Tag Archives: National Trust

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

News about the Lanehead boathouse once used by Arthur Ransome

Daily Express Boathouse article

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 Daily Mail even included a clip from the film of Swallows & Amazons in their online article.

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).
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Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville below Bank Ground Farm on Coniston in 20031

Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville when filming ‘Countryfile’ on Coniston in front of the Lanehead Boathouse in 2003

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.

Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville on Coniston in 2003

Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton on the jetty in front of the Lanehead boatshed during the filming of ‘Countryfile’ at Bank Ground Farm.

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.

For more information on this please read Christina Hardyment’s book, ‘Arthur Ransome and Capt Flint’s Trunk’ (p.32-44) and Jeremy Collingwood’s new book, ‘A Lakeland Saga – The story of the Collingwood and Altounyan family in Coniston and Aleppo’. 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.

Claude Whatham at the Boathouse with Simon West and Sophie Neville

Director Claude Whatham at the Bank Ground Boathouse talking to Simon West and Sophie Neville when filming ‘Swallows & Amazons’ in 1973

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.

Simon West in the boathouse

John Walker discovering ‘Swallow’ in the boatshed belonging to Holly Howe, in the EMI-Theatre Projects film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974)

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.

Virginia McKenna on location at Bank Ground Farm ~ photo:Daphne Neville

Virginia McKenna at Bank Ground Farm sitting behind the boathouses when the film was being made in 1973 ~ photo:Daphne Neville

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Filed under 1973, Arthur Ransome, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Dinghy sailing, Film History, Lake District, Memoir, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, truelife story