Swallows and Amazons
‘Swallows and Amazons’ is the first book in a series of 12 by the English author Arthur Ransome. It was first published in 1930, with the action taking place in the summer of 1929 in the Lake District.
The book was due to be (summer 2013) made into a film by Harbour Pictures and BBC Films, with Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley in the ITV period drama ‘Downton Abbey’, staring as James Turner (Captain Flint). Filming, now delayed, is rescheduled to start in the spring of 2014, with Coniston, Windermere, Ullswater and Derwentwater all featuring.
Four children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker, are on holiday for the whole summer in the Lakes exploring the islands in their boat (the Swallow of the title). The lake seems at first to be all their own until they run across two local girls, self styled “Amazon” pirates Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who claim ownership of the lake and “Wild Cat Island” by way of a message attached to an arrow fired into the Swallows camp on the island.
All the children meet for a “parley” where it is agreed that the leader of the team that captures the others’ boat will become overall Captain. But in time a truce is called as the Swallows and Amazons join forces against Captain Flint, the Amazons’ grumpy uncle Jim, living on a houseboat with his parrot on the Lake.
This is a story of childhood innocence between the wars, sprinkled liberally with references to classic adventure tales and a colonial age of exploration and derring do, and set among sparkling clean waters and open fells under sunny skies. A place where children play safely and roam freely, without an adult in sight.
Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds on 18th Jan 1884. As a small boy he had holidays around Coniston, and attended preparatory school in Windermere, which gave Ransome an early taste for Lakeland. After completing his education, he worked in London, coming North whenever he could. After a variety of jobs, including working in Russia, he returned to Cumbria for much of the rest of his life, where he got the inspiration to write his children’s stories.
Ransome said that every place in the book could be found in the Lakes – he used existing locations and mixed them up. The lake in the book is a version of Windermere but the surrounding countryside resembles Coniston. Arthur Ransome used many places around Coniston Water to describe his imaginary lake.
Wild Cat Island, the location of the island camp, has elements from Peel Island in Coniston and Blake Holme (or Blakeholme) in Windermere.
Holly Howe, the fictional family home of John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker was largely based on Bank Ground Farm on the eastern shore of Coniston Water, and used for the 1974 film. Bank Ground Farm is now a Guest House with a tea-room and self-catering cottages.
The book was inspired by a summer spent by Ransome teaching the children of his friends, the Altounyans, to sail. Three of the Altounyan children’s names are adopted directly for the fictional Walker family. Ransome and Ernest Altounyan bought two small dinghies called Swallow and Mavis. Ransome kept Swallow until he sold it a number of years later, while Mavis (Amazon in the story) remained in the Altounyan family and is now on permanent display in the Ruskin Museum in Coniston.
There are special interest cruises on the Coniston Launch which explore the locations used by Arthur Ransome in his books. The Steam Yacht Gondola which sails around Coniston, gave the idea for Captain Flint’s houseboat, although this was eventually modelled on Esperance (now at Windermere Steamboat Musem).
The Mountain Goat company offers a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ minibus tour covering Arthur Ransome’s Lakeland, including Gummers How, a ride on the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway, Esthwaite Water, a cruise on Coniston water, and the Rusland Valley.
The ‘Amazon’, originally named the ‘Mavis’, is now on loan to the Ruskin Museum by the Altounyan family. The location of the original ‘Swallow’ is unknown but the replica used in the 1974 film has been restored, and is used around the country for sailing experiences. See www.sailransome.org.
The 1974 film of Swallows & Amazons featured several locations not in the original book, including the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, and the Motor Vessel Tern on the Windermere Lake Cruises.
The photographs on this page were supplied by Sophie Neville, who played Titty in the 1974 film.
The secrets of filming ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1973) by Sophie Neville :
Related Links :
- Sophie Neville’s blog
- In search of the old film locations
- Swallows & Amazons Adventure Days for Kids at Glenridding Sailing Centre
- Mountain Goat Swallows & Amazons Tour
- The Arthur Ransome Society – Swallows and Amazons
- Amazon DVD – Swallows & Amazons 1974 movie
- IMDb – Swallows & Amazons (1974)
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