they get planning permission, suitable for more regular visits by the Gondola and Campbell the Coniston Launch. ‘Such a jetty would need to be “L” shaped, to allow rapid arrival and departure in deeper water’.
Do let me know of the latest news on this.
For those who do not know the historical background:
Lanehead is the large white house above Coniston Water in Cumbria, which was once owned by WG Collingwood. He worked as the personal secretary to John Ruskin who lived at Brantwood, just a little further down the East of Lake Road. Collingwood met the writer Arthur Ransome when he was a young man on holiday in the Lake District and invited him to stay at Lanehead.
Arthur Ransome became firm friends with WG Collingwood’s daughters Dora and Barbara. Although he light-heartedly proposed to both of them, Dora married a friend of her brother’s, a doctor of Armenian-Irish decent called Ernest Altounyan. He worked at the hospital his father had established at Aleppo in Syria where Dora joined him. They had five children – Taqui, Susie, Titty, Roger and Brigit who they would take to the Lake District every four or five years so that they could spend time with their grandparents. With so many in the family party, the Altounyans stayed at Bank Ground Farm, next door to Lanehead. Arthur Ransome joined his old friends, helping Ernest to acquire two clinker built dinghies so that they could teach the children to sail. One was called Mavis, the other Swallow. These were kept in the boathouse that is currently for sale, which then only had a short stone jetty.
When Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for the Altounyan children, depicted as John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Brigit, he set the opening chapters at Bank Ground Farm, which he called Holly Howe.
Roger Wardle, (see comments below) who has written a number of books on Arthur Ransome and has his diaries from the period tells me that there is no evidence that Arthur Ransome taught the Altounyan children to sail or that they even went out sailing in 1928/1928. He sailed Swallow alone until the weather got too bad and she was put away for the winter but the little boat obviously stirred his imagination.
The film Swallows & Amazons produced by Richard Pilbrow in 1973, used the Bank Ground boathouse and jetty as a location. John discovers Swallow in the boatshed on the lake below the farm where the Walker family are staying.
The children gain permission to sail Swallow and soon have her brown sail hoisted with John as Captain and Susan as Mate, with Titty and Roger registered as crew, whilst baby Vicky helps wave them off on their adventures. The rowing boat moored next to it was known as ‘the native canoe’. It was used by Mrs Walker, graciously played by Virginia McKenna when she rowed out to Wild Cat Island where the Swallows went to camp. They encountered two girls who became know as the Amazon Pirates, after their own gaff-rigged dinghy that flew the Jolly Roger.
You can read the first section of my ebook on the making of Swallows and Amazons for free here:
May 1973 marked the 40th Anniversary of the filming of the original film ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974). This was marked by a number of events:
Dulwich Film screened ‘Swallows & Amazons’(1974), produced by Richard Pilbrow and directed by Claude Whatham. The film was introduced by Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton and Sten Grendon who played the Swallows. They answered questions about how it was made after the screening at the Michael Croft Theatre.
Michael Croft founded the National Youth Theatre. One of his students was Simon Ward, who went on to star as James Herriot in the film version of‘All Creatures Great and Small’, which Claude Whatham directed in 1974 after finishing ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Sophie Neville was invited to watch the filming in Yorkshire, meeting Anthony Hopkins and members of the cast and crew who had worked on Swallows & Amazonsin 1973. Brenda Bruce played Mrs Harbottle and Wilfred Josephs composed the music, Terry Needham was the Location Manager and Ronnie Cogan the Hairdresser.
‘I didn’t meet James Herriot until I worked in production at the BBC on Russell Harty in 1982. He was charming – an incredibly confident man. I don’t remember his wife being interviewed but she came with him to the studio and struck me as being terribly nice. She wore a proper dress, which is more than could be said for anyone else in the Green Room.’
Sophie Neville gave a 40th anniversary talk on ‘Filming Swallows & Amazons in 1973′ for members of The Arthur Ransome Society gathering for their AGMat Brockenhurst College in the New Forest. ‘Swallow’ , the dinghy from the 1974 film,was moored at Buckler’s Hard on the Beaulieu River for members to sail.
Arthur Ransome’s boat The Nancy Blackett ~ The Goblin in Arthur Ransome’s book ‘We didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’ was also the Solent for this event and for the Old Gaffers Yogaff regatta at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight
Meanwhile in the Lake District there were two wonderful events:
Ronald Fraser with Wardrobe Master Terry Smith being transported to the Houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater
My diary entry for 24th June 1973 is not exactly revealing. As it was raining steadily in the Lake District, I was given a second day off. ‘We had a quirte morning,’ I wrote. I am sure I needed one. After a heavy week’s filming I’d spent the official ‘Unit Day Off’ writing five end-of-year exam papers, answering correspondence from school friends and going to Kit Seymour’s thirteenth Birthday party. I must have been exhausted. Legally I was meant to have two days off a week. This was the first time it had been possible.
Suzanna Hamilton’s diary adds little more, but my mother was on set, as was a journalist from The Guardian, so I can tell you what happened. I can even tell you what the location caterers from Pinewood cooked that day: Melon, followed by roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, boiled or roast potatoes, peas and carrots with apple crumble or tinned peaches served with custard or evaporated milk. It was a Sunday. Suzanna noted that we had ‘salad for super’, her favorite food.
