Tag Archives: sailing boats

Sailing the Nancy Blackett in Dutch waters – part two

Nancy Blackett, the 28 foot cutter that Arthur Ransome bought with Spanish gold, as he called his royalties from ‘Swallows and Amazons’, is an old lady now. Built by Hillyards of Littlehampton in 1931, she turns eighty-five this year and yet looks pristine. If you ever wanted to sail the Goblin in ‘We Did Mean To Go To Sea’ you must know that it was Nancy who took this starring role in Ransome’s novel, first published eighty years ago.
Nancy Balckett in Middleburg photo Sophie Neville

Nancy Blackett

I arrived in the Netherlands this summer to find Nancy receiving visitors at a nautical festival in Midddleburg, while a jazz band played on the quay.  She was moored by a lifting bridge in the centre of town, neatly rigged and ready for anything. After taking a look at a number of old gaffers, her crew enjoyed a cold beer and walked down the canal to vittel-up at a supermarket before having dinner in what was once a packing house for silks and spices imported from the East Indies.
Nancy seen through the bridge in Middleburg

Nancy seen through the swing bridge in Middleburg

As the swing bridge rose the next morning, we made way and motored down the wide canal to Veere, mooring up by the grassy port bank. 
Hollyhocks of Veere

Hollyhocks of Veere

After being granted permission to go ashore, I passed the historic town well and walked down lanes bordered by hollyhocks to visit the museums of this ancient port. They house a number of charts and medieval maps that would have delighted the Swallows, along with old photographs of Dutch natives in traditional dress. I was tempted to buy a pair of clogs to take home for Bridget.
The waterways of Zeeland

The waterways of Zeeland

We left Veere to explore the islands and creeks of the Veersemeer before sailing down-channel and through a modern lock into the Oosterschelde estuary formed by the River Scheldt. It was once an important shipping route that bought wealth to the Netherlands but is quieter now. I spotted a seal and watched a cormorant swallow a large eel, that wriggled and jiggled inside its gullet.
Windmill of Zeeland

A windmill of Zierikzee

After negotiating the impressive Zeelandbrug that spans the delta, we sailed down to Zierikzee where you can climb the church tower, if you dare, and look out across the once fortified town. The windmills, ornate spires and ancient buildings help one to imagine what life must have been like in the 1500s when it became famous as a trading centre for salt and madder. I found scold’s stones and a whaler’s kayak from Greenland at the Stadhuis Museum in Zierikzee where Veronica Frenks was once the curator.
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The lock gates of Zierikzee

Our skipper, Ian McGlynn, wondered if we could sail back under an arch of the Zeelandbrug instead of waiting for one section of the road to lift. Built between 1963 and 1965 the Zeeland Bridge is more than five kilometres long and hardly comparable to the arch of Potter Heigham but Mate Judy Taylor didn’t want to take any risks. We had Nancy’s new mast to consider.
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Crewing the Nancy Blackett

It was only on our last evening-but-one that rain hit us. We’d had blue skies and sunshine all week. As the salt water was washed away from Nancy’s portholes I opened the pages of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ to find Ransome’s illustrations and read the final passages of the Swallows’ unplanned voyage to Holland. The book is eighty years old this year and yet moves me still. There is Nancy, portrayed as the Goblin moored up in a foreign port, which is where we left her to be enjoyed by other members of the Nancy Blackett Trust.
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Nancy Blackett in Zeeland

 A marathon reading of ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea’ is planned, to celebrate the 80 year anniversary of its publication, at Pin Mill Sailing Club on the Orwell in Suffolk on Saturday 21st October 2017.
Pin Mill from the Water
To read more about Nancy or join the Nancy Blackett Trust please click here
Nancy has been featured by Country Life in a July issue you can read here
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We Did Mean To Go To Sea by Octavia Pollock

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Filed under adventure, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, boating, Sophie Neville, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized

Sailing the Nancy Blackett

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If you have ever wondered what Nancy Blackett is doing now – here she is. Built by Hillyards of Littlehampton in 1931 she was bought by Arthur Ransome with royalties from Swallows and Amazons and became both the inspiration and model for his book about the Swallows’ unplanned voyage to Holland ~  We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, in which she was known as the Goblin. She also appears in Secret Water.

