Arthur Ransome: The “Swallows & Amazons” Quartet – Part 1

Swallows & Amazons was, as Ransome intended, the story of the summer just past, but presented for and to the Altounyan children. Adults are, for the most part, removed from the story, until the soothing post-storm final chapter, when they turn up in boatloads, literally. Mrs Walker is Mother, a calm and wise presence just outside the children’s experience, ready to step in and resolve things if it proves necessary, whilst Captain Flint, the supposedly-retired pirate, is at heart nothing but a big kid himself. At a stroke, Ransome had invented a new form of Children’s Literature, the Holiday adventure, where the children are allowed to go off and create their own amusement and enjoyment. It’s a form that’s been ubiquitous since, and which seems so right and logical that it is amazing that it had not existed before then. But in this instance, it was Arthur Ransome who invented the form.
The Swallows are the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, in order of seniority, with baby Vicky (so-called for her resemblance to the late Queen) not yet given her proper title in honour of the baby Altounyan daughter. The Walkers are on holiday at Holly Howe, on the eastern shore of the Lake, whilst Commander Walker is on active service overseas. The farm has Swallow in its boathouse, the Lake has an island of the right size, in the right place and the children want to camp there. Consent is required from the head of the family, and the book begins with the famous telegram that gives consent in an oblique way: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. So off the Swallows go in their little boat to create their own little world, part real, part made-up out of the ingredients of the Lake, including the man on the houseboat in the next bay, who has a cannon on board (in reality, a starter cannon for races), who they immediately name Captain Flint.
The first hundred pages of the book depict the Swallows settling in, and exploring their environment, naming places left, right and centre. Their future partners in crime, the Amazons, are glimpsed, but not introduced: two girls in red stocking caps, sailing a white-sailed fourteen footer out of Houseboat Bay, having let a firework off on the roof of Uncle Jim’s boat: the Swallows sail out in curiosity and are blamed by Captain Flint as they are the only boat in sight. They return to camp only to find that strangers have been there in their absence, leaving a green-feathered arrow stuck in the middle of the camp.
The parties soon come together, in a truce that immediately ends in a declaration of enemyship and a challenge to each side to capture the others’ boat in order to become Admiral of the Fleet. The Amazons, who were based on the image of two girls wearing red stocking caps and messing about in a boat, are Nancy and Peggy Blackett, daughters to a widowed mother, living near the head of the Lake, Properly they are Ruth and Margaret, but Peggy is a diminutive of the latter name and, as for Nancy, she has chosen the name herself, loathing Ruth, and anyway, as Uncle Jim pointed out, Amazon Pirates were ruthless (groan!). The middle of the book focusses on the great battle to capture Swallow or Amazon, which is won, accidentally, by the Swallows, or rather Titty, left alone on Wild Cat Island to hang the leading lights for night sailors to make harbour, and nicking Amazon when the Amazons get there first.
Titty’s night alone in the boat provides the key to the little bit of melodrama that Ransome feels obliged to introduce to the book. It seems that some lads down at Bigland, at the foot of the Lake, have been wondering what’s so valuable that Mr Turner keeps locked up on his houseboat. They conduct a raid on the night of the great battle but, finding the trunk locked, they stash it on the small island to which the sleepy Titty is moored in Amazon. The trunk contains the manuscript of Captain Flint’s memoirs, Mixed Moss (by A Rolling Stone), and the eventual discovery of the trunk cements the growing relationship between Uncle Jim and the Swallows after he realises he has been very wrong in attributing the burglary to, first, his nieces, and then the wholly innocent Swallows.
With all done and dusted, the Amazons join the Swallows at camp on the island, only for everyone to be caught in a severe storm that blows away the Swallows’ Australian tents. Everyone gathers in the Amazon’s tents, taking off into pure fantasy, constructing a story around their being ship-wrecked, the terrors they’ve been through to get there, and the long Robinson Crusoe-esque future ahead of them: far from the case when all the adults descend to rescue the children the following morning, with hot porridge and lifts back to shore. all that remains is a holiday picnic afternoon in another feature of the lake that the local Amazons know and the visiting Swallows are introduced to, and then the holiday is over, and everyone goes back to school.
Swallows & Amazons was not an instant hit. It was published by Jonathan Cape & Co in 1930 and sold slowly, but steadily, drawing upon word of mouth to eventually sell its initial impression of 3,000 copies. For the next impression, the book’s appeal was enhanced by adding a map on the endpapers, twenty full-page illustrations by Clifford Webb. Ransome was not satisfied by Webb’s work, which concentrated more upon visual appeal than on fidelity to the settings, and in due time would replace them, and the map, with his own work. My copy, bought like most the series from the bookstalls at Shudehill in Manchester, during the first half of the sixties, has Webb’s work, which is splendidly atmospheric.
Though it would still be some time until Swallows & Amazons was established as the best-selling classic it would become, its sales were sufficient to have Cape’s commission a sequel. Ransome was already working on one.
What he had in mind was taken off Swallows & Amazons‘ penultimate chapter, the children’s own made-up adventure in the tent at night. Ransome wanted to go the whole hog, write a book that would come from the children themselves. Indeed, the book would include the children’s making up of the story, as the abandoned beginning demonstrates. It’s the winter following the summer of S&A and Captain Flint has hired a static Norwich wherry as a holiday for the children. There, they begin to invent their story.
Evgenia, however, did not like it. Not for the last time, she would prove an influence over Ransome’s writing, and though at this time, her objections to the story ended up with positive results, in time, her gloom and discouragement about the standard of each new work, her fearful concern for the possible effect upon their income, would undermine Ransome to the point where he could no longer worked. This time, her objections were that it was too different to S&A, and that it broke the implicit promise of a direct sequel that Ransome had made in the closing pages of the first novel, with the children promising to meet up the following summer. Under Evgenia’s influence, Ransome abandoned his new book, and the potentially unsustainable structure of the children making things up as they went along. But he would not abandon his idea completely.

