In search of Arthur Ransome’s locations ~ Part Two

Arthur Ransome must surely have fished here

‘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?

As we set off from the Lakeside Railway Station on the southern shore of Windermere to explore Arthur Ransome’s world, I began wondering how many signs of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ we would find. Would we see the crossed flags that have become a symbol of the bestseller he wrote back in 1929?

Swallows and Amazons Tearoom ~ photo: Sophie Neville

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.

Bank Ground Farm the location used for Holly Howe

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.

The Boatsheds at Bank Ground Farm

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.

Finding Swallow
Simon West as Captain John standing in ‘Swallow’ at the stone boatshed jetty on Coniston Water with Ableseaman Titty and The Boy Roger. Director Claude Whatham knew how cold the water was that day in May 1973

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.

We actually disembarked at Brantwood, John Ruskin’s House. It was here that the Altounyan children’s grandfather WH Collingwood worked as Ruskin’s private secretary. He painted him at his desk there. My niece has just graduated from The Ruskin School of Art in Oxford.

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.

John Franklyn-Robbins, as Young Billy who is showing his adder to Sophie Neville, Stephen Grendon, Jack Woolgar, Suzanna Hamilton and Simon West at a location in the Grizedale Forest above Coniston Water

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.

Sophie Neville on Coniston Water with Peel Island
The hat is a purple ode to the early 1970’s. My mother bought it at great expense in Carnaby Street. It is very good at keeping off the rain.

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.

The Slate Quay on Coniston Water ~ photo: Sophie Neville
Is this the real Amazon Boathouse?

Continued here…

or read the full account in the ebook:

Rowing to Cormorant Island ~ filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ on Derwentwater in 1973

Sophie Neville rowing to Cormorant Island
Sophie Neville as Titty and Stephen Grendon as Roger rowing to Cormorant Island

‘Pull harder, Roger!’ ~ hardly a line from Shakespeare, but one that has lodged deep in my memory.Titty was even bossier in Arthur Ransome’s books ~”You keep time with me, Boy,” said the able-seaman.”All right.”Titty lifted her oar from the water. Roger gave one pull.”Boy,” said the able-seaman, “you mustn’t say ‘All right’.””Aye, aye, sir, ” said the boy.**

When we auditioned for Swallows and Amazons the emphasis was on sailing. Could we sail? In fact I needed to be good at rowing. Titty and Roger row back form the Charcoal Burners, I rowed the Amazon from Wildcat Island and here we were rowing across Derwentwater to Cormorant Island. This was more difficult than normal as Swallow was wired to the camera pontoon.

Cormorant Island

When I look at the 16mm footage my father took of me rowing at home before we left to film in the Lake District I cringe. My blades were high above the water, hitting the surface with terrible splashes but I seemed to achieve my objective.   I managed to fit an improvised mast to our Thames skiff and even made my own sail. It doesn’t look great, but I think Arthur Ransome would have approved.

Cormorant Island and the camera boats
Swallow finding Amazon anchored near Cormorant Island on Derwent Water with the camera pontoon and safety boat: photo~ Daphne Neville

Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton joined us for the scene when the Swallows lower the Jolly Roger and start to sail the captured the Amazon back to Wildcat Island.  I can only imagine that I changed my costume in one of the support boats. I think the scene may have been shot with two cameras on different boats ~

Sophie Neville playing Titty Walker in the captured Amazon, with David Cadwallader, Bobby Sitwell, Dennis Lewiston, Claude Whatham and two electricians holding reflector boards on the camera punt: Photo ~ Daphne Neville

This shot shows Claude Whatham using the punt,* which somehow managed to accommodate Dennis Lewiston, the 35mm Panavision and quite a few crew members, while Richard Pilbrow remained on the camera pontoon with Eddie Collins operating the 16mm camera.

Richard Pilbrow and his film crew on the camera pontoon with Eddie Colluins opperating the 16mm camera. Simon West and Stephen Grendon sail Swallow. Suzanna Hamilton is cilmbing aboard the Amazon with Sophie Neville

I remember the scene itself as being difficult to achieve in terms of sailing. Swallow has a keel, and Amazon with her centre board is much the faster dinghy. It is not like racing two boats of the same class. After hauling up the anchor Suzanna and I battled to turn the Amazon, not wanting to wiggle the rudder and jeopardise her pins. I remember Simon calling advise over the water.  He stalled and we caught up, trying to get close together for the shot. The result was a photograph used on the front cover of the next Puffin edition of the book.

Swallows and Amazons book cover 1974
Stephen Grendon, Simon West, Sophie Neville and Suzanna Hamilton on the cover of the 1974 Puffin edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

* I may be wrong about these photographs. The still surface of the water in the shot of Titty alone in Amazon suggests that it was taken later on, when we filmed the burglars landing on Cormorant Island with Captain Flint’s trunk, but we probably had a very similar set up on this more sparking day ~ 15th June 1973.

