Tag Archives: Wild Cat Island

Exploring Arthur Ransome’s Lake District

Letter from Arthur Ransome

~An illustrated letter from Arthur Ransome, 1955~

I have been sent a copy of a letter written to a reader by Arthur Ransome in June 1955, revealing where some of his locations can be found. I was interested to read that, ‘the lake is mainly Windermere with some things stolen from Coniston.’

This summer, we spent a long weekend with The Arthur Ransome Society when we managed to find quite a few locations around Coniston Water that are featured in Ransome’s books.

~Low Yewdale Farm, near Coniston ~

The curator of the John Ruskin Museum took us on a walk around the village of Coniston and under the Yewdale Crags towards Tarn Howes. We passed Low Yewdale Farm where Arthur Ransome stayed as a young man. It is just as I imagined Swainson’s Farm in ‘Swallowdale’. The footpath takes you down to the beck where Ransome fished for brown trout. I could imagine Roger attempting to tickle trout there.

If you follow the path on south, then branch left up the East of Lake Road around Coniston Water, you will find another footpath leading to Bank Ground Farm.

A hand-painted sign guides you through fields, where Galloway cows maybe grazing. Look up and you will literally find yourself at Holly Howe, the long white farmhouse where Mr and Mrs Jackson live in ‘Swallows and Amazons’. You can imagine the Walker children running down the meadow to the Peak of Darien.

Ernest Altounyan sailing Mavis on Coniston

~ Dr Ernest Altounyan rigging Mavis on Coniston Water~

It was here that the Altounyan children, Taqui, Susie, Titty, Roger and Brigit spent one summer holiday in 1928, while visiting their grandparents who lived next door at Lane Head. They learned to sail on the lake in two dinghies: Swallow and Mavis, later re-named Amazons, who can be visited at the John Ruskin Museum in Coniston.

IMG_7096

~Bank Ground Farm in Cumbria where the movie ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) was made~

The barn, inside which we filmed some of the night sequences for the original movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’, has been converted into self-catering holiday accommodation that can house a number of families quite easily. From here you can run down to the boat shed where John, Susan, Titty and Roger found Swallow and imagine them setting off  on their voyage to Wild Cat Island leaving the Fair Spanish Ladies on the stone quay.

~The boatsheds below Bank Ground Farm, on Coniston Water~

Wooden jetties have been added recently and it is possible to either launch your own boat or hire a kyak from Bank Ground Farm.

~The northern end of Coniston Water~

We had a bedroom in the barn that looked north towards the Langdales. If you walk up the farm drive, you can look back towards Coniston Old Man, Kanchenjunga, which the Walkers and Blacketts climb in ‘Swallowdale’.

~Bank Ground Farm with the village of Coniston beyond~

Arthur Ransome was taken up the Old Man of Coniston as a tiny baby. You can climb it today but wear more than sand shoes. Stout walking boots are called for. The task of reaching the summit should not be underestimated.

We were able to get out on the lake to find a few more locations. This red-sailed dinghy, named Peggy Blackett, is a copy of Arthur Ransome’s Cochybundhu, used as the model for Dick and Dorothea’s boat Scarab.

~Sailing on Coniston Water towards the village of Coniston~

It is a long way down Coniston Water to Peel Island but it is there that you will spot the Secret Harbour, instantly recognisable as belonging to Wild Cat Island. We went there in the SL Gondola, that now belongs to the National Trust. Ransome knew the steam launch as a boy when he made friends with the captain.

~ Secret Harbour on the southern end of Peel Island, Coniston Water ~

In the cemetery of Coniston village I found the grave of Titty Altounyan, the girl who inspired Arthur Ransome’s well-loved character. I never met her but was with her niece Barbara that long weekend in Coniston, when we both thoroughly enjoyed walking, sailing and steaming along in Ransome’s footsteps.

~ Sophie Neville visiting Titty Altounyan’s grave in Coniston ~

For details of more locations at the southern end of Coniston Water that are featured in the Swallows and Amazons series of books, please click here.

Think of joining The Arthur Ransome Society and come looking for locations described in his books. You will find the details here.

