Charcoal Burners at Hill Top – Arthur Ransome’s last home in the Lake District

A guest post by Stephen Sykes of Hill Top, Ealinghearth, Haverthwaite:

There are two farmhouses in the Lake District both called Hill Top and both once owned by famous children’s authors – and just a few miles apart. One, of course was Beatrix Potter’s, and the other was the last home of Arthur Ransome, which my wife and I purchased in 2012.

More recently we acquired the adjacent wonderful ancient woodland of some seven and a half acres. With its precipitous rock faces, mighty oaks, gigantic gnarled yews and dazzling carpets of bluebells in the springtime, Backhouse Brow (as it is known) entirely fulfils The Woodland Trust’s epithet: “home to myth and legend, where folk tales began”.

There are the evocative remains of long-gone human activities too. Coppiced sycamores evidence a traditional form of woodland management historically used in the area to satisfy the insatiable demand for charcoal required to service the long-ago thriving iron industry in Backbarrow, just a half-mile away over the hillside. And within Backhouse Brow can be found numerous archaeological remains left by the charcoal burners and their activities, once a common sight in this area of South Lakeland. Long-disused trackways still clearly make their way up and across the woodland. Levelled spaces – knowns as pitsteads or platforms – for creating kilns or piles to burn charcoal are still in evidence.

Circular stone base of a charcolburners’s hut

Ancient walls in various states of decay both encompass the woodland and subdivide it. And most evocatively of all, there are the more personal remnants of the lives of the charcoal burners themselves. In addition to a much-rusted shovel or two, can be found the tumble-down remains of a circular low stone wall upon which charcoal burners would have erected a shelter, much as Ransome describes in Swallows and Amazons:

At the edge of the wood, not far from the smoking mound, there was a hut shaped like a round tent, but made not of canvas but of larch poles set up on end and all sloping together so that the longer poles crossed each other at the top. On the side of it nearest to the mound there was a doorway covered with a hanging flap made of an old sack.

Meeting the charcoal burners’s adder – a scene from the film ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) StudioCanal

And indeed only a modest distance from our circular stone base, but at a somewhat higher level, lies the still identifiably levelled ground of a pitstead where a charcoal pile may well once have been tended by the men whose hut lay below. A strategic placing not only high above, but in a position which ensured that smoke was generally carried well away by the prevailing south-westerlies.

Stone hearth near Ealingshearth

Quite separately, in a glade some distance away, there are also the isolated remains of a rather fine stone hearth, presumably used for charcoal burners’ more domestic chores.

So, with extensive coppicing, trackways, pitsteads, the circular stone remnants of a hut and a hearth of particular note, and all adjacent to Hill Top – indeed, all now within Hill Top’s grounds – begs the question: was Ransome aware of any of this? Whilst he would have certainly seen the coppiced trees, probably not the archaeological remains. Despite the central involvement of charcoal burners in his story, he makes only the most fleeting occasional mention of the woodland in his later diaries and there is no mention of his having entered. Nevertheless, it’s rather fitting that in his final years he should have found himself in immediate proximity to this iconic historic activity about which he wrote some three decades earlier in his most famous fictional work.

The Ransomes owned Hill Top from 1960 until 1968 when Evgenia sold the property the year after Arthur died. In fact, following their arrival for the summer in 1963, they never returned to London – Hill Top finally having been supplied with electricity.

You can read more about charcoal burning in the Lake District in relation to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here.

To read about filming the charcoal burner’s scene in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) please click here.

To rent the converted barn at one end of the farmhouse, which now comprises luxury self-catering holiday accommodation for two couples, please click here

Sophie Neville visited Hill Top with members of The Arthur Ransome Society who admired the astonishing views across Cumbria. “It occurred to me that the fireplace and low stone walls of the charcoal burners’ wigwam, once abandoned, may have made up the basis of the igloo built by the Swallows and Amazons in Winter Holiday, which has a fireplace.”

Hill Top farm, near Ealinshearth where Arthur Ransome lived with his wife Evgenia

Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland homes and places where you can stay

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.
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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.
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Peel Island on Coniston Water, which you can visit by boat.
Peel Island on Coniston Water, which you can visit by boat.

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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.
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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.
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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.’
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The rocks at the end of Peel Island where the Collingwood family traditionally had picnics
The rocks at the end of Peel Island where the Collingwood family traditionally had picnics

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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.
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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:
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Low Ludderburn

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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.