The sequel was entitled Swallowdale. It’s the longest book in the series, and also the one in which the least conventional adventure happens. Famously, Ransome had already begun getting letters from excited readers who believed – perceptively – that the Swallows and Amazons were real people, and anxious for a sequel. Ransome asked one eager young fan what he thought should happen in a sequel. The boy suggested that, with Captain John’s somewhat smug confidence in himself as a sailor, it would be a good idea for him to have a crash, and sink Swallow. The delighted Ransome, whilst not giving anything away, heavily hinted in return that he had already thought of this.

Swallowdale takes place in the school holidays of the second summer. The Walkers arrive at Holly Howe, with a surprisingly articulate two year old Bridget (no longer called Vicky because she no longer looks like the Queen – Ransome had, by this time, holidayed at Aleppo and seen for himself). They expect to carry on where last summer left off, but are disappointed not to find the Amazons meeting them at the station, nor at camp on Wild Cat Island.
It seems that the Amazons’ time is being strictly controlled by their Great Aunt Maria, a very Victorian spinster lady with strict and outmoded views on the behaviour of children. The GA, as she is quickly termed, brought up Mrs Blackett and Uncle Jim, who are just as afraid of her as everyone else, indeed more so. The Amazons are towing the line less out of fear for themselves than out of a determination to do as little as possible to give the GA cause to reproach their mother. In the meantime, it’s going to put a crimp in summer plans.
Unfortunately, there’s an even bigger crimp on the horizon. Waking late, rushing and careless to get down to Horseshoe Bay for a meeting with the Amazons, Captain John loses control, and smashes Swallow into an underwater rock. Exactly as Ransome’s fans had wanted to see! But once the mistake is over, seamanship instinct asserts itself. As his siblings swim ashore, John throws Swallow’s anchor as far towards the beach as he can. Then, as a fire is quickly lit to dry the wet Walkers, he dives into the bay to locate the anchor, trace it back to Swallow and, in successive efforts, remove its ballast and redeem himself somewhat by getting the boat raised and beached before adult help is to hand.
Adult help is Captain Flint, who takes command, tows the damaged Swallow to the boatbuilders in Rio and, still indebted to the Swallows over the rescue of Mixed Moss, undertakes the costs of repair. But in the meantime, the Swallows are off the water and the holiday is potentially ruined.
Smart work by the Amazons gets the Wild Cat Island camp transferred to Horseshoe bay before Mrs Walker arrives to do a headcount of her children and authorised their continued camping. They are, at least, on land, though the wrong side of the Lake for her. But Titty and Roger have a surprise for the Swallows.
On an earlier visit to Horseshoe Bay, the youngest children had followed the beck upstream, to discover a compact, hidden valley, with waterfalls at each end, and a glorious cave in one flank (a cave unknown to the Amazons, though Captain Flint remembers it from his childhood). The camp moves to the valley, which is named Swallowdale, and the Walkers settle down to their new surroundings.
The weeks pass, waiting for Swallow’s repair. The Amazons conduct an overland raid, unsuccessfully, but get into trouble for being back late. Titty, in a very weird sequence, tries to make a voodoo doll of the GA, to make her ill enough to go away. But sooner or later, the GA’s visit ends, and the children celebrate with an expedition to climb Kanchenjunga (otherwise known in real life as Coniston Old Man).
This achieved, the story takes its only venture into the dramatic. The walkers have crossed the moor to reach Beckfoot for the expedition, leaving ‘patterans’ to guide them back. Titty and Roger insist on returning by that route, whilst their elders complete their journey by boat. But fog descends on the valley, and the two youngsters get lost, end up in the wrong valley and Roger sustains a sprained ankle. He sleeps overnight in a charcoal burner’s hut, his ankle wrapped in a poultice, Titty is given a lift back to Horseshoe Bay by the Woodcutters and there’s time in the morning for Mrs Walker, arriving at Swallowdale before the ‘stretcher’ with Roger on it is back to get entirely the wrong idea and panic.
This mild flavour aside, there is nothing of drama or melodrama in this book, as there will be in the rest of the series, but that doesn’t make Swallowdale a dull book. Ransome maintains his audiences’ interest throughout with deft ease and a growing assurance in his craft. Swallowdale was published with more maps and pictures from Webb and its young audience snapped up the awaited sequel in sufficient numbers to secure Ransome in his career as a children’s author. Now it was time to tell the children’s fantasy.