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Filed under Arthur Ransome, boating, Cumbria, Dinghy sailing, Lake District, Sophie Neville, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized

Questions about filming ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) and tips for camping

3rd June 2017, marked the 50th Anniversary of Arthur Ransome’s death – a day to remember his books and the inspiration they have brought to our lives, not least since he encouraged the pursuit of outdoor activites such as sailing and camping, along with reading, writing and keeping a ship’s log. I’m not sure what he’d think of some of the conversations I’ve had about Swallows and Amazons but at least his well-loved story is being talked about.

Last time I gave a Q&A about the 1974 movie of ‘Swallow and Amazons’ at a cinema, I was interviewed by the actress Diana Quick, which was wonderful as she was so easy to talk to. She asked a few questions that have not come up before.

 

Did you children feel the film was like the book?

Very much so, I’d read most of the books in the series and ‘Swallows and Amazons’ twice. Richard Pilbrow, the producer was aiming to keep as close to the Arthur Ransome’s well-known story as possible. I never saw David Wood’s script, but simply sung out Titty’s dialogue from my Puffin paperback. It was amazing to find ourselves in Secret Harbour, just has Ransome had depicted it. We were rather disappointed that the storm scene was cut but could appreciate that ‘you can’t have everything’.

 

How much time did you have to get to know one another?

Not long, only two or three days. The weather wasn’t that good but we were taken out sailing which was fun and Virginia McKenna was wonderful at getting us to play games that broke the ice. We played consequences with folded strips of paper, the results of which made us laugh a great deal.

Would you have felt able to take a boat out as Titty does, on your own at night?

Yes, I managed to launch Amazon and row her out of Secret Harbour in one take, but I was aged twelve, rather than nine, which is Titty’s age in the book. Amazon was a very easy dinghy to handle and had been used in the BBC serial made in 1962, when Ransome was alive.

Although he claimed to have read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ forty-two times, David Blagdon, our sailing director, forgot that Titty was meant to sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island, so I never practiced taking the helm, or sailing her alone. In the end the Mate Susan took my place, which I felt was a bit of a shame as in the book Titty sailed her back with John crewing.

It is interesting that Titty, the most adventurous character was played by you who have gone on to lead an adventurous life.

It may be partly the way I’d been raised. My father grew up reading the first editions of Ransome’s books in the 1930s and we often went camping as a family, certainly every summer holiday. My mother still goes camping at the age of eighty.

Perhaps the director, Claude Whatham recognised an adventurous spirit. I always need to see around the next corner. I was hugely inspired to travel by my father and by friends at university, particularly Alastair Fothergill who has spent his whole life travelling while making wildlife films, most recently African Cats, Chimpanzee, Bears and Monkey Kingdom for DisneyNature.

Have you got any tips for camping?

Yes! There is an art to camping:

  • You can always fill a metal water bottle with hot water at night and use it as a hot-water bottle in your sleeping bag. If you get thirsty later you can always take a drink without having to get up.
  • I usually keep my clothes for the next day with me in my sleeping bag so they stay warm and dry.
  • It’s important to keep tents clean. Never brush your hair inside a tent and never let anyone step of the fly sheet when they are folding it up otherwise you risk having footprints on the ceiling.
  • Make sure you keep a supply of dry firewood.
  • There are dangers to camping: always set down a cup on the ground before filling it with boiling water from a kettle. It is too easy to get burnt by super-heated water if you hold it.
  • I pack a leather glove or pot holders for cooking over camp fires.
  • Take care about where you place knives, barbeque grids or pans as it is easy for others to tread on them in the dark.
  • Make sure your torch is in the same place every night. I keep a small torch in my washbag.
  • Take a hair-dryer. If there is ever an electricity supply you can use it to heat your tent or dry out wet clothes and sleeping bags. We got soaked riding through New Zealand once but arrived at a sheep shears’ shed and found great comfort in drying our socks. I gave this task to rather an annoying German man who took such pride it doing the job thoroughly that he regained our respect on a number of levels.
  • Enjoy every moment.

If anyone has any questions, please leave a comment below.

If you would like to read more about my current adventures please click here

StudioCanal hold a vast selection of the best photographs from ‘Swallow and Amazons’ in their libray and have an on-line shop here.

