In search of Swallowdale

Sylva Simsova

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"Which middle class child of the Thirties would not know Swallowdale," asked one of my friends when I spoke enthusiastically about my newly discovered author. I was taken aback because although I had been a child in the Thirties myself I did not discover him until the Sixties when I read the complete Swallows and Amazons adventures with my children. At times I felt as if I was re-living my own childhood and making up for experiences missed then. However, having since collected most of what had been said about Ransome I want to resolve some of the contradictions in the reaction of the grown-ups to his work and say something about my own findings.

The first volume of the Swallows and Amazons series will be forty years old this year. Could the differences of opinion about his books be explained by the changing attitudes of the generations? Some of earliest readers are grandparents by now. Did their children read him, are their grandchildren reading him now? Do the younger generations discover him for themselves or are they encouraged by their parents who initiate them into the cult of Ransome reading and does this produce alternate generations of spontaneous Ransome-lovers and Ransome-haters? Or do all the generations meet in Ransome land as peacefully as Peter Duck and Ben Gunn in their cave?

In trying to find an answer to these questions I have carried out a modest pilot survey among the first year students of librarianship at the North Western Polytechnic whose ages range from 18 to well over 35. The questionnaire enquires into their own experience of Ransome’s books and their views of his popularity with the children of today. As far as one can judge from a small sample like this there seems to be no significant difference in the attitudes of various age groups. There is just one solitary comment which seems to confirm that a generation conflict could influence attitudes to Ransome’s books: “I disliked him because I knew Mummy liked him and wanted me to read him.”

The reasons given for liking and disliking his books in this survey correspond very closely to those described in the literature about Ransome (see bibliography in appendix) and I shall not go into detail here except to say that none of them say anything about social class. It seems that to a child’s enjoyment or dislike of a book the problem of class is irrelevant. Looking back to their childhood memories of Ransome those who answered their questionnaire speak of adventure, involvement, excitement on the positive side, repetitiveness and length of the books on the negative side. Their assessment as adults of today’s children’s attitudes is however different: here class seems to play a prominent part. It would be interesting to ask contemporary children themselves to see to what extent the “middle class" label given to Ransome’s books is just an invention of the adult world. The label “aristocratic” has no more to do with a child’s enjoyment or rejection of the Arthurian romances than “middle class” has with the Swallows and Amazons,.

After discussing Ransome’s books with various children and their parents I have come to the conclusion that he is one of those authors who are either liked or disliked, leaving a few shades of feeling in between. Similarly divided are the opinions about the individual characters in his books. His are not the one-hero books; every volume has a group or several groups of children and having discussed with one mother how each of us liked or disliked Nancy it occurred to me that I should try to find out how the different characters are liked by Ransome readers. I included therefore two questions about this in my survey. The answers are by no means unanimous and I suspect they have a great deal to do with the personality of the reader. Ransome’s characters would in fact be suitable material for projective technique. One can find definite Susan-, Titty- and Nancy-preference types: “I liked Titty best because she was very real and I thought she was like me in some ways”. “I disliked Susan because I have never been practical or sensible in my life”. “I liked Nancy because she was full of ides.” “I disliked Nancy because she was bossy”. It would be interesting to correlate this kind of answer with the typological classification of the person who gave it.

Children identify with the characters of their books unconsciously. In the one-hero book (e.g. Robinson Crusoe) their choice is simple. In stories of the multiple-hero type it is more complicated and the child does not feel at ease until he finds himself in it. In the case of my daughter aged eight the choice was simple right from the beginning: She was Peggy and she was confirmed in her choice by the fact that she had been introduced to the books by an older girl - an obvious candidate for Nancy. For her brother aged ten the choice was not so easy. Being older he would have liked to be John, but the part did not fit him; nor did the part of Captain Flint. Much that he enjoyed the books for their story he did not, I suspect, feel fully at home until Dick appeared on the scene. With Dick his identification was instant and complete, and thanks to Ransome for introducing Dick among his “non-bookish” characters. I am sure that my son is not the only one to whom Dick has brought relief from their feeling of discomfort. “I liked Dick and Dorothea best because they were not so clever about boats,” said one of my students. As for myself I have secretly identified myself with Susan, but out of respect for the generation gap I had to be satisfied with the title “the best of all natives” - a great compliment indeed coming from Nancy and Peggy.