Series 2 – 35: Barf

It’s only a little fell, geographically not even a separate entity, a mere extension of Lord’s Seat, but Barf is recognised, indeed demanding of recognition, as a fell in its own right, and the direct ascent is worth relishing.
Things change. A year and a week before, I’d been up for an unexpected weekend with my lady love: a fortnight before we’d been on very friendly terms. Today, it was her 41st birthday, we weren’t on speaking terms and I was on my own, with her on my mind.
Another thing had changed: for the first time in twenty-six years, United were the Champions again. There might be so many things wrong in my life, but in that respect at least, something new had started: it was only six years to my first flight out of the country, to Barcelona, and another kind of mountain top.
But all that lay ahead, and besides was irrelevant. It was hot: not the best conditions for the steepness ahead, all of it under a broiling sun.
I’ve already described Barf, with its five-stage ascent and the whitewashed figure of the Bishop, in the first series. I’d favoured The North Western Fells so much that this rough little beast and one other were all that remained to me. The direct ascent, stiff and unnerving as it sounded, had always attracted me, and it was inevitable that I would want to go up by the most stringent route.
You could call it a compulsion. I was always eager to test myself against the harder routes, rather than settle for those that were safe, but bland. I’d been a walker for ten years now, always travelling within my limitations, but I was beginning to think that maybe I’d been too conservative in my thinking as to limitations.
So Barf direct it would be: park at the Swan, follow the little tarmaced lane into the woods, almost miss the Clerk, hidden in the tall grass, then the immediate steepness of the first stage. All that was ahead was steepness, enough to make a sliding fall a serious thing if I failed to make sure of my step. Little splashes of white reminded me of the volunteers who would lug a bucket of whitewash up here to keep the Bishop’s raiments fresh and pure: it was useful proof that others had made it in harder conditions than I was facing. What must it have been like before the scree was scraped away?
The Bishop came as an achievement, a breathing space and a surprise. Thirty years had gone by since Wainwright had prepared  The North Western Fells and cheekily commented on the pillar’s naked hindquarters, but the volunteers of 1993 had been round the back, and the Bishop gleamed white from all angles.
Next was the scree gully, also spoken of in warning terms by the Blessed, for its loose, treacherous slate. I trod it with caution, favouring the right hand side, but nothing pulled out on my hands when I grasped it and the worst moment was clambering over a raised bar to reach the higher level.
Of course, I was long-since committed. If anything impassable happened to me, I was firmly touring the headwaters of Excrement Creek because, if I could get back down the gully, I I wasn’t going back down the fist stage: not on my own two feet.
Ahead, the ground was easier. I was onto the open fellside, with scrub and bracken underfoot, the easiest gradient to date, making quick progress through a series of mini-dells, eyes fixed on Slape Crag, looming ahead: clearly impassable.
I’d memorised the route so the book could be stuck in my rucksack and I might have both hands free. Therefore I knew that I had to climb to the base of Slape Crag and escape left, along a rock groove like a miniature Jack’s Rake, not that this filled me with comfort. No matter how elastic my limitations might be, there was no way I could stretch them to Jack’s Rake – not before I’d climed all the Wainwrights.
The route was obvious from below: a green slash across the Crag. So I worked my way up to the very base of the Crag, angled left, and set my foot upon it. With yet more trepidation. Because, after about five steps, the next one went over, and round, a rib in the rock, into territory I couldn’t see: into the unknown.
Try as I might, I couldn’t make that step. I couldn’t see where my foot was going to land, so I couldn’t see if there really was anything for it to light on, and what was most terrifying was if I got there and found I couldn’t go any further, and that I really really couldn’t get back over that rib.
I backed off, eyeing the descent glumly, and did what you should always do at times like this (remember the descent off Brim Fell?): read Wainwright.
Which told me that the groove across Slape Crag that I needed was much lower and much lefter. And considerably less unnerving.
The fourth stage took me off the direct vertical ascent. A narrow path stepped smartly away leftish, with steep slopes below for the misstep. I went about a hundred yards, wondering where this was leading to, before a short rake gave me the opportunity to scramble up onto a similar trod heading rightish and upwards, back to the true line.
And to the third summit, from which I could properly look down at last, at Bassenthwaite Lake lying at Barf’s foot, across to Skiddaw’s western flanks, south to the Vale of Keswick. It was all easy slopes, short, sweet, springy turf, and an east final stroll across the second top, to the highest point.
It was still only early afternoon, so I indulged myself with the detour round Lord’s Seat’s top, with Aiken Beck below. I came and went from a different direction to that valley, so there was not to be any memories triggered of a lost piece of writing on that occasion: I had four more years to endure before that moment occurred.
For the descent I chose the easy route, the safe route: into the Forests and tracing the right roads to lead me to the steep but simple path down alongside Beckstones Gill. The profile of the Bishop attracted my camera, but the woods were too thick to permit a shot in which it was proud and visible, so I reached the Clerk without removing my lenscap, but with an added sense of accomplishment that would lead me on to other paths.
The photo is, naturally, of Barf. You can see all of the route up to and including Slape Crag. Would you do that?