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The Heald, East of Lake Road, Coniston Water
The Heald above Coniston Water where Arthur Ransome lived between 1940 and 1945 ~ photo: Peter Walker

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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.

There are a number of books about the life of Arthur Ransome, not least his own autobiography published by Jonathan Cape from which I have quoted briefly here. I can recommend Arthur Ransome, Master Storyteller by Roger Wardale and The World of Arthur Ransome by Christina Hardyment – which has a photo of me on the cover.

News from Hill Top, where Arthur Ransome once lived

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It seems that not a week goes by without Arthur Ransome’s name being mentioned in the national press. Today the news is of Hill Top, the 17th century farmhouse at Ealingsheath, a tiny hamlet near Haverthwaite in Cumbria, where Arthur and Evgenia Ransome lived in the 1960s enjoying the lovely view across the Lakeland fells.

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In the Epilogue to Arthur Ransome’s autobiography, Rupert Hart-Davis wrote: ‘In 1960 the Ransomes bought the little derelict farmhouse in the Lakes which they had rented for the last four years as a holiday cottage. Repairs and alternations took longer than expected, and it was not until November 1963 that they moved into their home, Hill Top, Haverthwaite, near Newby Bridge. They both loved the house, and the buzzards, redstarts and deer by which it seemed to be surrounded… ‘ He celebrated his eightieth birthday there, although by then ‘…he was confined to a wheel chair on the upper floor of the house.’

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The present owners, Stephen and Janine Sykes, who bought Hill Top in 2012, have just finished converting the garage/barn-end into a holiday cottage. You can read the story in the Mail Online today entitled: ‘A home full of Swallows & Amazons…’ and, as they say, is a good base for exploring the locations described in book and used in the 1974 movie, which the Mail describes as, ‘A perfect adventure.’ I describe doing so myself in previous posts.

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Stephen Sykes says, ‘ The picture used was actually of “The Pavilion” – a games room. It’s now impossible to believe, but it was converted from a very substantial former kennel (600sf).’
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‘We demolished another kennel of 1,000sf (now a courtyard garden) and we’re just finishing the conversion of another to an office/store room! We’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money in “de-kennelling” Hill Top and returning it to domestic use! Needless to say, the guest accommodation, “The Cottage at Hill Top”, forms a self-contained part of Hill Top itself.’
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Stephen added, ‘Cumbria Life are coming to photograph Hill Top today for a feature in their Christmas issue.’ The house certainly looks wonderful.
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‘We’re just in the process of creating a website, in the meantime we’re marketing through Lakelovers.’ Stephen and Janine are more than happy to take direct bookings – please ring: 01539 531 452. The last three digits of their phone number are the same as in Ransome’s time.  They offer a 10% discount to TARS members.
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Stephen Sykes is  an investment analyst and author of The Last Witness who studied astrophysics at UCL in the days when men were landing on the moon.  He previously wrote to tell me that they have a number of old photographs and , ‘… a collection of most books by and about Arthur Ransome.  Obviously, we’ve made it our job to learn much about the Ransomes and… visited the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds to look through Arthur Ransome Collection where there are dozens of photographs of Hill Top from the late 1950s to c. 1963. I now have digital copies of most of these, including a number of good quality colour slides of Arthur and Evgenia. I guess it’s rather unusual for someone to find a treasure trove of photos of their house from half a century ago and see how its then famous owner transformed it!
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‘Astonishingly, the Lake District National Park Authority indicated that they had absolutely no interest in the Ransome connection and even moaned that if Hill Top were to become a “tourist attraction” it would merely create traffic problems!’ Stephen added.
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When I last passed Hill Top with Mountain Goat no one else was using the lane that runs in front of the house even though it is not so very far from the southern end of Lake Windermere and the Haverthwaite Railway Station where the steam train comes in and the Windermere steamers dock.
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Dave Guest of BBC North West Tonight presented an item on Hill Top that went out on 6th November. The BBC liked it so much it was broadcast nationwide on BBC Breakfast at 7.50am on Thursday 7th November.
Meanwhile the sale of Esthwaite Water, where Ransome loved to fish, seems to have gone global. This article has appeared in the Indian press: click here for the Bangalore Mirror.
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