Writer’s blog

Quotes for the 3rd edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’

Movies are made for watching. In the end, they belong to those who love them and it is wonderful to hear of the impact they have had on people’s lives.

The screenwriter Caleb Ranson wrote: “You’ve no idea how thrilling this is for me to hear from you. Swallows & Amazons was a life changing cinema visit for me, set me off on my path writing/producing TV/films. I played the soundtrack album every night for years. And I love your book BTW, bought it when it first came out.”

Paddy Heron of Children in Read describes the movie “Swallows and Amazons”(1974) as ‘a national treasure of a film.’

Nigel Seymour wrote to say, “that the original film has an ambience which cannot be calculated.  It sits in time, yet it is as fresh as if it was made yesterday!” An international musician today, Nigel believes, “It possesses a simplicity of life we’ve lost, so watching it is a refreshing reminder of great days… a journey into another dimension and another world steeped with love and belonging adventure and moral understanding, which is shared between a family and accepted. The characters are bought to life almost as if they are an infinite, integral part of the immortality of the story, each giving that picturesque understanding the viewer finds impossible to explain. After watching this film one arrives back in real time with a resounding bang! We wonder why such a simple story can create such an iconic understanding. Why watching this film can make you feel happy, totally complete and yearning to return again and savour that wonderful eternal landscape we have all learned to grow   and love as the lakes.”

Tracy Kenny from Ketts Books wrote: “Swallows and Amazons is a firm family favourite in our house and for a while there, your movie was the only film my eldest would watch!”

The author Catherine Randall said: “I lived and breathed Swallow & Amazons including your film. Knew nearly all the words!”

The fan letters continue to arrive. Each one treasured.

Nigel Young writes: “‘Swallows and Amazons’ is one of those films which sets itself  in that timeless space no one can quite fathom or understand, almost verging on ‘Immortality’.  I’m sure no one at the time working on it, ever thought the film would achieve the cult status it seems to enjoy today. You are possibly smiling when you read this, but it’s a true reflection of a film which is more than a film, and touches on those beautiful innocent moments and times which have been lost forever.”

Charles H Ball wrote: ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was instrumental in helping me through a very stressful period of my life… I will be obtaining ‘The making of Swallows and Amazons’ and no doubt many more of your other publications in due course.

C.H.B. left a review of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’ writing: ‘the feelings of anybody who would have loved to have had the opportunity of actually taking part in the film are summed up by Nancy Blackett when the D’s are explaining how they managed to get to the North Pole a day earlier than planned. ‘And you two came by yourselves and got here through that blizzard?’ said Nancy. ‘However did you find the Pole?’ ‘The blizzard helped really,’ said Dorothea. ‘We were sailing,’ said Dick………..’And we’ve gone and opened the stores,’ said Dorothea. ‘And eaten some of them. You see we lost our food when the sledge turned over and the mast broke…’ ‘Capsized!’ cried Nancy. ‘Mast gone by the board! Oh. you lucky, lucky beasts!’ Some of us will forever envy the lucky children who had the opportunity of a lifetime.

I hope to include all these quotes in the 3rd edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, to be brought out for the 50th Anniversary of the films release in April 2024. Do leave a comment below or write in, letting us know what the film meant to you or how it effected your life.

Diary of a litter picker on Solent shores where I’m told, ‘There is no rubbish.’

‘I didn’t see any rubbish on the beach,’ I was told by a walker as I extracted plastic bottles and tins from the ditch leading down to it. I was glad. I’d cleaned it just before New Year.

Once by the sea I found a Christmas tree and collected half a bucketful of small pieces of PVC rope and elderly plastic that had been washed up on the shore.

Since this is an isolated beach, it shows how much plastic is floating around the Solent. Someone might like their plumb line returned.

While a few things are clearly dropped by mistake,

the amount of litter and aging plastic on public beaches remains unacceptable. I cannot walk by without collecting it.

It takes a good hour to fill each of these buckets, which contain bags of dog poo and dangerous broken glass. They can end up weighing 4Kgs each.