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I was at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club to give a talk on making the BBC adaptations of two other Arthur Ransome books set in East Anglia, Coot Club and The Big Six.

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I thought that people would rather be out in the sunshine or watching the Wimbledon finals but it was well attended.

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After watching a clip of Ginger and Rosa, the BFI/BBC feature film directed by Sally Potter that Nancy Blackett starred in last year, we wandered down to the jetty in front of the new club house, and grabbed a chance to go out on the Orwell.

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Soon sails were being hoisted and we were underway, sailing down river in the evening light.

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Conditions were perfect for Nancy, a 28 foot Bermurdan cutter.

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I took the helm, whilst the others did the hard work.

Pin Mill in Suffolk

We were soon sailing past Pin Mill, which also features in the book.

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Some members of the crew were experienced sailors,

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others had previously managed to avoid spending much time on the water, but we all had a wonderful experience and were sad when the sails were stowed for the night.

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We saw a couple of Thames barges also coming in, as Nancy settled down after a successful day.

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For more photos please click here

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30th Anniversary talk on filming ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’

Coot Club - Sophie Neville with Port and Starboard in Coot Club

Unbelievably, thirty years have passed since we started filming the BBC adaptations of Coot Club and The Big Six on location in Norfolk.  We drove up to Norwich on 17th June 1983 and by 3rd July would have been in full swing. It had been my job to cast the children who I was now looking after on location.

Coot Club - the hay wagon

Amazingly, we were to able enjoy three months of almost solid sunshine and had the most wonderful time. The eight-part serial, produced by Joe Waters, was first broadcast in 1984 under the generic title of Swallows and Amazons Forever! This was because Joe was hoping to dramatise other Arthur Ransome books, but sadly they proved too expensive.

The Big Six

The Death and Glory Boys weighing their great fish with Sam Kelly

I gave an illustrated talk about how the series was made at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club on the River Orwell for the Nancy Blackett Trust Annual Meeting, explaining how Rosemary Leach and I had both appeared in the BBC drama Cider with Rosie back in 1971. Having starred as Laurie Lee’s mother, she had the lead part of Mrs Barrable, the Admiral in Coot Club.

Henry Dimbleby and Rosemary Leach in 'Coot Club' and 'The Big Six'

BBC TV’s adapation of  ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’

Swallows and Amazons Forever! (1984) DVD

The drama, set in the early 1930’s, was nominated for a BAFTA.  It had an exceptionally talented cast including Rosemary Leach, John Woodvine, Sam Kelly and Henry Dimbleby.  I’m not sure if you can spot him that easily on the cover of the DVD, but one of the characters in the story soon became a household name. It was William, Mrs Barrable’s fawn pug dog. He was soon known nationally – if not internationally – as Little Willie, Ethel’s pet dog in the soap opera Eastenders.

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The puppy we chose to play Williams who later starred as Little Willie in ‘Eastenders’

While Jack Watson was at the helm of the Sir Garnet, Julian Fellowes played Jerry, self-appointed skipper of the Margoletta and the leader of the Hullabaloos. Whilst with us on the Norfolk Broads he forged a creative partnership with our director Andrew Morgan that launched his career as a writer.  They were soon working together on adaptations of classic books such as The Prince and the Pauper and Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Julian Fellowes as Jerry in Coot Club

Julian Fellowes as Jerry in ‘Coot Club’

Looking back, I can see a number of connections between Coot Club and Doctor Who. You will see we had not one but two Time Lords with us in the guise of The Eel Man, who was played by Patrick Troughton, and Dr Dudgeon, played by Colin Baker, who went on to become a later incarnation of the Doctor.