We went on to film various shots of us sailing on to Wildcat Island, when I think the camera was in Swallow capturing close-ups of a triumphant Captain John. He did indeed do well.

**Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, 1970 Jonathan Cape edition

You can read more about our adventures here:

The Secret of Secret Harbour ~ where ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was filmed on 1st June 1973

Claudia Myatt's painting of Swallow in the Secret Harbour
Claudia Myatt’s painting of Swallow in the Secret Harbour

The Secret Harbour on Peel Island looks south over Coniston Water to the hills of Cumbria. It has to be one of my favourite places on Earth. Bringing a small dinghy in there gives you a special feeling either of exploration or of coming home. You need to go when no one else is about. On the 1st June 1973 we spent a whole day filming there with a crew of sixty or more people. It was still a magical place.

1st June 1973 ~ My Diary

Our secret of Secret Harbour was that although many of the scenes in Arthur Ransome’s story are set there at night, back in 1973 we only ever filmed them during the day. This was achieved by using the technique of Day-Night, or Day-for-Night filming, the use of filters over the camera lens so that we could film a scene that would come across as being dark even though it was shot in broad daylight.  This had obvious advantages. Filming at night is amazing, but very tiring. It demands considerable lighting set ups, which would have been impossible on Peel Island as they could not get a generator out there.

Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham
Sophie Neville with Claude Whatham

The sun wouldn’t have set until very late on 1st June in the Lake District where mid-summer nights are short. Children are only permitted to work certain hours and need to be given rest days afterwards, so filming exteriors at night just wasn’t feasible. And yet, much of Swallows and Amazons, including the most dramatic of scenes,  is set at night.

Secret Harbour on the southern end of Peel Island when we were returning for lunch in the Capri whilst Richard Pilbrow’s dog looked on from the temporary jetty constructed by the crew: photo ~ Martin Neville

I remember Claude Whatham, the Director of the film ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) and Dennis Lewiston, our Lighting Cameraman or Director of Photography, being intensely absorbed in perfecting our Day-for-Night sequences. This was particularly tricky for them as many were set out on the water. Having already shot one night scene on Peel Island when we were in the girls’ tent, Dennis now started the day with a scene which was set on the island, yet looked out over the water. He explained that ideally he needed constant, bright sunlight, which would look like moonlight reflected on the ripples of the water. What he didn’t like were cloud banks. And for this we would wait. And waiting for children, while out on the water or in a confided space can be hard.

In the scene where the Swallows set up the leading lights Dennis accepted the clouds. It looks fine, as it’s appropriate for it to be getting dark. The little fluffy clouds in the scene where the Amazons arrive aren’t so great as they landed on Wild Cat Island in the dead of night.

Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour

Even on land the Day-for-Night shots would take some time to line up. The candle lanterns had to be boosted with battery operated light bulbs. If you look at the lantern in Susan’s tent you can see a black electric wire coming off it, and even a bulb on the Big Screen. You don’t notice this because your attention is on the dialogue but it can easily be spotted.  You might think it would be a distraction for us children but we were all quite down-to-earth and the technical detail kept our interest and our minds on our work.

BW Sophie Neville in Secret Harbour

These were our favourite scenes, set in our favourite place. It was the Amazons’ big day with Kit Seymour emanating leadership as she portrayed Nancy Blackett ‘terror of the seas’, with all the confidence, grace and rugged beauty Arthur Ransome must have either known or envisaged. ‘By Gum, Able-seaman – I wish you were on my crew.’

There was much dialogue for Lesley Bennett who played Peggy. She did well, but acting opposite Suzanna Hamilton is always easy. It’s like rowing in a crew led my an excellent stroke or having a good man at the helm. The part of the practical Susan was not a charismatic one but Suzanna anchored us all. Her own performance is absolutely faultless. I had much to react to but not much to say. I did manage to handle the Amazon by myself and the long shot when I captured her was achieved in one take. A triumph at the end of a long day.

‘There are more of us Swallows…’ Sten Grendon, playing Roger and Simon West, playing Captain John in the Secret Harbour on Wildcat Island during the filming of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 1973

There was much dialogue for Lesley Bennett who played Peggy. She did well, but acting opposite Suzanna Hamilton is easy. It’s like rowing in a crew led by an Olympic oarsman or having an experienced skipper at the helm. The part of the practical Susan was not a charismatic one but Suzanna anchored us all. Her own performance is absolutely faultless. I had much to react to but not much to say. I did manage to handle the Amazon by myself and the long shot when I captured her was achieved in one take. A triumph at the end of a long day.

Sophie Neville in the Amazon with the Denis Lewiston and the 16mm camera1
Sophie Neville in The Amazon with DOP Denis Lewiston, his 16mm camera and a reflector board ~ photo: Martin Neville

You can read more about the filming here:

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