My curiosity has led me, like so many readers before me, to enquire into the historical background of Ransome’s characters. The story of the originals of Swallows and Amazons is sufficiently well known and documented. Ransome wrote about them in his contribution to Kunitz [14], retold on p.16-7 of Shelley [23]. An interesting recent addition to the evidence is the autobiography of the original of John. [1] I must confess that I have found her [sic!] book moving. One becomes used to the idea that in Ransome’s books time stands nearly still spanning about five years. In actual fact Ransome took seventeen to write them. Although some readers perhaps speculate what the children would be like when they grow up [Shelley p.19] the stern reality of the facts can be somewhat upsetting. The Second World War and the timelessness of the Lake do not go well together.

At least some Ransome enthusiasts are sooner or later beset by a wish to see the country of the stories. It came upon us just after reading Swallowdale. The half-term holiday was conveniently near and we used it to spend a few days in the Lake District to look for Swallowdale. There was nothing original in this - I suppose that many other readers have done the same, and three American ones have written about it. [3, 4, 22]

Shelley in his monograph describes how Ransome “carefully worked out the course from Lowestoft to Crab island so that the adventurous could actually sail there and back with the aid of the text and end-paper maps. [p.36] If this is true of Peter Duck it should be even more true of Ransome’s other books and so, accepting the challenge, I armed myself with the “text and end-paper maps” of Swallowdale and first went to the British Museum to study the large scale O.S. maps.

Ransome's hand-drawn maps are neither accurate nor to scale. Moreover, with successive adventures they grow: details are added, proportions change, making comparison with a proper map difficult. “Future explorers must no rely on this map in calculating distances” warns Capt.Nancy Blackett on the endpapers of Winter Holiday, and the same can be said about other illustrations. The Swallowdale that we finally found was smaller than we have imagined. To a child’s eye everything appears evidently bigger. In spite of the general inaccuracies, some particular features are recorded realistically on Ransome’s maps and can be identified at a glance.

Ransome made two statements about the geography of his books: One in the “Author’s note” written in 1958, which appears in some recent editions, and another in a letter to the Junior bookshelf in 1937. [19] In neither of them did he say where Swallowdale was. Bearing in mind, however, that “...every single place in all those books exists somewhere...” although “....there had to be a little pulling about of rivers and roads...”, we set out from a bay which looked most like Horseshoe Cove. Following a beck, half-heartedly at first, we came to a waterfall. This was the most exciting moment of our trip as, according to the book, Swallowdale should be immediately above the waterfall. And there it was. A little smaller, perhaps, than we expected, slightly wet for camping (at that time of year - it was late October), but it was exactly the shape with knickerbrockerbreaker on one side, enough room for four tents, and another, smaller waterfall at the place where the beck entered the valley. “No one looking up from the stream below the waterfall could have guessed that just up there, only a few yards away, there was a valley..” The only puzzling thing was that the Swallowdale we found seemed to be a mirror image of the Swallowdale in the book. The place for the tents was on the Northern instead of the Southern side of the valley.

Nearby we found the Watchtower Rock. “The best way of climbing it, up or down, was on the side of it nearest to Swallowdale ”. From the top of it we could see, just as the books describe, the Lake with Wild Cat Island as well as the moors which the Amazons crossed from Beckfoot while invading Swallowdale.

To our disappointment, no matter how hard we looked through the wet bracken, there was no sign of Peter Duck’s cave though we found a few cracks in the rock big enough for a small animal to crawl through.

Horseshoe Cove was swampy and I could well understand why the Swallows had to move away before the rains came. The beck was much smaller than we expected and it was not possible to crawl under the bridge. This made me think that perhaps some features oft the Cunsey Beck from Windermere had been added. From the top of Watchtower Rock it was possible to see the whole course of the beck winding its way through the marshes.

As to the identity of the river Amazon, it is not, in my opinion, the River Rothay on Lake Windermere, as Bodger [4] thinks, but Torver Beck on Coniston. My reasons are as follows: its position in relation to Wild Cat Island (Peel Island), to Swallowdale and to Kanjenjunga (Old Man of Coniston), as well as the general shape of its mouth on Ransome’s map when compared with the O.S. map. From a description in the books there should be a boathouse on the right bank, followed by Beckfoot, then a bend in the river, a bridge, another twist and waterfall. I did not visit this area on foot, but judging from a detailed examination of the large scale O.S. map it seems very probable that the lower reach of the River Amazon is indeed Torver Beck. In the upper reaches Ransome’s map of the Amazon gives Torver Beck a wrong course. Another thing which Ransome seems to have added is the Octopus Lagoon. There is no lagoon of this shape on Torver Beck, although one exists at the extreme South of Coniston Water (Allan Tarn).

