On the trail of Swallows & Amazons in the Lake District

Arthur Ransome never revealed the exact locations found in his children’s classic – Claire Webb sets sail to discover them

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As thousands of children since 1930 have discovered following in the footsteps of the Walker siblings is an adventure in itself.

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Whether out of mischief or pragmatism, author Arthur Ransome patched together the lake in his classic Swallows and Amazons stories, blending his favourite corners of Coniston Water, Windermere and Derwentwater.

The girls and boys who wrote to Ransome asking the whereabouts of Wild Cat Island or Octopus Lagoon always received the same tantalising reply on an illustrated card: “The only way to keep a secret (your own and other people’s) is NEVER to answer a question. But you seem good at guessing. All the places in the books are to be found, but not arranged quite as in the ordnance maps.”

This week, a new dramatisation of the children’s classic arrives in cinemas, which will surely set many more young fans on the Walkers’ trail.

When it came to shooting the sailing scenes for the film, director Philippa Lowthorpe eschewed Windermere in favour of quieter Coniston Water and Derwentwater – and Cumbria has never looked lusher or lovelier.

Twenty-five years after I devoured the books, on a blustery July afternoon, I undertake my own voyage of discovery at Coniston Water, telling myself that Captain John, Mate Susan, Able-seaman Titty and the Boy Roger wouldn’t be deterred y the threat of rain.

Lacking both sailboat and skills, I opt for the more sedate Coniston Launch, which cruises around the lake several times a day.

“Windermere claims Blake Holme islet is Wild Cat Island, but we dispute that,” explains tour guide Robert Thompson, pointing out Coniston Water’s rival islet. 

“Peel Island is a bit small but it’s definitely the original.” He continues, eyes twinkling: “I think the character of the lake in the stories is more akin to Coniston. It’s unspoilt, more remote. You can be wild here.”

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Dane Hughes, Orla Hill, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby McCulloch as the Walker children

Thompson is a member of the Arthur Ransome Society and his 90-minute Swallows and Amazons-themed cruise has attracted enthusiasts from as far afield as Japan.

He makes a compelling case for Coniston Water, although cheerfully admits that Ransome himself confided to an acquaintance that one shore of his “lake as big as a small sea” was Coniston Water and the other was Windermere.

As we motor around the lake, sunshine pierces the clouds and the Old Man of Coniston emerges from his cloak of mist.

The 800m fell over the pretty, grey-stone houses of Coniston village. In Swallowdale, the second of Ransome’s 12-book series, it’s better known as Kanchenjunga, and it’s easy to see why it inspired awe in the author’s young heroes.

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Coniston Village on Coniston Water

Nearby Bank Ground farm is thought to be the inspiration for the Walkers’ holiday home – Holly Howe – and is today a tearoom.

Ransome pinched the name from a large house (now a YHA hostel) to the north of Coniston village. It doesn’t require much of a leap of the imagination to envisage Captain John’s crew launching their trusty boat, Swallow, from the little jetty below.

The next stop is Brantwood House, which didn’t make it onto Ransome’s map but is worth a detour: it was the residence of Victorian art critic and visionary John Ruskin.

A steam-powered yacht carrying day-trippers chugs past. It turns out it’s a replica of the boat that serviced Coniston Water from the 1860s to the 1960s, on which Ransome modelled Captain Flint’s houseboat.

During the Second World War, Ransome and his Russian wife lived in The Heald, a bungalow on the east shore. After he swapped political journalism for fiction, he shuttled between London, the Lake District and East Anglia (where two more of the Swallows and Amazons books are set).

Coniston Water was also where Ransome spent his first halcyon summers in Lakeland. For several summers in the 1890s, his family decamped from their home in Leeds to Nibthwaite, a hamlet at the south end of the lake.

Sometimes young Arthur and his three siblings would row a mile to a little wooded island to picnic: Peel Island. All these years later, “Wild Cat Island” is still only accessible by canoe or rowing boat and kayaking company Joint Adventures does guided trips.

It belongs to the National Trust, which doesn’t allow fires or overnight camping, but wannabe Swallows can paddle into the rocky “hidden harbour”.

As Ransome explained in a note in the 1958 edition, those childhood summers inspired a lifelong love of the Cumbrian countryside, which he kindled in his readers.

“No matter where I was, wandering about the world, I used at night to look for the North Star”, he wrote, “and in my mind’s eye, could see the beloved skyline of great hills beneath it.”

Swallows and Amazons is in cinemas from Friday August 19th

ESSENTIALS

For more on the Lakes, go to visitengland.com and golakes.co.uk  

A 90-minute Swallows and Amazons cruise with Coniston Launch costs from £16.50 per adult and £8.25 per child. conistonlaunch.co.uk

Joint Adventures offers a guided kayaking tour to Wild Cat Island from £33 per person for a half-day trip. jointadventures.co.uk

Claire Webb stayed at Leathes Head Hotel, Borrowdale Valley, Keswick leatheshead.co.uk and travelled around the Lake District in a hire car from Co-Wheels Car Club co-wheels.org.uk


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