What are helium balloons doing to the environment? I find one a day.

‘There’s no rubbish on the beach,’ I’m assured by walkers, the next week. I agree that it looks okay. It should be fine. I’ve cleared it a hundred times.

But, almost immediately, I find bottle ring and other items dangerous to wildlife. Then I come across fishing line, the fish hooks bound up in weed.

By the time I reach the end of the beach, I have filled my bucket, finding evidence of nitrous oxide canisters chucked into fires. The ghost rope alone could have caused havoc to shipping.

About this much plastic and glass washes up on a half-mile stretch of the Solent every twenty-four hours. It is not always easy to see it, but it’s there.

‘There is no litter,’ I’m told on approaching the foreshore with my dog-walking neighbour. We keep looking anyway. My friend spots this:

Before long, I had a filled my bucket. Again. Perhaps it’s only when you begin litter-picking yourself that you appreciate how bad the problem is. Do join us!

And yet, we didn’t retrieve everything. Can you see what I see?

To see more photos of the odd things we find, please click here

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.

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

Looking back on 2020 with gratitude.

Sophie Neville in Portugal on 1st January 2020

The year 2020 began for me in Portugal, where we were visiting family. I was recovering from a broken arm and disappointed to have to cancel my annual charity ride through southern Africa. However, a lovely girl flew over from the Waterberg to work for me and we had fun designing mugs and clothing, using the illustrations from ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’.

You can see more on Redbubble. The products are of exceptionally high quality and make good gifts. The ‘Swallows and Amazons’ mugs are popular:

Swallows and Amazons mugs
Mugs printed with maps used to illustrate Sophie Neville’s books

When news of the Coronavirus broke out, we launched an appeal to help families in rural South Africa. Very many thanks to those who donated.

The project has been a huge success. Carefully monitored by a qualified nursing sister, and with the help of volunteers from St John’s Church and local donors, food packages are still being distributed to needy families, feeding about 150 people a month. Read the latest news here.

Nursing Sister Grace Ismail reporting back from rural South Africa

Tests were unavailable in March, but I might have had a light version of Covid-19 whist we were working on this fund-raising campaign. I certainly lost my sense of smell and developed a weird blister/rash on one hand and foot after spending ten days in bed with fatigue but no breathing problems.

Sophie Neville reading Lockdown Tales while self-isolating in the garden

My talks, planned for the summer, were cancelled but I read a story for Lockdown Tales, produced by Wildbeast for BBC Radio Suffolk and made available on BBC Sounds. I took part in an online reading of ‘The Picts and the Martyrs’ by Arthur Ransome, recording a chapter at home.

As literary conferences went online, I led a workshop on photographing books for instagram, when we were joined by the award-winning author Claire Wade.

While devising exotic recipes for my next book, I began baking cakes successfully, for the first time in my life, adding cardamon and cloves.

We rolled up a circle in the lawn to make a Lockdown vegetable garden so the children could see how different plants developed. Our dancing carrots became a hit on Instagram.

I photographed one of my husband’s artichokes, winning the Create! competition, organised by the literacy charity SchoolReaders and judged anonymously by Harry Cory Wright.

The prize-winning photograph of an artichoke

I was Highly Commended for a collage made out of sea plastic I’d collected when beach cleaning, which was awarded by Emma Bridgewater. The winning entries were exhibited at the Wilson Stephens and Jones Gallery in Notting Hill.

Seascape - artwork by sophie Neville made from sea-plastic

SchoolReaders invited me to become an author supporter of their work instilling a love for books in the next generation, along with other authors including Joanna Trollop and Sophie Kinsella. We are encouraging people to make a gift in their will.

I began loading illustrations and some of my sketches onto instagram. Do follow this here.

Hailed as ‘the feel-good film of lockdown’,’Swallows and Amazons'(1974) was broadcast on BBC 2 in both April and August. It was screened in Australia in January 2021.