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Filed under Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, British Film, David Wood, Dinghy sailing, Film, Film Cast, Film History, Filmaking, filmography, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, sailing film, Sophie Neville, Swallows & Amazons, Swallows and Amazons, titty, Titty in Swallows and Amazons, Travel, truelife story, Uncategorized, Vintage Film, Virginia McKenna

Recent comments on ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

‘I bought a signed copy of The Making of Swallows & Amazons and have just finished reading it. It’s a lovely, flowing read and I loved all the interesting details, especially chapters 12 to 18 in the later half of the book… I shall treasure it.’ Nigel

Blu-ray fishing scene

‘I am thoroughly enjoying reading your diary entries and hearing how life was on set etc… All the things I have always wanted to know about the film are in the book! I do hope you have lovely memories of all the locations you filmed at, especially Bank Ground Farm. Jonathan, who now owns the place and does all the farming has made my family and I very welcome indeed! (only) we can not tack up the field as they are growing it for Silage!!!! Thank you for inspiring my family and I so much! Yours sincerely, Benjamin’ (aged 10) ‘P.S. We’re off to Wild Cat Island tomorrow!’

Blu-ray Lookout tree

Simon West as Captain John by the lighthouse tree

‘All of your recollections are insightful and tinged with humour (as always). In particular the story about Mrs Batty locking out the film crew and all the Cumbrian characters that were involved in the film. I didn’t know George Pattinson appeared in the Rio scene either, and I can just imagine the giggles you must have had when watching the double-deckers playing footsie with one another!’ David.

Blu-ray Amazon Pirates

Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour as the Amazons stranded on Wild Cat Island

‘Good little book full of information and funny tales.’ Jennifer

‘This book has rekindled my interest and memories from the 70’s when I first saw the film and read all the books, so well written and very entertaining, in some ways it ll seems a long time ago but this book makes it seem like yesterday! Thoroughly recommended.’ Richard on Amazon.co.uk

‘Loved your book about filming Swallows & Amazons – my favourite childhood film, very nostalgic.’ Nicola

‘Just wanted to say how much I am enjoying The Making of Swallows & Amazons. What a wonderful time you all had… I have all the books & love the film & TV series Coot Club and The Big Six, so it’s fab to read about them.’

Blu-ray John rowing swallow

Sten Grendon, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton in Swallow

If you would like to write a short book review, please click here for the link.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, British Film, Cumbria, family Entertainment, Family Film, Film History, filmography, Memoir, Sophie Neville

Taqui Altounyan on Peel Island

Amazon, originally known as Mavis, now rsiding at the Coniston Museum

Amazon, originally known as Mavis, now residing at the Coniston Museum

People come from all over the world to visit Mavis, the traditional gaff-rigged dinghy known to all those who love the Arthur Ransome books as Amazon. She has been lovingly renovated but, still being a bit leaky, is on permanent display at the Coniston Museum in the Lake District. It was in this clinker-built dinghy and another little ship named Swallow that the Altounyan children learnt to sail on Coniston Water in the late 1920s.

Mavis in the Coniston Museum

In later life they used Mavis to teach their own children and grandchildren to sail. She was kept in Brigit Sander’s (ne Altounyan) boathouse at Slate Quay, which so resembles Ransome’s illustrations of the Amazon boathouse.

SUZIE, TAQUI, BRIGIT

Suzie, Taqui and Brigit Altounyan

One of the secrets of  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is that the character of Captain John, was, if anything, loosely based on a the eldest girl in the family. Arthur Ransome obviously needed to balance genders and have two boys and three girls instead of only one boy, as in real life. Taqui Altounyan seemed to take this in her stride, giving him what advice she could. She has detailed this in her memoirs of the family’s lives:  In Allepo Once and Chimes from a Wooden Bell  – excellent books that have become much sort after.

Roger Wardale, author of many books about Arthur Ransome and the locations he used in his stories, kindly sent me these photographs of Taqui that he took when she was showing him some of the places where she played as a girl.

Taqui on PEEL Island -

Taqui Altounyan on Peel Island, Coniston Water

The Lake District, where her Collingwood Grandparents lived, was obviously a special place for her.

