Titty was the name of an imaginative and ‘highly original’ little girl who Arthur Ransome first got to know in the Lake District when she was aged eight. I met her niece Barbara Altounyan recently. She was most amused that I had once played her Aunt Titty.
~Sophie Neville playing Titty Altounyan in the 1974 film ‘Swallows & Amazons’. Official photograph taken a Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water copyright: StudioCanal~
I’d brought Barbara some long lost family photographs that included some of Titty’s wedding in Aleppo. They are beautiful.
Titty on the arm of her father, Dr Ernest Altounyan in Aleppo, 1954
Titty on her wedding day with her husband Melkon Guzelian, her sister-in-law, her father Ernest Altounyan, her mother Dora and brother Roger, far right. You can also see Roger, Ernest and Dora below, with Roger’s wife standing far right.
There is also a more informal shot.
‘Don’t you want to know about Titty?’ Barbara asked me. ‘She was a very detailed person and quite a perfectionist.’ I knew she was a wonderful artist who had studied under Henry Moore at the Chealsea School of Art, but was unwilling to ever attempt to sell her work. I was also told she also had long legs. I only hope that I have represented her well.
Titty Altounyan at her sister Brigit’s wedding to John Sanders in 1953
(NB: Ransome did not write ‘Swallows and Amazons’ while on holiday on Coniston Water as was stated in the programme. To see a photograph of Low Ludderburn, the house above Windermere where Arthur Ransome lived and wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ please click here and scroll down.)
Dr Bill Frankland with Sophie Neville at Drapers’ Hall
Once Alexander Fleming’s clinical assistant, Dr Bill Frankland was still working as an allergist at the age of 103, ‘I have my first patient at 9.00am tomorrow morning.’ His recent MBE is apparently a good sign that he has many good works still to perform. You may have seen him on television today.
Dr Frankland and I are both Liverymen of the Worshipful Company of Drapers, so find ourselves seated together in all sorts of places from St Paul’s Cathedral to a bus heading for Romford. Always chatty and full of enthusiasm, Bill is a source of endless interesting stories and has become the historical adviser on my next book, ‘Makorongo’s War’. He gave me detailed insights on WWII, when he served as a medical officer in the Far East, becoming a PoW to the Japanese after Singapore fell. To my astonishment I found myself noting down the actual dialogue used in PoW camps. He could remember the exact words used by the Japanese. I was not be surprised to see he’d been invited to the premiere of ‘The Railway Man’, the movie of Eric Lomax’s wartime experience starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. He also attended the 70th Anniversary VJ Day memorial at Horse Guards Parade with other British and Commonwealth veterans.
Bill grew up in the Lake District with his identical twin brother, who sadly died some time ago. He was a good friend of Roger Altounyan and knew his sister Titty. Along with their other three siblings, Taqui , Susie and Brigit, they had been models for the Walker family in Arthur Ransome’s book ‘Swallows and Amazons’. After he began working as an allergist, Bill became a colleague of Roger who developed the Intal spin-inhaler to relieve asthmatic symptoms.
Bill is still amused by the fact that I played the part of Titty in the 1974 feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ as a child of twelve, delighted that I was able to introduce him to Nick Barton, the producer of the 2016 movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, now on DVD and released in the US by Samuel Goldwyn Meyer in July 2017.
Bill lives in central London. He lost his wife to cancer some time ago but has his family ever around him. He told me that his doctor insists that he walks a mile a day but it is quite an experience to accompany him along the crowded London streets as on turning 99 he began to use a walking stick which is twirled in all directions.
Update – I am looking forward to seeing Bill in December 2018 for the launch of his biography ‘From Hell Island to Hay Fever, The Life of Dr Bill Frankland’, by Paul Watkins.
I have been deliberating upon points where fiction touches reality. The most significant in my own life is the story behind my fictional brother Roger Walker, one of the lead characters in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. The real Boy Roger was responsible for saving me from acute misery. Whilst I was an asthmatic, Dr Roger Altounyan was behind the invention of the Intal spin inhaler, which bought me instant relief.
About ten years ago I met Dr Bill Frankland, a former POW to the Japanese who became a Harley Street allergist. Bill told me that Roger Altounyan had been a good friend of his. They’d worked together on the Intal project. Roger introduced him to his sister Titty who, as a child had been in the inspiration for the character I played in the film ofSwallows & Amazons.
I’d had known that Roger Altounyan had been in the RAF during World War II, but not that he had qualified as a doctor and become an allergist. Bill told me that he used his knowledge of propellers to develop the Intal spin-inhaler and effectively treat asthma.
Dr Bill Frankland celebrating his 100th Birthday in 2012 with Sophie Neville
Dr Frankland gave me a set of photos taken at Roger Altounyan’s going-away party in Cumbria when he took his family and friends up Coniston Water on the Gondola. He said that Roger insisted on smoking a pipe even though he was reliant on oxygen and explained that the experimentation was partly responsible for his early death in 1987.
I will explain the connection in further depth.
The well-loved book Swallows and Amazons was written by Arthur Ransome for the children of friends of his after they brought him a pair of red slippers for his forty-fifth birthday in January 1929. He based his main characters, the crew of the Swallow, on these five real Altounyan children who had been staying at Bank Ground Farm in the Lake District,
The character Roger Walker, known when he first started sailing as the Boy Roger, was inspired by Roger Altounyan then about six years old. As a consequence he was obliged to live out his school days under Swallow’s flag, as it where. This may have become tedious, although it was much the same for Sten Grendon who played the part of Roger in the 1974 film.
Roger is seen here with three of his four sisters, and below as a boy along with Arthur Ransome obviously playing tennis (copyright: Brotherton Library, Leeds). The story of his family is told by Jeremy Collingwood in his recent book, A Lakeland Saga.
Did we depict Roger Walker accurately in the film? May be not! Richard Pilbrow, the producer of Swallows & Amazons told me that Mrs Ransome was furious that Claude Whatham had cast a boy with dark hair, but she never explained why. She did not like the photograph she had been sent.
Sten Grendon as Roger Walker with Virginia McKenna playing his mother
Luckily, when Evgenia Ransome visited the location and actually saw Sten running around at Bank Ground Farm she seemed happy enough and said nothing more. Perhaps Virginia McKenna somehow managed to make everything alright.
What I didn’t know until recently was that Roger Altounyan was an asthmatic.
Roger was specifically allergic to guinea pigs and would routinely experiment on himself. He would not have been allowed to do this by today’s regulations, which some say would have held back the testing definitely. I gather from reading Rodney Dingle’s biography that the model inhaler that he made with a piece of hose pipe worked well, whilst the prototype made professionally did not. If you use an inhaler you will hear that the propeller has to be able wiggle in order for the medication to be successfully diffused into the patient’s mouth and lungs. The discovery was portrayed by David Suchet in a documentary entitled Hair Soup.
I was allergic to feathers, not parrot’s feathers, but old pillows and eider-downs. I may owe my life to Roger and his spin-inhaler. The medication certainly helped me enormously and has always given me to the peace of mind that it will give me relief if I do get wheezy.
Further reading: Roger: The Life and Distinguished Achievements of Dr Roger Altounyan, by Rodney Dingle. It is difficult to get hold of but Kirkland Books in Kendal have a copy.
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.
~ 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.
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.
But I did find another representation of the crossed flags. Does anyone know where?
~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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.