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Memories of making the original movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’

The phone in my office rang at about 6.30pm.

“Is that my little Titty?” a voice asked.

“Well…”

“Do you know who I am?”

I had no idea.

“I haven’t seen you since 1973!”

“It’s Jean!” It was Jean McGill ringing from Bowness in Cumbria. She had been our driver and the unit nurse on the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in the Lake District from May to July 1973, released a year later in 1974.

Jean our driver and location nurse operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

Jean McGill our unit driver and location nurse with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

“I’ve never seen the film,” Jean declared, “but I loved your book about making it.  It brought back such memories.”  I urged her to tell me more. “I remember when Suzanna Hamilton cut her hand whittling wood. It was bleeding like anything. I bandaged it up nicely but the director was horrified and made me take the dressing off again.”  I think this was when we were in the middle of filming on Peel Island. The accident put an end to our wood carving hobby, which was a shame. We’d been using a Swiss Army knife to make our own bows and arrows with Bob Hedges the prop man.

Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne and the call sheet for the next day ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Ronnie Fraser outside the dining bus on location with a paper cup of champagne

” You children persuaded me to go out to dinner with Ronnie Fraser! Why I went, I haven’t the foggiest. He was a rough character – very coarse.” Ronald Fraser was the movie actor playing Captain Flint. “I used to have to drive him to the local hotel in the mornings and order champagne to sober him up.”

“How would champagne have helped to sober him?”

“I don’t know. He told me it would.”

“I think he’d been divorced for a while at the time.”

“I wouldn’t have married him in the first place,” Jean assured me.

Terry Smith and Jean McGill on Derwentwater

Terry Smith wearing the safety officer’s wetsuit with unit nurse and driver Jean McGill

Jean had been taken on as the unit nurse after the first nurse proved rather out of her depth. I thought she was a State Registered Nurse but she corrected me. She had 26 years experience in nursing becoming a hospital sister but was never an SRN. “I was a driver for Browns (of Ambleside)” and as such was paid to work on the film. “I wasn’t paid to be the unit nurse. It didn’t matter, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

I only found out recently that my mother hadn’t been paid to be a chaperone either, despite the responsibility as well as her legal obligations. It was hardly a big budget movie. Like Jean, she was simply thanked with a bouquet of flowers at the end of the filming.

Jean was one of the few local people who worked on the film throughout the seven weeks we were on location. Her local knowledge made all the difference as she knew the roads well, took short cuts to avoid the traffic and knew the best swimming spots when the weather warmed up.

A Day Off in Blackpool

Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville (kneeling) Blackpool, 1973

I reminded Jean about the early 1970s – what we ate and how we dressed.  ” I bought a pair of jeans for the first time in my life. It was so hot that I changed into shorts while we were on set. You children took the jeans and stitched a big red heart on the backside.” There was a craze for adding embroidered patches to denim clothing. These were expensive to buy but we persuaded to Sten Grendon’s mother to make red hearts for everyone’s jeans. “It made walking through Ambleside very embarrassing.” Jean sounded as if she was still recovering from the indignity 43 years later. “It mucked me up!”

Jean went on to drive for Mountain Goat Tours in Cumbria and worked in a doctor’s surgery before becoming a registrar for ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’. “I’m a coffin-kicker now,” Jean told me cheerfully. She never worked on another film but kept a copy of the original screenplay and other memorabilia.

Not long after I spoke to her a brown paper package arrived in the post.  It contained an envelope with the writing,

FOR THE ATTENTION OF TITTY

‘Still looking for the photographs. Will send to you when I find them. 43 years old?  It was this tatty when I got same! Jean.’

And this is what the envelope contained:

Original Screenplay of Swallows & Amazons page 1

Here is Jean in her red top talking to my mother in her Donny Osmond hat:

 

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Arthur Ransome reading on BBC Radio Cumbria

Peter Walker with Sophie Neville and the locomotive

Peter Walker with Sophie Neville at Lakeside Station on Lake Windermere

Peter Walker has just written from Kendal to tell me that Arthur Ransome could be heard on BBC Radio Cumbria yesterday afternoon.

A newly cleaned up archive recording of the author reading from his classic book on fishing ‘Rod and Line’ in 1956 can be heard on BBC I-player for the next five days. Please go 25 minutes into Emma Borthwick’s programme for the item recorded by Jennie Dennett at Hill Top, the Ransome’s house above Haverthwaite, which the new owners, Stephen Sykes and his wife Janine, are opening for Bed and Breakfast.

BBC Radio Cumbria at 17.25 on 15th August 2013

 

DSCF9400

Slate Quay below High Nibthwaite at southern end of Coniston Water where Arthur Ransome learnt about fish as a child on holiday in Cumbria.

Peter Walker’s excellent ‘Swallows and Amazons’ tour gives one an insight and understanding of Arthur Ransome’s life in the Lake District. For more information please click here.

Sophie with the Mountain Goat

The Mountain Goat bus built for explorers. It enables you to look out over the dry stone walls of Cumbria as you travel along.

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In search of the real ‘Swallows and Amazons’ ~ Part Three

Sophie Neville at the real Amazon Boathouse

~Sophie Neville at the real Amazon boathouse~

The boathouse at the Slate Quay where Arthur Ransome came 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.

Sophie and Mr Gormely

~ 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. 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.

Coniston Water

~Coniston Water~

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.

'Cows blocking the road' ~ photo by Wendy Willis

But I did find another representation of the crossed flags. Does anyone know where?

Arthur Ransome's symbol

~Kneeler embroidered by Jean Hopkins~

We drove through the gentle countryside south of Coniston Water passing 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.

 The barn where Arthur Ransome wrote 'Swallows and Amazons'

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.

Foxgloves in the Lake District

In a recent letter to The New York Times Frank Phelan from Albuquerque wrote to say,

  • 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.

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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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In search of our old film locations

Peel Island on Coniston Water ~ photo: Sophie Neville 2012

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 Haverthwaite Railway Station at the southern end of the lake (or Antarctica as Titty labeled the region). It was here that we spent our very first day filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ back in 1973. I had not been there since.

The driver of the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Steam locomotive

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.)

Talking to the train driver just as we did in 1973

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.

Steam Locomotives Forever!

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.

Lakeside and Haverthwaite Steam Railway

We climbed aboard the train and I explored, as Titty would have done, discovering people seated inside from far distant lands.

Inside the carridge of the Lakeside and Haverthwaite train

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.

With Virginia McKenna at the Haverwaite Railway Station

Viginia McKenna at the Haverthwaite Railway Station in Cumbria soon after it re-opened in May 1973. Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton, Lesley Bennet, Kit Seymour and Sophie Neville are with her. The carridge with compartments is in the background ~ photo: Daphne Neville

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.

Virginia McKenna playing Mary Walker, mother of the Swallows in the EMI feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ made in 1973

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.

Peter Walker of Mountain Goat with Sophie Neville at Lakeside Station, Windermere.

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.

'Native shipping'

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