Taqui at Beacon Tarn

Taqui Altounyan pointing to the rocks from which they would jump into Trout (Beacon) Tarn.

These photographs of Roger’s show her walking back in time,

TAQUI VISITS PEEL I

visit Mavis in Coniston Museum

Taqui + MAVIS

Taqui Altounyan looking at Mavis, who was later renamed Amazon

and go aboard SL Esperance on Windermere,

Taqui, _You can sweep up_

‘You can sweep up’ Taqui Altounyan in Esperance

soaking up the atmosphere in her cabin.

Taqui HOUSEBOAT PICNIC

Taqui Altounyan with Roger Wardale and some of his former pupils inside the Esperance, which was the model for Captain Flint’s houseboat

Very many thanks to Roger Wardale, whose own books can be found listed here.

For more photos of Amazon please click here

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Filed under Arthur Ransome, Biography, Cumbria, Lake District, Memoir, Swallows and Amazons

Ronald Fraser and the Houseboat

Ronald Fraser being transported to the Houseboat

Ronald Fraser with wardrobe master Terry Smith being transported to Captain Flint’s Houseboat played by The Lady Derwentwater. Richard Pilbrow sits amid geraniums on the aft deck in his white hat. ~ photo: Daphne Neville

My diary entry for 24th June 1973 is not exactly revealing. As it was raining steadily in the Lake District, I was given a second day off. ‘We had a quirte morning,’ I wrote. I am sure I needed one. After a heavy week’s filming I’d spent the official ‘Unit Day Off’ writing five end-of-year exam papers, answering correspondence from school friends and going to Kit Seymour’s thirteenth Birthday party. I must have been exhausted. Legally I was meant to have two days off a week. This was the first time it had been possible.

24th June ~ my diary

Suzanna Hamilton’s diary adds little more, but my mother was on set, as was a journalist from The Guardian, so I can tell you what happened. I can even tell you what the location caterers from Pinewood cooked that day: Melon, followed by roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, boiled or roast potatoes, peas and carrots with apple crumble or tinned peaches served with custard or evaporated milk. It was a Sunday. Suzanna noted that we had ‘salad for super’, her favorite food.

Set dresser Ian Whittaker, Ronald Fraser and one of the Prop Men on the houseboat ~ photo: Daphne Neville

“The houseboat has been converted from a pleasure steamer,” wrote Michael McNay in the Features section of The Guardian, “the whole of the superstructure fore faked up by props, the cabin aft converted into a retired colonist’s sittingroom – African rug, flowery curtains, assegais on the walls, an ebony elephant with silver howdah and trappings, a walnut wireless cabinet, tall brass oil lamps, a pile of 78rpm records, a silver mounted cricket ball (presented to G.Gumbleton, 1899, for the highest individual score of the season), a chest, a writing desk and an ancient upright Imperial.” I have typed this up exactly as it was published on 7th July 1973.

By props, I don’t think Michael McNay meant pit-props. He was talking about the work of the design team headed by Simon Holland. Ian Whittaker, who later won an Oscar for set dressing, helped Simon to create Captain Flint’s cabin with one of the Prop men who is photographed here. Does anyone know his name? I think it might be Terry Wells. I expect the cane chairs and side table were being temporally stored on the roof when this snap shot was taken so as to make space for camera and lights. The gaffer and camera crew would have been in the process of setting up inside the cabin. Sound would not have settled in yet. How do I know that after all these years? I can see the recordist’s arm at the left of the photograph. I still remember his coat.

“Ronald Fraser, alias Uncle Jim, is tapping away at a book.” Michael continues. “Last minute panic: who can type out quickly a folio of copy to leave nonchantly in the roller?”  That would have been Sue Merry, the continuity girl.  The first scene was probably the one in which Uncle Jim is typing with the green parrot on his shoulder when a firework goes off on his cabin roof. I wonder if Arthur Ransome had ever been disturbed by the Altounyan children in such a way. Did he use an Imperial typewriter?

The film crew were on location on Derwentwater. “By now, the houseboat has been moved and moored to the western shore just off a promontory that is being faked up as one end of Wild Cat Island.” The houseboat, really one of the stars of the movie,  was being played by a long-time resident of Cumbria, The Lady Derwentwater. A 56 foot motor launch, owned by the Keswick Launch Company since 1935, she returned to real life after the filming, rather like I did. She still carries up to 90 passengers. You can go out on her today.