R.E.M. – Automatic For The People

Halfway through listening to Automatic for the People for the first time, I decided that it was the best REM album ever. Halfway through listening to it for the second time, I decided that it was the best album ever. Twenty years later, I still haven’t changed my mind.
I love this album. It’s cool and collected, lyrical and beautiful. It begins and ends anthemically, but is full of humour in between It contains the song that, without doubt, will outlast any memories of the band, and also their greatest sing-along success, the indisputable concert-closer for the remainder of their career. Nor is it tied to its times, the way some albums are, or not to my ears at any rate. No matter how many hundreds of times I’ve played it, Automatic for the People still feels fresh to the ears even as it is intimately familiar.
Automatic was the eighth album of REM’s career, and their third since leaving their initial home on independent label IRS. Out of Time (1991) had made them world-wide stars, though it’s a much inferior record, surprisingly thin in its sound and, with the wonderful exception of Losing My Religion, not stocked with great songs. Given that Out of Time was largely dominated by an acoustic sound, in which Peter Buck’s mandolin was undeniably prominent, the band convened to record the follow-up with the intent of making a heavy rock album. Automatic was nothing like.
Instead, the album builds on the acoustic sound of its predecessor throughout, with a single exception in the album’s weakest track. The sound is composed and compact, acoustically “dry” and the band show a greater degree of tightness in their approach to each song. Even the most sparse arrangement sounds full, ironically so in the case of penultimate track Nightswimming, which largely depends on a solo piano, and which is actually an unused song from the Out of Time sessions!
Automatic opens with the first single taken from the album, a UK no 11, Drive. A slow-paced, stop-start chanted anthem, the song builds from a solo acoustic guitar to an anthemic orchestral sweep, underpinned by a lead electric guitar that surfs the rising sound, a form emphasised in the video that depicts Michael Stipe being carried across the shoulders of an infinite crowd, whilst adopting a crucifixion pose. It’s followed by Try Not to Breathe, an insistent song lit by a forceful performance by Stipe, although the song’s subject is death: Stipe tries to imagine being dead, drawn into a foetal position, unmoving. The suggestion is that this is voluntary inanition, a self-willed but not acted upon suicide, yet the song bursts with vitality, continually returning to the repeated backing phrase, You look and I’ll see. I want you to remember, Stipe responds.
The contrasts in this album are shown in The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight, third single (UK no 17). It’s co-credited to the writers of The Lion Sleeps Tonight in acknowledgement of the Wimoweh yodel Stipe sings over the introduction (the band casually cover the original song as one of the bonus tracks on the CD single). Suddenly, we’ve swung to the opposite extreme, a surreal story of shopping lists, sleeping snakes and a chorus insisting that Stipe is only trying to waken her. Mills and Berry repeat this back and Stipe insists that he can always sleep standing up.
After that, we move to Everybody Hurts. This was the fourth single off the album and, though the band reached higher chart positions before and after this, this was their biggest hit, spending a month in the top 10 and peaking for two weeks at no 7 – almost unique in a band whose singles usually entered high then dropped out of sight in the second week.
You know this song, and you will already have your own opinion about it, though I hope it’s not influenced by the charity cover version that was a no 1 UK hit. In its original form it’s simple and austere, led by a piano and guitar combination that provides a platform for one of Stipe’s most passionate vocals. Again, the theme is death, but having experienced the feeling of the same in Try Not to Breathe, Stipe’s concerns turn to the lonely and despairing, those who have come to the point where they are facing the thought of real and not pretended suicide. Hold on, Stipe says, with infinite simplicity. You are not alone. We are with you, we understand you and we will give you our support: please, just hold on. Though it’s not, to me, REM’s best song, it is the one that, when the band are nothing but a name more associated with dream-sleep, will still be played.
After the intensity of Everybody Hurts, we have a short interlude with New Orleans Instrumental No. 1, an electric piano slow rolling number, jazz-influenced and smoky (there is a No. 2 and an extended version on a couple of the later CD singles), and then the serious mood is reasserted as the first side of the album (imaginary at this point, but still a mental concept that prevailed in older listeners) ends with Sweetness Follows. Like Everybody Hurts, it’s slow and stirring, with a dark cello backing Stipe’s vocals. It’s a return to the sombreness, the association with death of Everybody Hurts as well, as Stipe gathers with his sisters and brothers to attend the burial of their parents, in sorrow and misery, yet the song is lit by a moment of hope as Stipe insists that sweetness follows: there is still life, there is still happiness beyond this.
(Mentally) flipping the album over, the notional side two starts with the two weakest songs on the album. Monty Had a Raw Deal echoes the album’s underlying theme as Stipe sympathises with the late actor Montgomery Clift, whose career was blighted in the Fifties, and who died early as a consequence. The song is a little bit stop-start, never quite gelling, though it is still superior to Ignoreland, the one track on the album for which REM plug in their guitars, only to produce an anonymous song, ostensibly about politics. It doesn’t fit on the album, and wouldn’t have made an impact on any of the band’s other releases.
Yet, in a strange way, this two song sag contributes to the tempo of the album as a whole. The intensity of ‘side 1’ is released, the listeners ear-palate is cleansed, and from here to the end, the album builds in strength.
First up is Star Me Kitten. The star does duty for the word fuck, which Stipe sings (there is a demo version on one of the later CD singles with a more or less spoken vocal from William Burroughs that is equally fascinating). In the fullness of its sound, Star Me Kitten owes an obvious debt to 10cc’s I’m Not In Love. Stipe’s vocals slide through an ethereal haze of sound and voice, the only clear point in a slow-moving song that drifts in a miasma of sexuality and a call to life. The album’s obsession with death and loss is pushed away as we run towards the end.
There was considerable debate over the running order of the album, and especially the placing of Man on the Moon (second single, UK no 18). Like The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight, it’s a jaunty, cheerful song, for all that it’s lyrics echo Monty Had a Raw Deal in centring a dead celebrity, this time comedian/actor Andy Kaufman. Man on the Moon would lend it’s title to a film biography of Kaufman, for which REM contributed to the soundtrack, but here, with its cheery name-dropping (Mott the Hoople, Mr Charles Darwin, Fred Blassey – who? – and of course the irrepressible Kaufman himself) and its irresistible chorus, it’s an explosion of life, and the song immediately replaced Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars) as the band’s closing number, the one the crowd wouldn’t leave before they heard it.
It would have made a fine album closer, but in the end the band went for the anthemic. First, however, is the Out of Time out-take, Nightswimming (an all but unnoticed fifth single, UK no 29). It’s a self-contained, private song, lost in its own past, a song about teenage days, and the pleasure of sneaking out to the local swimming hole at night. The song enfolds the listener in a private, almost secret world, known only to aficionados
Nightswimming begins with the sounds of tuning up, and is supported by cellos picking out the musical theme. These close to a distinct end, not a fade-out, which provides a brief moment of isolation before the closing track, Find The River (a sixth and ignored single, UK no 63). The album ends in in the infinite, the song soaring to the heights. Stipe’s river is metaphorical, the river to the ocean goes, weighed down by its undertow, life heading towards an end of merger in the great infinite. It’s a yearning, calling song, opening out the album in its closing minutes, topping a cycle of songs that began in darkness and end in the approach of light.
Still favourite after all these years. Unlike Out of Time, which is firmly fixed in its own era, Automatic for the People (the title comes from the slogan of an Athens, Georgia Diner!) is out(side) of time, in its own eternal bubble.
Automatic also came blessed with a very high standard of out-take songs, as the first four CD singles demonstrate. These were definitely great recording sessions and an extended mix album, on a tape or a home-burnt CD, would extend the running time to the best part of seventy-five minutes by including all these additional tracks. That’s how it’s organised on my mp3 player.

