Peter Walker has just written from Kendal to tell me that Arthur Ransome could be heard on BBC Radio Cumbria yesterday afternoon.
A newly cleaned up archive recording of the author reading from his classic book on fishing ‘Rod and Line’ in 1956 can be heard on BBC I-player for the next five days. Please go 25 minutes into Emma Borthwick’s programme for the item recorded by Jennie Dennett at Hill Top, the Ransome’s house above Haverthwaite, which the new owners, Stephen Sykes and his wife Janine, are opening for Bed and Breakfast.
On a wet but beautiful day in Cumbria we set off on a quest to find some of the locations used in Richard Pilbrow’s 1974 film of Swallows and Amazons.
To my delight our journey started with a drive down through the streets of Rio (Bowness) and along the east shore of Windermere to Haverthwaite Railway Station at the southern end of the lake (or Antarctica as Titty labeled the region). It was here that we spent our very first day filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ back in 1973. I had not been there since.
We had a chat to the train driver who explained that they now run six journeys a day. From Haverthwaite the steam locomotives run alongside the River Leven to Lakeside Station. From here you can take a native steamer back up to Rio (the Bowness pier) or to the Far North (Ambleside, which is the town at the head of the lake where we lived whilst filming in that long distant summer when I was twelve years old.)
Whilst we used engine number 2073 in the movie, this steam locomotive 42085 was built in 1951. It uses about two tons of coal a day but it utterly magnificent. The driver probably uses rather a lot of steam oil too. It’s a smell I relish, familiar since childhood days spent on steamboats. I remember it from the SBA steamboat rally held on Windermere in 1991, which I describe in Funnily Enough.
Curiously, Haverthwaite Railway Station looked cleaner and shinier than when we used it as a film location in 1973. I can only suppose it was still in the process of being restored back then, when Simon Holland our set designer cluttered it up with push bikes and luggage trolleys. Much to our surprise, the yellow taxi we were transported in during the filming was actually driven along the platform.
We climbed aboard the train and I explored, as Titty would have done, discovering people seated inside from far distant lands.
David Wood’s screenplay for the film of Swallows and Amazons, directed by Claude Whatham, opens to find the Walker family cooped up in a railway carriage compartment as they travel north for their holidays.
We saw this distinctive carriage in a siding as we steamed down the valley. Funnily enough when I reached home, later the next day, I came across a photograph on the internet I had never seen before. It was of Virginia McKenna, playing Mrs Walker, reading a magazine inside the compartment. Strangely it turned up when I Googled my own name – Sophie Neville.
The train is not included in Arthur Ransome’s book of Swallows and Amazons, written in 1929, but he does feature locomotives in his later novels, notably Pigeon Post. I clearly remember filming the BBC adaptation of Coot Club at what must have been The Poppy Line, a steam railway in north Norfolk when Henry Dimbley, playing Tom Dudgeon, jumped aboard the moving train and met Dick and Dorothea.
I jumped off the train at the Lakeside Station to meet up with Peter Walker of Mountain Goat. Peter has carefully researched and put together a Swallows and Amazons tour, exploring ‘High Greenland’, the ‘Forest’ and ‘High Hills’ to discover the places where Arthur Ransome lived. We set off in search of the places where he fished, wrote, and drank beer. It was fascinating – and proved an excellent way to spend a day in the Lake District despite the rain.
It was Sunday and a much needed, formal day off for the crew of Swallows and Amazons. It was also a day of rest for the ‘Artistes’ as Claude Whatham, the Director called us. The crew called us ‘Saucepans’. Saucepan lids : kids. It is Cockney rhyming slang. There was a lot of that about in Ambleside that year.
My parents were still in bed, exhausted on that Sunday morning. To keep me busy Mum had me writing letters to my Headmistress, Sister Ann-Julian and to my Housemistress, Sister Allyne. Amazing! I wrote them.
My father’s idea of a day out in Westmorland was to drive over the hills and up the Hard Knott Pass taking car rugs, a picnic and his volcano. This is a brilliant item of equipment with which you can boil enough water to make a cup of tea using an old newspaper. I am sure I’ve read that Arthur Ransome had one… I think my mother just pulled on her Charlotte Mason College of Education sweatshirt and came too.
The highlight of the day was a trip on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, through the National Park to the coast and back. You can still do this today. The historic line was opened in 1875 to ferry iron ore from the mine near Boot to the coast at Ravensglass by steam locomotive. They say that nowadays:
“Four steam locomotives are currently in regular service, ranging from River Irt, the oldest working 15″ gauge locomotive in the world, to Northern Rock, one of the most powerful. The locomotives names, with one obvious exception, are those of the local rivers, the Esk, Mite and Irt, the last mentioned flowing from Wastwater just a few miles away from the railway.”
My father has always loved steam. He’s also rather enjoyed using the self-timer on his camera.
I am guessing that we sitting on part of the Hard Knott Roman Fort near Boot with the fells behind. Built between AD120 and AD138 at the Eskdale end of the Hard Knott Pass it must have been one of the furthermost outposts of the Roman Empire. As children we had grown up on a diet of Frankie Howard, dressed in a Roman tunic, telling us ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’. I didn’t know until this week that it was Richard Pilbrow who brought this production from New York to the West End, where the play that he produced ran for two years.
The hotel I mention was the Kirskstone Foot Hotel, at the top of Lake Windermere, in Ambleside where Richard Pilbrow and the senior members of the film crew were staying. Mum must have left her camera there.