Was this the houseboat Arthur Ransome had in mind?  The photograph was taken by Martin Neville in 1973

My father, who is keen on steamboats, had been off to find the real houseboat that Arthur Ransome had in mind. Am I right in thinking this must have been the original Gondola? I expect she was too un-seaworthy for the production team to contemplate using in 1973.  A reliable, water-tight boat that could be towed into the location used for Houseboat Bay was needed. Last year we went to see TSSY Esperance   at the Windermere Steamboat Museum in Cumbria, which is another Victorian steam yacht invisaged by Ransome as a possible model for Captain Flint’s houseboat. It is a beauty but we did get a better view of the lake from of the cabin windows in the Lady Derwentwater.

TSSY Esperance, the 1869 Steam Yacht, at the Windermere Steamboat Museum, Cumbria in Apirl 2011

“The rain has stopped, the mist is lifting from the 1,500 foot ridge of Cat Bells. Fraser climbs gingerly aboard, awkward in co-respondent’s brown and white shoes, rosy make-up and moves into the aft cabin.” McNay continues. He is describing the main scene to be shot that day. “John, alias Simon West, is in a rowing boat 15 feet away… The problem this time is that the rowing boat has to remain anchored but look as though Simon is pulling steadily in towards the houseboat and the anchor rope has to remain hidden.” This must have been so that Swallow could be lined up acurately and remain in focus for the camera.  It is one of the secrets of making the film that I have been asked about directly.

“Simon shows Claude Whatham how he’ll manage it. Quick rehearsal inside the cabin. Ronald Fraser on his knees by the chest folding a white pullover, catches sight of approaching boat, mimes angry surprise. Told not to jerk head so far back. Instead jerks eyebrows up. The cabin is no more than eight foot by ten and contains besides Fraser and the props, four men on a camera, one on lights, and the continuity girl.” McNay had not included Claude the director, who I know would have squeezed in since these were the days before monitors from the camera feed. And he was small. The sound recordist was bigger but may have just planted a microphone on the desk.

“On the small aft deck Pilbrow is for the next few minutes going to be redundant.” This is Richard Pilbrow, who now lives in Conneticut and I am sure will read this post. “He is a mild, inoffensive looking man producing his first film. He is 40… looks like your friendly local antiques dealer.  He and Whatham are a good team: Whatham is slight, energetic and calm. He has time, even as a sequence is being set up, to ask the Press if they can see enough of what’s going on from the crampt aft deck of the housebaot. It’s a cheerful crew, (Denis Lewiston the DOP) watching clouds overhead with benign suspicion, taking light meter readings inside and out-side the cabin every 30 seconds.

‘Stand-by Simon.’

‘Action,’ said quietly into the cabin.

‘ACTION,’ across the lake to Simon. The clapperboard shows 461 take 1. Fraser folds the pullover, looks up, jerks eyebrows in angry surprise, camera swings round to follow Fraser’s gaze through the window, Simon pulls on left oar, keeps the rope hidden.

‘CUT.’

Pause.

‘Stand by. Quiet everybody. Action. ACTION (461 take 2) … CUT.’

‘Once more please. Stand by. Action. ACTION (461 take 3) …. CUT.’

There’s a consensus that the third take was best. Ten minute break while the suceeding sequence is prepared: Fraser rushes out on deck and tells Simon to clear off. That too is filmed in triplicate. The time is 12.45. They started work at 6.30, began filming at 12.25 and they’ve got maybe 45 seconds in the can. Everybody seems pleased.”

The Gondola

The Gondola on Coniston Water today, re-built and restored by the National Trust, powered by steam and taking passengers down the lake from April to November.

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Filed under 1973, Acting, Arthur Ransome, Autobiography, Biography, Cinema, Claude Whatham, Cumbria, Diary, Film, Film Cast, Film Catering, Film crew, Film History, Filmaking, Lake District, Memoir, Movie, Movie stories, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Suzanna Hamilton, Swallows and Amazons, truelife story, Uncategorized