REM – Find The River – Unplugged ––XIve1lxY

“To the Six for whom it was written in exchange for a pair of slippers”

This is a question I sometimes try on people. He ran away from home at the age of 18 to take part in the artistic Bohemia of London in the 1900s. He wrote a literary biography of Oscar Wilde that included the first publication of any part of Die Profundis, which attracted the second great Criminal Libel suit relating to Wilde, and which made him a cause celebre. He ran away from his wife and daughter to be a Foreign Correspondent in Russia, and was an eye-witness to the Russian Revolution. He wrote an account that is regarded as second only to John Reed’s classic Ten Days that shook the World, he played chess with Lenin and married Trotsky’s secretary. For years he was exiled from England and regarded as a dangerous Bolshevik. After his return, he was dispatched to China, where he met Sun-Yat Sen, and wrote a weekly fishing column. But what is he famous for?
They never get it, which is hardly surprising, although the more widely-read may get an inkling from the mention of the fishing column. He is famous for writing Swallows and Amazons, and inventing the Children’s holiday adventure story, for this is a potted version of the life of Arthur Ransome, until the age of 44. It always comes as a surprise.
The title of this essay is the original dedication to the book, which has been suppressed now for over half a century. In part, this essay is the story behind that dedication.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Ransome a hero of mine, but he’s someone who has always fascinated me. I was introduced to his books before the age of 10, ironically being given the last of his twelve Swallows and Amazons novels to read before any of the others. Though the books are indelibly wedded to their era (though written between 1929 and 1948, the children talk as products of the 1920s throughout, and the dozen novels cover a fictional period of only four years), underneath the “Look here”s and the middle class stiffness of Captain John Walker (one of two characters in the series who stood for Ransome himself), the books still stand up as intelligent and serious stories that do not look or write down to the audience.
Ransome wanted to be a writer from a very early age. He lost his father when only 13, (the news conveyed to him with typical British callousness by the Headmaster of Rugby), but in his teens adopted a father figure in the form of the historian and writer W G Collingwood, formerly secretary to John Ruskin. Ransome found himself absorbed into the Collingwood family as an extra son, and indeed at one point proposed to become a son-in-law, suggesting an engagement to Dora Collingwood. Thankfully for literature, she turned him down, recognising his immaturity and lack of purpose, and went on to marry a half-Syrian Doctor, Ernest Altounyan.
Arthur would go on to marry, most unwisely, one Ivy Walker. Ivy was an excitable woman, eager for adventure and excitement, and very much a fantasist, pretending all manner of dramatic things. Arthur, who was dedicated to writing and to Story, soon found what he had let himself in for, though the couple had a daughter Tabitha that they both loved.
Ransome wrote profusely and prolifically in the first dozen years of the century. His biographer, Hugh Brogan, has read these books, of which only two remain in print and, in Brogan’s estimation, quite rightly so. They say that every writer has hundreds of bad stories in him that he must write before he can get to the good stuff, and reading Brogan’s sometimes quite detailed descriptions of Ransome’s works, it seems that most of Arthur’s went into print. The one that he regretted most was, however, not among these. Not only did Ransome wish to write Story, he was an avid student, and a skilful technical analyst of Story itself. In 1912, he wrote the aforementioned literary biography of Wilde, and was allowed to quote extensively from the then-unpublished Die Profundis. Wilde’s fall had come from a famous and unsuccessful criminal libel trial against the Marquess of Queensbury, father of Wilde’s love, Lord Alfred Douglas, who abandoned Wilde after his committal to Reading Gaol. Die Profundis is a long cry of despair and rage by Wilde at his abandonment. The former ‘Bosie’, now himself Marquess of Queensbury, and perennially in need of money, sued Ransome.
Ivy was in her element, Ransome in despair. The trial lasted several weeks, with attendant publicity comparable to the excesses of our own age, and though it ended in acquittal for Ransome, the stress had opened his eyes to the state of his marriage. Taking a Foreign Correspondent’s position in Moscow, he left England for many years.
There, in addition to his journalistic duties, which he pursued with enthusiasm and intelligence, honing and clarifying his prose style, Ransome also studied Russian Folk-Tales with intensity. The first of his books to remain in print, Old Peter’s Russian Tales, collects Ransome’s interpretations of a dozen Russian children’s stories, about night, the forest, aloneness and the life of the Russian peasant. Ransome created mediators in the form of Old Peter, who tells these stories to his grandchildren, Maroosa and Vanya, guiding them in learning the folklore of their land.
More should and would have followed (a second volume, of just tales, without Old Peter and his kin, were published in 1984, long after Ransome’s death in 1967), but the Revolution intervened, and for several years it became the central focus of Ransome’s career and his writing.
It’s been suggested that Ransome was working as an Agent for MI6 during this period, and he would not have been the first nor the last journalist to take on such an auxiliary role but, as Brogan details, the longer the Revolution went on, and the closer Ransome got to the dominating Bolsheviks, the more his writing begins to unconsciously reflect their influence: hence his denouncement privately in the Foreign Office. The  truth was that Ransome, whose ideal at heart was England’s interests, was on the ground and unable to see the circumstances of Russia, whereas the Foreign Office were utterly opposed to the idea of the Bolsheviks, and continued to oppose them long past the point at which they were the only stabilising force in Russia (even if the lack of alternatives was deliberately created by themselves).
