First published in Cumbria magazine, 2012
It was a day when the worlds of fiction and reality overlapped and became somewhat confused. A small girl, looking very like one of the children in a famous story, paddled in the harbour of a tiny island as a brown-sailed dinghy was steered between the walls of rock. “Is it really Swallow?” she asked, watching that iconic flag at the top of the mast, and then found dreams coming true as she was invited on board.
Eve Hankin and her family from Lancaster, and lots of other families who had kayaked or canoed on a warm and sunny autumn day, were picnicking on Wild Cat island. What if the map makers, and those with no romance in their souls, know it as Peel Island? This rocky haven, lying close to the shore at the southern end of Coniston water, has been a place of pilgrimage for generations of the young, and young at heart, for whom Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons is more than just a jolly good tale.
And it was indeed the “real” Swallow which was sailed across to the island after being launched from Brown Howe on the western shore that day. The boat which was used in the 1974 film version, that is. And it’s been acknowledged that the film-makers stayed true to Ransome’s own, fictional, descriptions of the two dinghies in which the Walker and Blackett children sailed to the island for a summer of adventures.
The Amazon of Ransome’s imagination was a real boat, originally named the Mavis, and is now display at the Ruskin Museum in Coniston. The restoration of this boat in 1989 led to the creation of the Arthur Ransome Society. Ransome’s Swallow did exist but no one is sure if she’s still around.
Who knows what happened to the boat that played the role of Amazon in the film? But the film Swallow was taken to a Thames boatyard, where other film props were moored. And she stayed there, for more than 30 years, until she appeared as one of the lots coming up for auction.
Ransome fans the world over – literally – were galvanised into action by Guildford-based Magnus Smith, who used the internet to raise interest, and funds, to buy the historic craft. A consortium was formed, of 83 fanatics, who raised the necessary £5,500 auction price. Among them were Kendal district councillor Rob Boden, and an IT consultant from Humboldt County in California, Dave Thewlis, who first came to the Lake District in 1985 to seek out real locations in the Ransome books. Dave, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Captain Flint, with the addition of whiskers, joined the Arthur Ransome society, created the original AR website, and has run other Ransome-related online sites. He also hosts an online research facility, All Things Ransome.
Dave has researched extensively the places and the props in the stories. There was a Swallow, he says, “but we don’t know if she exists or not, although the chances are pretty high she doesn’t. Swallow was originally owned by Ernest Altounyan (a friend of Ransome, and father of children on whom some of the characters were based) if I remember correctly, and Ransome acquired her when the Altounyans returned to Syria.
“He owned her for some years and ultimately sold her in the mid to late 1930s. She was owned for some time by a young man named Roger Fothergill, who then sold her, and she passed out of sight. No one has found her, so no one can actually say for certain whether or not she still exists. The problem with whether or not Swallow still exists is that the trail is lost after Roger Fothergill sold her, and no one has found anyone who can say for certain what happened to her eventually one way or the other.”
But the “film star” was real enough, and Dave, Rob and other members of the group had Swallow restored, beautifully, at Pattersons boatyard in Hawkshead. She’s since been to the London Boat Show, was launched on Coniston last spring, and spent the late summer taking out Ransome-ites for sailing experiences on Ullswater from the Glenridding Sailing Centre. (Which happens to be the home base of another member of the consortium, Barry Healas, of the Old Gaffers Association, a “gaffer” being a boat with a gaff rig, where the main sail has four sides rather than the triangles you see on most modern boats.)
That’s where I met the crew, having booked for an hour’s sail in Swallow, taking my turn after the Hunter family from Tebay whose daughters, Molly and Ella, have yet to read the stories, but are keen fans of the film. Mine was the final booking, and learning that Rob and Dave were then taking Swallow over to Coniston, to sail her back to Wild Cat Island for the first time in 38 years, I recalled the words of Commander Walker, the father of the “Swallows” children: “Grab a chance and you won’t be sorry for a might-have-been.” Please, I asked them, can I come?
And that’s how I came to be sailing into the harbour of Wild Cat Island. In truth, we didn’t so much sail as drift, for the wind had dropped pitifully. But it was nevertheless a notable and very special occasion, made all the more celebratory because everyone on the island that day recognised the Swallow and reacted with great excitement. Grown men who admired her varnished planking. Mothers who were probably Nancy Blackett at some point in their development. And children of the Harry Potter generation for whom John, Susan, Titty and Roger were as familiar as their friends from school.
“It does prove how enduring the stories are,” said Rob, as he set off with Dave for a tour of the island, to see the camping place, and the beach where the children first landed. In fact, Ransome played around with the geography of the Lake District, and there are elements of both Coniston and Windermere in his descriptions. The film-makers went a step further and also used Derwentwater, which does highlight that overlap between reality and fiction: why can we see Catbells when the dinghies are sailing down to the island?
There is a new film version in the offing, and there are hopes that this Swallow will be used as a prop again. But she was to spend the winter in Kendal, and was not heading south to the Vaudeville Theatre, where the musical version of Swallows and Amazons opened in the West End.
It had premiered the previous Christmas to critical acclaim at the Bristol Old Vic, written by Helen Edmundson with songs by Neil Hannon, of the pop group, The Divine Comedy. This season it ran for five weeks in London, prior to a national tour. The audience response, like that of the kayakers on Wild Cat Island, proved that Ransome’s storytelling truly has an enduring appeal. Is it any wonder: an “exotic adventure to encounter savages, capture dastardly pirates and defeat mortal enemies,” and “a story of an idyllic era, of endless summer evenings and the beauty of youthful imagination”, as the theatre critics raved. Who could resist?