During their trip to Kanjejunga, the Swallows and Amazons followed the Amazon right up to Watersmeet. Its position is shown on the map in Pidgeon Post and its most likely counterpart on the O.S. map is the confluence of the becks near Tranearth. The instructions given to the Swallows by the Amazons was “Follow the beck right up till you come out of the trees and you’ll find yourself in a gorge half way up the mountain.” My guess is that they followed the Well Beck to Walna Scar Road. In fact there is a place on the Walna Scar Road which we approached on the way down from the Old Man which looks very much like Half-way Camp where the Swallows spent their night on the way up.

It seems that Ransome’s Lake is put together from the following parts: The South-Western bank of Coniston, the Eastern and Northern bank of Windermere with Rio (Bownes) and North Pole (Ambleside). According to Ransome himself Wild Cat Island is taken from Coniston (Peel Island), but the Cormorant Island from Windermere (Silverholme). Local names are used in Ransome’s books, but not always in the right places. Thus “Dixon Ground” is the name of a farm through which we passed on the way up the Old Man, and Holly Howe is the name of the Youth Hostel in Coniston where we stayed overnight.

The whole adventure might have been a wild goose chase, but we all enjoyed it and I came to understand what Ransome meant when he said long after completing his series [21]: “...The writing of a story is for him [the author] a way of life, perhaps the richest, the most profoundly stirring way of life he knows. Only stories that have meant this kind of living to their authors can induce that kind of living in their readers...”. Our lives have certainly been enriched by Ransome’s books.

Published in Children's Book News 5(4)Aug 1970 164-7

[1] ALTOUNYAN, T. In Aleppo once. Murray, 1969.
[2] BAMBERGER, R. Arthur Ransome and a treasure chest for the whole world. Junior Bookshelf, January 1964, 31-2.
[3] BECKER, M.L. Choosing books for children. OUP, 1937, p.130-1.
[4] BODGER, J. How the heather looks. Viking Press, 1966, p.254-64.
[5] BOTT, G. Arthur Ransome, School Lib., December 1960, p.203-9.
[6] BOTT, G. A little lower than the angels. Junior Bookshelf, January 1964, p.15-21.
[7] CROUCH, M. Treasure seekers and borrowers. Library Association, 1962, p.70-4.
[8] CROUCH, M. Dr Arthur Ransome, C.B.E. Junior Bookshelf, August 1967, p.219-20.
[9] DOYLE, B. comp. Who’s who in children’s literature. Evelyn, 1968, p.228-30.
[10] EYRE, F. 20th century children’s books. British Council, 1952, p.9,58.
[11] DUFF STEWART, C. “Those Ransome kids” - A canadian view. Junior Bookshelf, January 1964, p.23-5.
[12] FISHER, M. Intent upon reading. Brock., 1964, p.274-82.
[13] GREEN, R.L. Tellers of tales. Kaye & Ward, 1969, p.258-63.
[14] KUNITZ & HAYCRAFT. Twentieth century authors. 1942
[15] LOMAS, D. Arthur Ransome - a Brithday appreciation. Junior Bookshelf, January 1964, p.27-9.
[16] MEIGS, C. ed. A critical history of children’s literature. Macm., 1953, p.546-7.
[17] PERSSON, L.C. Dr.Ransome in Sweden. Junior Bookshelf, January 1964, p.33-4.
[18] Publishers Weekly, October 27, 1945 p.1946-8 on Arthur Ransome and his books for children; December 1, 1945 p.2415 letter giving Ransome’s address.
[19] RANSOME, A. A letter to the editor. Junior Bookshelf, July 1937, p.3-5.
[20] RANSOME, A. A bookshop for children. Canadian LA Bull., August 1954, p.15-8.
[21] RANSOME, A. On writin for “age groups”. Library Journal, October 15, 1954 p.1973.
[22] SALTUS, Elinor. Elementary English. [not seen]
[23] SHELLEY, H. Arthur Ransome. Bodley Head Monograph, 1960.
[24] TOWNSEND, J.R. Written for children. Miller, 1965, p.107-9.
[25] TREASE, G. Tales out of school. Heinemann, 1964. P.139-40.
[26] WHITE, D.N. About books for children. OUP, 1946. P.88-90.
[27] WULFF, L. These books are Royal favourites. Daily Mail Ideal Home Book 1949-50, p.236-7.

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