Radio Times ‘Film of the Day’ billing for ‘Swallows & Amazons’

I was invited to talk about the movie memorabilia in a socially isolated edition of BBC Antiques Roadshow at Windermere Jetty, which hopefully will be broadcast in March 2021.

Writer Marc Allum with Sophie Neville at Windermere Jetty in Cumbria

It was wonderful to be able to spend a few days in the Lake District, where Arthur Ransome’s first draft of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is on display.

Sophie Neville with Arthur Ransome’s first draft of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ at Windermere Jetty

In the autumn, a signed First Edition hardback copy of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ was auctioned online, raising an astonishing £201 for BBC Children in Need, exceeding bids for signed copies of books by bestselling authors such as Bernard Cornwall, Jeffery Archer and Adam Kay.

Lakeland Arts organised an online event to celebrate the 90th Anniversary of the publication of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, selling tickets for an evening ‘In Conversation with Sophie Neville, which you can listen to here.

Kett’s Books invited me to speak on Zoom for their ‘Books at Lunchtime’

The greatest days of this unusual year were spent on the Solent, litter picking with my extended family, who came to live with us through lockdown.

We formed a pod of six so had no visitors but I treasured the letters that arrived. I’m collecting quotes for the 3rd edition of ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, which I hope to bring out for the 50th Anniversary. Do write in with your memories.

Reviews and photos from readers are always appreciated, especially on Goodreads and Amazon.

After Christmas, I heard that a historical novel I am currently working on was awarded 3rd Prize in the Association of Christian Writers’ novel competition and was shortlisted for the Eyeland’s Book Awards, who have offered me a writer’s residency in Crete. It is yet to win an award, but these were early drafts.

As were entered Tier 3, I was recognised as ‘Beach Picker of the Year’ by Litter Pickers of the New Forest, a high accolade that marked the end of a quiet but busy year.

‘Beach Picker of the Year’ – Sophie Neville and her dog Flint on the Solent.

I’ve gained 3 pounds and haven’t been to the hairdressers for eighteen months, but we kept safe in our little bubble and are looking forward to a better future when there is no need to wear face-masks.

Diary of a Litter picker – on Solent Shores

This winter we took it upon ourselves to dig these abandoned buoy anchors out of the mud.

We extracted four, all of which were so heavy it was near impossible to carry them away. There has been less litter but the storms bring in all sorts of things.

Plastic pollution has been unremitting but it is good to be making a contribution. It is such a beautiful area, so important to wildlife.

Some of the items are dangerous.

Others have travelled a long way, possibly dropped off ships.

Most pieces are small, some tiny, others revolting. It is satisfying to go out after a storm.

It is then that a lot of PVC rope comes in. It can do a great deal of damage.

I use a bucket as bags flap in the wind and there are often sharp pieces of glass.

Plastic pollution collected from Solent shores Dec 2020 - photo Sophie Neville

They can weigh 4kgs when full. This one contained a lot of old fishing line.

I often find unopened drinks or packets of food.

Almost every day there is a helium ballon and a mask to pick up or extract.

It’s as if the sea is spitting them out.

We sometimes come across amusing pieces, often toys or balls of some kind.

The best thing about collecting plastic pollution is that it gets us out there.

For a full list of things we’ve found washed up on the Solent – click here

Diary of a litter-picker – Winter beach cleaning on the Solent

I am thrilled to announce that I have been awarded a certificate as ‘Beach Picker of the Year’ by Litter Pickers of the New Forest, who presented me with a very good bottle of wine. The sea thanked my three year-old helpers by presenting them with this ball.

The good thing about winter beach cleans is that, instead of picnic litter, you are in with a chance of finding interesting things washed up on the shore. Along with a Tescos’ ‘bag-for-life’, that we filled with pieces of rope, bottles and part of a lobster pot, I found an unopened can of larger, a decent ball and a pristine jar of Nescafe Gold, fully sealed although dated 19/5/19. It must have been floating about in the Solent for some time.

The storms tend to bring in a lot of old plastic. This fishermen’s litter (below) accumulated in the lee of the causeway, out of the wind, but in a nature reserve where otters can be found.