It was during this period that Ransome’s life was, again, changed, by the tall, forthright Evgenia Shelepina, the elder of two sisters working in Trotsky’s office. The two became acquainted, struck up a friendship and then came an incident when Evgenia, descending from the Russian equivalent of a tram, slipped and almost fell beneath its wheels. The emotions of that moment confirmed for the couple their feelings for each other, though it was to be many years before Ransome could negotiated a divorce from Ivy, playing the part of the scorned woman to the hilt, and permission to bring Evgenia to England as his wife. It would cost Ransome dear, financially and emotionally. Ivy insisted on retaining his extensive Library of carefully collected books, thinking that a career in which literary criticism played a leading role would be killed by such selfishness. Worse still, she set about poisoning Tabitha against her father, including such things as telling the girl to turn down a holiday with her father as his only intention in asking his daughter was to drown her.
By now, Ransome had long been in the service of the Manchester Guardian, where he was close friends with Ted Scott, son and heir of the legendary C P Scott, and destined to step into his father’s shoes as Editor. Ransome would be one of Ted’s closest allies in the battle to assert himself when the time came, but, in the meantime, he was concerned about his own career. He was a success as a Foreign Correspondent, but his aspirations towards Story were being frustrated, and he was beginning to fear being trapped forever as a journalist. Despite feeling it to be a betrayal of his friend at a time when he needed allies, Ransome resigned from the paper in the spring of 1929, to avoid being sent abroad once more. At that time, he had no idea of what he would do instead.
As mentioned above, Dora Collingwood had married Ernest Altounyan who, jointly with his father, owned a hospital in Syria on the banks of Lake Aleppo. The couple had had five children, Tacqui (a girl), Susan, Mavis, Roger, and the baby Bridget. The coincidence in names is, of course, not a coincidence.
The Altounyans were holidaying in England, at the Collingwood family home near the head of Coniston Water, with Arthur and Evgenia living at Low Ludderburn, above its secluded eastern shore. Between them, the Ransomes and the Altounyans bought two fourteen foot boats in which to sail on the Lake throughout the summer. At the end, each family would take one, and it was agreed that the Ransomes should keep the boat that was the favourite of all, Swallow.
It was an idyllic summer, of sun, sailing, exploring, fishing and games. The party often visited Peel Island, near  Coniston’s eastern shore, a wooded island with an easy bay on its eastern shore at which to land, and a ‘secret harbour’ at its rocky southern end, with only one safe route into its harbour.
But September came, and with it the Altounyans’ departure drew near. Ransome had to take some decisions about what he was to do next with his life. Whilst this was worrying him, Ernest Altounyan rung to ask if he could call round the following afternoon. Ransome agreed, but grumpily insisted that Altounyan should come alone, and not bring the children. At the appointed hour, with Ransome in his first floor study, the car pulled up, disgorging all the children. Ransome stumped downstairs, ready to give Altounyan a piece of his mind, only to be greeted by Tacqui and Mavis, each carrying an ornate red leather Turkish slipper. It had been Ransome’s birthday the previous day, though he hadn’t noticed, and these were a gift. A splendid afternoon was had.
Ransome remained abashed at his ungracious temper and, once the Altounyans had returned to a dry desert land, with no chance of sailing (Lake Aleppo had temporarily slipped his imagination), he wanted to give them a gift in return. A present of the summer they had enjoyed, for them to keep forever. What he devised became Swallows and Amazons.
Much of the book is drawn from the Cumbrian countryside and the adventures of that real-life summer. Peel Island went into the story as Wild Cat Island, but Rio and its Bay was borrowed from Windermere, and the Lake, in size and shape, is a hybrid of the two lakes. As a perhaps unconscious gesture of reconciliation with his first wife, the children took Ivy’s surname of Walker, whilst Ransome wrote himself deliberately into the book as Captain Flint, aka the Amazons’ Uncle Jim: a balding, perspiring, much-travelled man whose treasure is the manuscript of his book (that’s not Mixed Moss that is stolen by the Bigland crooks, but Swallows and Amazons itself!). But that wasn’t Ransome’s only place in the story.
The Swallows are the Altounyan children, down to Mavis’s unusual, and now very uncomfortable nickname of Titty, though Dora Altounyan was somewhat puzzled to find herself transformed into an Australian. But the most significant problem for Ransome was the eldest child, Tacqui. Given the times in which Ransome wrote, it would be unusual to have a girl as the leader, and it was undeniably more commercial to have a two-boy, two-girl balance. But as Brogan argues, it is likely that the ultimate decision lay in Ransome’s subconscious: if the eldest child was a boy, he could himself participate in the adventure, play more than the outside role of Captain Flint who, in the book, exists primarily as a spoiler to the children’s holiday. And in the character of John Walker, stuffy, somewhat priggish, serious but, above all, anxious for the approval of his too-often absent Naval Commander father, there was indeed a role for Ransome, denied at a cruelly young age the chance to gain his own father’s approval.
Thus Swallows and Amazons began. I’ll be looking next at the books themselves, the relationship between them and the events of Ransome’s life, and the premature end to his writing career, almost twenty years before his death.