Patrick Troughton as the eel man

Patrick Troughton as The Eel Man in ‘The Big Six’

A number of the crew worked behind the scenes on Doctor Who including our Visual Effects Designer, Andy Lazell and the writer Mervyn Haismen. I found myself working on Vengeance on Varos a year later when Colin Baker swapped his Norfolk tweeds for the multi-coloured coat he wore in the TARDIS.

Colin Baker as Dr Dudgeon in 'Coot Club' and 'The Big Six'

Colin Baker as Dr Dudgeon in ‘Coot Club’ and ‘The Big Six’

However,  I expect the members of the Nancy Blackett Trust will want to know most about the beautiful period boats that appeared in the series, some of which members of the Arthur Ransome Society have been tracking down. Sadly some, such as the Catchalot seem to have deteriorated but the Janca, who played the Margoletta has been restored, and the  Death & Glory is still on the Broads.

Lullaby undersail, playing the Teasel with her stage name painted on a false transome

Lullaby under sail, playing the Teasel with her stage name painted on a false transom

 The wonderful thing is that you can still hire the yacht we used to play the Teasel and take the same route through the Broads as Arthur Ransome took with his wife in the 1930’s when he was absorbing experience from which to write. What I did not know until recently was that Titty Altounyan ~ the real Titty portrayed in Swallows and Amazons ~ accompanied them one year, but I will leave that story for a future post.

Coot Club - book cover

I remember setting up this photograph for Puffin at Gay’s Staithe on the Broads

For more information on Saturday’s talk please click here

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Filed under 1983, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Memoir, Movie stories, Sophie Neville, truelife story

Boats of the Norfolk Broads ~

Sailing on the Norfolk Broads

I recently found a family photograph album with pages illustrating holidays spent under sail in the 1930’s.

Breakfast on the Norfolk Broads ~ Easter 1939

Joan with her friends having breakfast on the Norfolk Broads ~ Easter 1939

Not all the black and white photographs are as horizontal or as sharply in focus as one might wish but they show the glorious boats available for hire

Sailing on the Norfolk Broads - Easter 1939

and reflect what fun was had out on the water.

Joan Hampton - Norfolk Broads - Friends1

We were rather shocked by the cigarettes held in the mouths of the young men but Joan is ninety-nine now and still agile.

Martin Neville on the Norfolk Broads

Martin Neville sailing on the Norfolk Broads with friends in the early 1950s

Having sailed on the Broads with friends, my father hired a Hullabaloo boat to take us out when we were little.

Sophie Neville with her sisters on the Norfolk Broads

We went out of season, when boat hire was cheaper. As there was no one on the water my father let me take the helm mile after mile, despite the fact that I was only about seven years old.

Sophie Neville on the Norfolk Broads

Sophie Neville wearing a life jacket c. 1968

 We loved living aboard and were often surrounded by wild geese.

Sophie Neville on the Norfolk Broads

It seems Arthur Ransome, who had fished on the Broads with Titty’s father, Ernest Altounyan, in 1923, also enjoyed cruising in the spring. His biographer, Roger Wardale, said that ‘Both the Ransomes liked to visit the Broads just after Easter, before most of the motor cruisers had started the season and it was the best time of year for birdlife.’ He went on to describe how Arthur Ransome kept a log of his three weeks spent in a Fairway yacht, the essence of which he used to write Coot Club in 1933/34. ‘As well as visiting Roy’s of Wroxham, tying up at Horning Hall Farm and watching the racing boats go by, towing through bridges, mooring beside a Thames barge at Beccles and watching a fisherman catching eels with a bab, there are numerous details that combine to make Coot Club a valuable account of the social and natural history of the Broads as they were more than 70 years ago.’ 

Roger Wardale illustrated his book Arthur Ransome Master Stroyteller , using wonderful photographs and sketches by Arthur Ransome, including a very jolly one of the Hullabaloos that had not been published before. Do get hold of a copy of the book, to read the chapter on Coot Club for yourself.

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Filed under Arthur Ransome, Biography, Family Life, Memoir, Photography, Sophie Neville, Travel, truelife story