There was a lot to gather. I need to return for more.

PPE is getting everywhere. I’ve been stuffing the masks I find in a jar. I find aged polystyrene, tampon applicators and tangled PVC rope.

I sometimes use a counter to record how many items I pick up. This purple bucketload (below) contained 140 items but can take more than 260, as many pieces of sea plastic are small. It usually ends up weighing between 3 and 4 Kgs.

How long will will it take for all this to disintegrate? It’s interesting to date elderly rubbish. Crisp packets can easily last 40 years.

These ones were only aged about 8, which was a bit disappointing.

Odd things turn up. This mallet was made with a groove along the top, which I understand is used by riggers. It looks as if it came from a fairground.

After the gales this November, I found an undamaged fluorescent light bulb washed up on the Solent. This is my third. I gather these contain mercury. Is it British? Has it been flung off a ship?

By contrast, this large lobster pot buoy obviously belongs to someone. It’s been registered as missing on Facebook but with no response.

The important thing is to keep going, collecting a little but regularly:

It’s then that your eye catches small pieces like fishing line – which we nearly missed –

This is one of three fishy lures collected recently.

It’s good to record just how much plastic pollution accumulates over time. I found about 3 Kgs of rope and micro plastics after scouring this remote beach that I had cleared a month before.

This pollution is being retrieved from ecologically sensitive areas within the New Forest National Park and British seas. Sadly, all this now has to go into landfill – apart from the ball and sealed jar of coffee. It was just what we needed at home.

Sophie Neville collecting plastic pollution from Solent shores.

To see some of the things we found beach cleaning in September, please click here

Sophie Neville being interviewed on ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’

Lakeland Arts, based at the Windermere Jetty Museum, ask how the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was made on location in the Lake District in 1973 –

You can find out more in the illustrated paperback, suitable for all age of readers, entitled ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’, which makes a good Christmas present when combined with the 40th Anniversary DVD with DVD extras.

At Windermere Jetty museum – to see the amazing boats

Simon West, Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) 

In the summer of 1973, I was transported to the shores of Windermere, ‘The Great Lake in the North’ to appear as ‘Titty Walker’ in the classic movie of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, starring Virginia McKenna and Ronald Fraser.

The Swallows approach the jetty in Rio. Which launch is moored outside the boatsheds?

We were fortunate enough to film the scenes set in Rio at Bowness-on-Windermere before the original green boat sheds were demolished in favor of an amusement arcade.

Rio – or Bowness-on-Windermere in 1973 – with SL Elizabeth ~ photo: Martin Neville

George Pattinson brought along his steamboat the Lady Elizabeth, which you can see here beyond the Windermere skiffs pulled up on the shore.

George Pattinson in his steam launch Elisabeth ~ photo: Martin Neville

George’s personal collection made up the basis of the Steamboat Museum now rebuilt and known as Windermere Jetty, where we found the Lady Elizabeth under restoration.

Eighteen foot long, she was built in New York State in about 1900 and brought to England, so was likely on Windermere in 1929 when Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’. She sank off Cockshott Point beyond Bowness, but Mr Pattinson salvaged and renovated her in 1955. You can read more here.

The Lady Elizabeth under restoration at Windermere Jetty
The Lady Elizabeth under restoration at Windermere Jetty

Other exhibits included the exquisite steam launch Osprey, in fine fettle with her copper steam kettle kept brightly polished. I knew here from taking part in a Steam Boat Association rally on Windermere in 1991. 

The RNSA dinghies used to play Swallow and Amazon in the 2016 movie can also be seen in the wet dock at Windermere Jetty.

Look up, and you can spy a green beetle on an old burgee. 

Arthur Ransome’s dinghy Conch-y-bonddhu, known as Scarab in his books, is on display with Beatrix Potter’s rough, flat-bottomed rowing boat (the pointed bows of which can be seen here hanging on the wall to the right).

It was good to be able to examine Conchy’s rigging. You can read about her here.