Series 2 – 34: Ongoing Ascents

I’d had my chance. I didn’t have to still be at a firm where I was slowly beginning to hate every working day, where there was no future for me. I could have refused a five year Partnership contract in 1992. But then I’d have had to go looking for something better, in the middle of the 1992 recession, when Conveyancing Solicitors weren’t even ten a penny but rather several dozen. And this time I had a house and a mortgage: the kind of break my 1986 redundancy had offered was not an option.
So I was stuck for five years, approaching the age of 40, without a reliable partner. Not everything was bleak: I had accidentally become an Old Trafford regular, albeit in those last few years between the dismal seasons and the day the sky came off and the future turned Red. And I had the Lakes and the fells, almost at my fingertips.
In that sense, my cup was close to running over. Though winter months (November to February) and short days made walking inaccessible, the Lakes was still virtually on my doorstep every nice weekend that United were away, and I still had my regular two weeks away, and two-thirds of my quest already achieved.
It’s at this point that the story ceases to have a shape, though each walk still held memories to bring to the table. I had become a very experienced fell-walker, unafraid of, indeed seeking long days in country where no-one else might be seen, to the extent that I would get intensely resentful of the distant figure of another walker coming across the other ridge and ‘trespassing’ in “my” valley.
Lessons had been learned. I had complete confidence in myself – except in the brief, trepidatious moments of crossing steep and unsupported places – and a clear sense of my capacities and limitations, whilst at the same time beginning to test those supposed limitations in the suspicion that I might actually have been underrating myself all these years. That some of the more demanding ascents might be within my grasp.
Yet these were not always among the 52 fells that remained. Beda Crag was a lone summit, a low top reached along a narrow, fascinating ridge in sufficient time for me to cap the day with a long sweep round over Angletarn Pikes – where I looked in vain for that little grass dell of five years before: hardly surprising, given that I was distracted – but I remember it for being the first walk of the year: sun and March clarity, the sparkle of Ullswater, the elation of being back.
Tarn Crag above Grasmere was another loner, busy in approach and retreat along tourist paths and roads, but quiet on its ridge. A mass audience of boys gathered by the shore of Easedale Tarn, looking like a revivalist meeting, dispersed by the time I got down to the Tarn itself, puzzled me for a decade until I had a stepson at Manchester Grammar School going on holiday to their camp at Grasmere.
I remember the loneliness between Walla Crag and Bleaberry Fell, on a walk where I didn’t even need to move the car from outside my guesthouse, continually refinding an intermittent path because I knew where it would be next. Then, a blazing day above Buttermere, struggling under severe sun up the steep ridge to Fleetwood Pike, with its postcard view of Buttermere and Crummock Water, but I remember it more for the winding way round the old quarries and onto the back of Haystacks: giving my heart to the perfection of Black Beck Tarn, in its concealed hollow, rediscovering the cairn of the last fell Dad ever climbed, and descending Scarth Gap Pass with a One Man and His Dog being filmed in the fields below me: all sheep and dogs and cameras dispersed before I could get myself into a background shot.
Two fairly undemanding and unphotogenic fells gave me a good strenuous walk west of Ullswater, and rewarded me with magnificent views of the lake at a corner on the way back.
But if you want to hear of an impressive day, that first week away concluded with me finishing my collection of 3,000’ers.
There are only four fells in Lakeland, and therefore in all England, that extend above the 3,000′ contour (the metric equivalent of 914 metres is so much less impressive). I had climbed my first in 1975 and, even allowing for the interruption to my walking career that immediately followed, it really wasn’t favourable for me to take eighteen years to complete the set.
There are many ways of climbing Scafell, and I would have been tempted to go all out for Lord’s Rake were I not still collecting as many tops per walk as I could – sometimes the best route had to give way to the handy-for-two-other-summits route. The Scafell Range’s southernmost outlier, Slight Side was also on my list so I chose to approach and return from the south.
Then again, no major route out of Eskdale fails to be worth walking, and this was my chance to experience the Terrace Route, the lonely environs of Catcove Beck and the stiff scramble to Slight Side’s top before the ridge rising to Scafell, in the midst of Eskdale and Wasdale rose before me, inspiring the feet onwards.
It was delightful. I have never been so alone on a 3,000’er than that ridge to Scafell. It was astonishing to find the path in its early stages so intermittent, but again I unfailingly picked it up, over and over. There were rocks and rises, but it was a mainly green ridge for far longer than you’d expect, and at last I was negotiating little screes and short uplifts, blind and winding, knowing I was near but never yet there, until I finally reached the summit cairn. With no-one around. You don’t get that on the Pike.
I didn’t remain alone. I was joined by a family, which seemed a good time to go. I descended to a saddle, beyond which two separate buttresses arose, between them the head of Deep Gill. Deep Gill is a legitimate ascent of Scafell: me, I couldn’t even get myself close enough to look down. That’s one bloody steep gill – and that’s the navigable part of it.
Short of climbing down Broad Stand, or of returning via Slight Side, my only descent was into the little hidden hollow in the hill that holds Foxes Tarn. What a magnificent escape: the tiny tarn, overwhelmed by the boulder, seemingly no way out, until you round a corner and find a deep, stony channel down to below Mickledore.
And then the long, glorious retreat as if from the Pike: down Cam Spout, around the Esk, the diminishing scene of the Pike and Ill Crag, that long, empty upland valley, descending via a series of rocky gateways and the Cowcove Zigzags, and the long walk back.
The photo is of Ullswater from that corner with magnificent views, or rather it’s half the view. The Brown Hills stand above the corner between the upper and middle reaches of the Lake, and this is only the middle reach. But it’s an easy place to reach if you don’t go round the long way as I did.