“The houseboat has been converted from a pleasure steamer,” wrote Michael McNay in the Features section of The Guardian, “the whole of the superstructure fore faked up by props, the cabin aft converted into a retired colonist’s sittingroom – African rug, flowery curtains, assegais on the walls, an ebony elephant with silver howdah and trappings, a walnut wireless cabinet, tall brass oil lamps, a pile of 78rpm records, a silver mounted cricket ball (presented to G.Gumbleton, 1899, for the highest individual score of the season), a chest, a writing desk and an ancient upright Imperial.” I have typed this up exactly as it was published on 7th July 1973.
By props, I don’t think Michael McNay meant pit-props. He was talking about the work of the design team headed by Simon Holland. Ian Whittaker, who later won an Oscar for set dressing, helped Simon to create Captain Flint’s cabin with one of the Prop men who is photographed here. Does anyone know his name? I think it might be Terry Wells. I expect the cane chairs and side table were being temporally stored on the roof when this snap shot was taken so as to make space for camera and lights. The gaffer and camera crew would have been in the process of setting up inside the cabin. Sound would not have settled in yet. How do I know that after all these years? I can see the recordist’s arm at the left of the photograph. I still remember his coat.
“Ronald Fraser, alias Uncle Jim, is tapping away at a book.” Michael continues. “Last minute panic: who can type out quickly a folio of copy to leave nonchantly in the roller?” That would have been Sue Merry, the continuity girl. The first scene was probably the one in which Uncle Jim is typing with the green parrot on his shoulder when a firework goes off on his cabin roof. I wonder if Arthur Ransome had ever been disturbed by the Altounyan children in such a way. Did he use an Imperial typewriter?
The film crew were on location on Derwentwater. “By now, the houseboat has been moved and moored to the western shore just off a promontory that is being faked up as one end of Wild Cat Island.” The houseboat, really one of the stars of the movie, was being played by a long-time resident of Cumbria, The Lady Derwentwater. A 56 foot motor launch, owned by the Keswick Launch Company since 1935, she returned to real life after the filming, rather like I did. She still carries up to 90 passengers. You can go out on her today.
My father, who is keen on steamboats, had been off to find the real houseboat that Arthur Ransome had in mind. Am I right in thinking this must have been the original Gondola? I expect she was too un-seaworthy for the production team to contemplate using in 1973. A reliable, water-tight boat that could be towed into the location used for Houseboat Bay was needed. Last year we went to see TSSY Esperance at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in Cumbria, which is another Victorian steam yacht invisaged by Ransome as a possible model for Captain Flint’s houseboat. It is a beauty but we did get a better view of the lake from of the cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater.
“The rain has stopped, the mist is lifting from the 1,500 foot ridge of Cat Bells. Fraser climbs gingerly aboard, awkward in co-respondent’s brown and white shoes, rosy make-up and moves into the aft cabin.” McNay continues. He is describing the main scene to be shot that day. “John, alias Simon West, is in a rowing boat 15 feet away… The problem this time is that the rowing boat has to remain anchored but look as though Simon is pulling steadily in towards the houseboat and the anchor rope has to remain hidden.” This must have been so that Swallow could be lined up acurately and remain in focus for the camera. It is one of the secrets of making the film that I have been asked about directly.
“Simon shows Claude Whatham how he’ll manage it. Quick rehearsal inside the cabin. Ronald Fraser on his knees by the chest folding a white pullover, catches sight of approaching boat, mimes angry surprise. Told not to jerk head so far back. Instead jerks eyebrows up. The cabin is no more than eight foot by ten and contains besides Fraser and the props, four men on a camera, one on lights, and the continuity girl.” McNay had not included Claude the director, who I know would have squeezed in since these were the days before monitors from the camera feed. And he was small. The sound recordist was bigger but may have just planted a microphone on the desk.
“On the small aft deck Pilbrow is for the next few minutes going to be redundant.” This is Richard Pilbrow, who now lives in Conneticut and I am sure will read this post. “He is a mild, inoffensive looking man producing his first film. He is 40… looks like your friendly local antiques dealer. He and Whatham are a good team: Whatham is slight, energetic and calm. He has time, even as a sequence is being set up, to ask the Press if they can see enough of what’s going on from the crampt aft deck of the housebaot. It’s a cheerful crew, (Denis Lewiston the DOP) watching clouds overhead with benign suspicion, taking light meter readings inside and out-side the cabin every 30 seconds.
‘Action,’ said quietly into the cabin.
‘ACTION,’ across the lake to Simon. The clapperboard shows 461 take 1. Fraser folds the pullover, looks up, jerks eyebrows in angry surprise, camera swings round to follow Fraser’s gaze through the window, Simon pulls on left oar, keeps the rope hidden.
‘Once more please. Stand by. Action. ACTION (461 take 3) …. CUT.’
There’s a consensus that the third take was best. Ten minute break while the suceeding sequence is prepared: Fraser rushes out on deck and tells Simon to clear off. That too is filmed in triplicate. The time is 12.45. They started work at 6.30, began filming at 12.25 and they’ve got maybe 45 seconds in the can. Everybody seems pleased.”