The museum has many other treasures including the hull of the oldest yacht in existence in the Lake District.

Every one of the forty boats exhibited has a story to tell.  You can find out more about visiting Windermere Jetty on their website here.

The Windermere skiffs can still be seen up the road in Bowness where you can begin to look for locations used in the original film.

If you don’t already have a copy you can read about ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons (1974)’ here. This includes maps and chapters on how to find the film locations.

To learn more about the film locations, please click here.

The ebook on ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows and Amazons’, which is similar, is available on all ebook platforms, including Kindle here.

A weekend spent steam boating on Windermere in 1991, is featured in ‘Funnily Enough’, a diary of a year when everything changed, can be found here.

Looking towards the jetty featured in ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) at Bowness-on-Windermere

I look forward to returning to Windermere Jetty when the Lady Elizabeth is on back the water! The museum will be opening soon. Book your tickets here

You can read about the 1901 steam launch Daffodil that I helped to renovate here.

Sophie Neville visiting Windermere Jetty – photo: Caroline Robinson

90th Anniversary of the publication of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ celebrated at Windermere Jetty museum

On Tuesday 1st December, Lakeland Arts are celebrating the 90th anniversary of the publication of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ with an online event accessible for anyone in the world.

After a career as a foreign correspondent, which took him to Russia, Egypt and China, Arthur Ransome wrote ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the hills above Windermere in 1929.

Arthur Ransome portrayed by Dora Collingwood, wife of Dr Ernest Altounyan, on display at the museum

He was inspired partly by his own childhood holidays in the Lake District and partly by the Altounyan children who brought him a pair of red slippers for his birthday to thank him for enabling them to learn to sail on Coniston Water where their grandparents lived.

The first edition came out on 21st July 1930, with no illustrations apart from Spurrier’s maps on the end papers. The illustrated hardback published by Jonathan Cape came out on 1st December 1930, in time for Christmas. It was followed by another eleven (and one unfinished) book in a series that was to be translated and published all over the world.

Sophie Neville with a collection of Arthur Ransome books on display

I paid homage to copies at the Windermere Jetty museum where you can find his desk and typewriter on display with a view looking out over the lake.

Arthur Ransome’s desk and typewriter set under a view of Windermere

Boats, props and film stills from the 2016 film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ are on display, along with a poster of the 1974 movie, depicting Titty in a pink blouse.

Sophie Neville spotting the ‘Swallows and Amazons'(1974) movie poster at Windermere Jetty museum

I was fascinated to find sketches of Titty in Arthur Ransome’s notebook.

Arthur Ransome’s original sketches of Titty

A number of Ransome’s original illustrations were on display and I came across the first draft of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in a glass case.

Tickets to, ‘In conversation with Sophie Neville’, an event hosted by Lakeland Arts, cost £5 and can be purchased here.


Sophie Neville with Arthur Ransome’s typewriter and the original draft of ‘Swallows and Amazons’

In the finals of the Eyelands International Book Awards 2020

Sophie Neville’s lastest work in progress reached the finals for this year’s Eyelands Book Awards under the category ‘Unpublished Historical Novel’

Please scroll down here for a full list of authors and their biographies

‘The Girl Who Got out of Zanzibar’ originally won a place on Eyelands’ Three Rock Writer’s Residency in Crete in September 2019, where Sophie worked on the first 20,000 words. It went on to win third prize in the Association of Christian Writers’ novel competition 2020, when the judge, Tony Collins, described it as: ‘a treat: full of atmosphere, detail, vivid characters, and a love for the island and its culture. I liked the fact that the narrator is a young black girl, which I find refreshing, and the relish with which the food was described is delightful. The underlying theme of FGM (and its place in a patriarchal society, the practice perpetuated by grandmothers) is a dark thread, well sustained, which both horrifies and compels.’

The sequel ‘The Man Who Got Out of Japan’ won the Eyelands Book Award for an unpublished historical novel in 2019. An awards ceremony in Athens is planned for April 2021.