A newspaper report has just arrived from Nantes in France, where we arrived on 30th August in our shallop, the Royal Thamesisand Serena, a sandolo belonging to our rowing club, City Barge. As I explained in my previous post, we’d been asked to lead a procession of historic boats into the city as feature of their jazz festival – an activity holiday with a difference.
I’ve also been sent these photographs of the sandolo, showing our standing up oarsmen being applauded by the crowds.
The traditional French rowing boats taking part such as Fille de la Loire, were also admired by thousands.
Although a couple of gondolas took part, accompanying us some way down the River Erdre, I don’t remember seeing them in Nantes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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:
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.
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. The gardener’s cottage to The Heald has recently been rebuilt and is for sale.
In their later years, the Ransome’s loved at Hill Top Farm near Ealingshearth, where the views are stunning. It has been renovated but retains many of the original features.
It seems that not a week goes by without Arthur Ransome’s name being mentioned in the national press. Today the news is of Hill Top, the 17th century farmhouse at Ealingsheath, a tiny hamlet near Haverthwaite in Cumbria, where Arthur and Evgenia Ransome lived in the 1960s enjoying the lovely view across the Lakeland fells.
In the Epilogue to Arthur Ransome’s autobiography, Rupert Hart-Davis wrote: ‘In 1960 the Ransomes bought the little derelict farmhouse in the Lakes which they had rented for the last four years as a holiday cottage. Repairs and alternations took longer than expected, and it was not until November 1963 that they moved into their home, Hill Top, Haverthwaite, near Newby Bridge. They both loved the house, and the buzzards, redstarts and deer by which it seemed to be surrounded… ‘ He celebrated his eightieth birthday there, although by then ‘…he was confined to a wheel chair on the upper floor of the house.’
The present owners, Stephen and Janine Sykes, who bought Hill Top in 2012, have just finished converting the garage/barn-end into a holiday cottage. You can read the story in the Mail Online today entitled: ‘A home full of Swallows & Amazons…’ and, as they say, is a good base for exploring the locations described in book and used in the 1974 movie, which the Mail describes as, ‘A perfect adventure.’ I describe doing so myself in previous posts.
Stephen Sykes says, ‘ The picture used was actually of “The Pavilion” – a games room. It’s now impossible to believe, but it was converted from a very substantial former kennel (600sf).’
‘We demolished another kennel of 1,000sf (now a courtyard garden) and we’re just finishing the conversion of another to an office/store room! We’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money in “de-kennelling” Hill Top and returning it to domestic use! Needless to say, the guest accommodation, “The Cottage at Hill Top”, forms a self-contained part of Hill Top itself.’
Stephen added, ‘Cumbria Life are coming to photograph Hill Top today for a feature in their Christmas issue.’ The house certainly looks wonderful.
‘We’re just in the process of creating a website, in the meantime we’re marketing through Lakelovers.’ Stephen and Janine are more than happy to take direct bookings – please ring: 01539 531 452. The last three digits of their phone number are the same as in Ransome’s time. They offer a 10% discount to TARS members.
Stephen Sykes is an investment analyst and author of The Last Witness who studied astrophysics at UCL in the days when men were landing on the moon. He previously wrote to tell me that they have a number of old photographs and , ‘… a collection of most books by and about Arthur Ransome. Obviously, we’ve made it our job to learn much about the Ransomes and… visited the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds to look through Arthur Ransome Collection where there are dozens of photographs of Hill Top from the late 1950s to c. 1963. I now have digital copies of most of these, including a number of good quality colour slides of Arthur and Evgenia. I guess it’s rather unusual for someone to find a treasure trove of photos of their house from half a century ago and see how its then famous owner transformed it!
‘Astonishingly, the Lake District National Park Authority indicated that they had absolutely no interest in the Ransome connection and even moaned that if Hill Top were to become a “tourist attraction” it would merely create traffic problems!’ Stephen added.
When I last passed Hill Top with Mountain Goat no one else was using the lane that runs in front of the house even though it is not so very far from the southern end of Lake Windermere and the Haverthwaite Railway Station where the steam train comes in and the Windermere steamers dock.
If you would like to read about the making of the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, please click here:
A few years ago, on a wet but beautiful day in Cumbria, we set off on a quest to find some of the locations used in Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.
To my delight our journey started with a drive down through the streets of Rio (Bowness) and along the east shore of Windermere to the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway Station at the southern end of the lake (or Antarctica as Titty labelled the region). It was here that we spent our very first day filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in May 1973. I had not been there since.
We had a chat to the train driver who explained that they now run six journeys a day. From Haverthwaite, the steam locomotives run alongside the River Leven to Lakeside Station. From here you can take a native steamer back up to Rio (the Bowness pier) or to the Far North (Ambleside, which is the town at the head of the lake where we lived whilst filming in that long distant summer when I was twelve years old.)
Whilst we used engine number 2073 in the movie, this steam locomotive 42085 was built in 1951. It uses about two tons of coal a day but it utterly magnificent. The driver probably uses rather a lot of steam oil too. It’s a smell I relish, familiar since childhood days spent on steamboats. I remember it from the SBA steamboat rally held on Windermere in 1991, which I describe in Funnily Enough.
Curiously, Haverthwaite Railway Station looked cleaner and shinier than when we used it as a film location in 1973. I can only suppose it was still in the process of being restored back then, when Simon Holland our set designer cluttered it up with push bikes and luggage trolleys. Much to our surprise, the yellow taxi we were transported in during the filming was actually driven along the platform.
We climbed aboard the train and I explored, as Titty would have done, discovering people seated inside from far distant lands.
David Wood’s screenplay for the film of Swallows and Amazons, directed by Claude Whatham, opens to find the Walker family cooped up in a railway carriage compartment as they travel north for their holidays.
We saw this distinctive carriage in a siding as we steamed down the valley. Funnily enough when I reached home, later the next day, I came across a photograph on the internet I had never seen before. It was of Virginia McKenna, playing Mrs Walker, reading a magazine inside the compartment. Strangely it turned up when I Googled my own name – Sophie Neville.
The train is not included in Arthur Ransome’s book of Swallows and Amazons, written in 1929, but he does feature locomotives in his later novels, notably Pigeon Post. I clearly remember filming the BBC adaptation of Coot Club at what must have been The Poppy Line, a steam railway in north Norfolk when Henry Dimbley, playing Tom Dudgeon, jumped aboard the moving train and met Dick and Dorothea.
I jumped off the train at the Lakeside Station to meet up with Peter Walker of Mountain Goat. Peter has carefully researched and put together a Swallows and Amazons tour, exploring ‘High Greenland’, the ‘Forest’ and ‘High Hills’ to discover the places where Arthur Ransome lived. We set off in search of the places where he fished, wrote, and drank beer. It was fascinating – and proved an excellent way to spend a day in the Lake District despite the rain.
You can read more about the locations used in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) in the paperback ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ available from libraries, bookshops or online here.
There is also a similar ebook, entitled ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons (1974)’ available from all ebook distributors including Amazon