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.
One of the questions I was asked when we returned from filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973 was about the food. This could only properly be answered by going into considerable detail.
When on location, our breakfast, coffee, lunch and tea were provided every day from the back of a location catering van staffed by a couple called John and Margaret who had come up from Pinewood. My mother always referred to their van as ‘The Chuck Wagon’. There wasn’t perhaps as wide a choice as there is with location catering today, but good hot meals were produced on time, whatever the weather and wherever we might be.
If we ever filmed on a Sunday there would be a full roast meal. At other times they would enchant us with a choice that might include spaghetti, a dish that was new to England – or at least where we lived – in 1973. It was the kind of special meal that my mother would cook for a dinner party, served with a spoon and fork so you could swirl the pasta properly. As children we were allowed to go to the head of the queue so that we could avoid having to queue up in the rain. We’d take out plates to tables in one of the red double-decker buses. You could help yourself to knives and forks and paper napkins on the way in. We had to be careful not to get food on our costumes.
I remember when location caterers first started providing salad buffets in addition to hot lunches in the 1980s. It was such a relief not having to queue. Salads were not regarded as food for the working man back in the early 1970s but Suzanna thought otherwise. Indeed she would eat little else.
Despite the fact that Suzanna often only ate tomato sandwiches for lunch, the catering budget must have been considerable. The call sheet always seemed to specify ‘LUNCH for approx 70 persons’.
When friends came to visit us on location my parents were sensitive to this and bought a picnic, which was very much how we lived normally. This was always carried in a wicker basket and set out on a car rug, cold squash in one thermos flask, hot coffee in another. Triangles of processed cheese with ham and pickle sandwiches. No cool bags or bottles of wine. You couldn’t buy ready-made sandwiches from petrol stations or supermarkets then but if you went to a bakery they would make you a filled bap while you waited.
As anyone who has read Arthur Ransomes’ books will know, the Swallows were very organised when it came to provisions. Milk from the farm, buttered eggs, seed cake, apples, molasses (toffees) and grog – I loved it all. I wasn’t too sure about fried perch but the pemmican and potato cakes cooked by Man Friday with a great knob of butter were utterly delicious. And I loved the buns from Rio. We didn’t have peas to shell on the film. Apples must have seemed a realistic alternative.
Again we have to rely on The Mate Susan for details. Surely she was modeled on Ransome’s own efficient wife Evgenia? In this extract from her diary Suzanna mentions that Richard Pilbrow’s two children came to watch the filming. She knew Abigail from London.
Mum became worried quite early on that Suzanna wasn’t eating enough. The solution came when she was taken out to dinner at a restaurant where she was able to chose from a wide menu.
As a result Suzanna was often given steak for supper back at the Oakland’s Guest House while the rest of us had whatever was on offer, which was a bit of a swizz.
Suzanna was of course completely right about insisting on eating salads and fresh fruit. She chivvied, encouraged and begged both the caterers and Mrs Price for more and more fresh raw food. She loved strawberries. Virginia McKenna won her heart by bringing her two boxes of fresh strawberries when she was ill with tonsillitis at the start of the filming. These would have been early English strawberries and a great treat in 1973. John and Margaret managed to find enough for us all later in the summer. They were presented in a manner that would have pleased the men working on the film crew but Mate Susan wasn’t so happy about this.
I’ve included this photograph before but it provides proof that food was an important issue. Please note that Mate Susan is first in line, inspecting everything on offer.
If you would like to read more about what it felt like to appear in Swallows and Amazons, I have bought out a paperback: ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ for sale online or available from any library worldwide.