It was forty-nine years ago today.

They used to say that everybody knew where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news, but that’s becoming more and more uncertain as the years go by. A quick mental headcount of the people I work with on my team, in my specialism, on the floor of our building suggests that I may possibly be the only one old enough to have actually been alive at that moment.

There have been other times since. Other moments that went round the world, moments of disbelief and incredulity that were only too real. I remember where I was and what I was doing on Friday 10 November 1989 when I first heard that the Berlin Wall had come down, and again on Tuesday 9 September 2001, when the Twin Towers were hit by planes.

But the original took place 49 years ago today and, as those of you with a knowledge of history will have already discerned, it was Kennedy. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, the youngest man to be elected President, the first man born in the 20th Century to become President, the only Catholic President, the youngest President to die: assassinated in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963: progenitor of perhaps more conspiracy theories than any other incident of the 20th Century.

I’m not going to argue about Kennedy’s qualities, good or bad, nor rehearse any of the theories about his death (save to say that, like a two-thirds majority of American citizens the last time this was polled, I do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone). But his death was one of the earliest events to resonate around the world with the rapidity we know and understand now. And the man that it was: young and handsome, a complete contrast to the white-haired and balding men before him, in the most powerful country on Earth, shot in the street.

Never had there been, before or since, such a greater sense of change on the election of a President. Eisenhower, when his term ended, was then the oldest man to be President. In handing the office over to the second youngest President of them all, there was, both in fact and in mythology (on which Kennedy and his speechwriters played) a change in generation, a change in the nature of America. The torch was passed, as Kennedy’s speech made plain, from the generation who came from the q19th Century, to those of the 20th Century: from looking backwards to looking forwards.

Kennedy even came equipped with a young and beautiful wife, in Jacqueline Beauvier Kennedy, and with two very young children. The American family took over the White House, modern and bright. All was possible, all was for the best, all would be the best in this American future that saw the World’s boundaries being drawn ever tighter, as Telstar took to the upper atmosphere to begin the broadcast network that would take pictures, take reality, faster and further than they ever had before.

And the Kennedy White House emphasised culture and talent, embodied glamour, as did the first generation of pop stars and teenage idols that were striding forth. Whatever the reality might have been – and to take one truth, Kennedy did not have the strength to force a Civil Rights package through Congress: that would fall to Lyndon Johnson, dealing with an legislature that wilted almost in shame that it had defied the Martyr-King – the mythology was a Camelot, the Best and the Brightest, the Promise that all would better than ever.

In the midst of this, one man shot dead the President and killed the future.

I do remember that Friday night. I was eight, my sister no more that an eighteen month old baby. Mam and Dad were having a rare night out in Manchester, a dinner-dance hosted by Industrial Models Ltd, of Ashton-under-Lyne, for whom my Dad worked as a draughtsman. Even that early, it might have been their Christmas Do, or perhaps not in an England where Christmas didn’t exist as late as 30 November and decorations public and private not appear until there was no more than a week to go.

I recall Dad saying that the news broke whilst they were travelling into Manchester (by taxi, I presume, this being before our first car, when Dad’s mode of transport was a motorbike), and they were told in the Cloakrooms. There was, he commented, very few other topics of conversation that night, though I think he and Mam managed to have a good time anyway, away from “the Terrible Two”.

But I remember that night myself, even though I was just turned eight, earlier in that November. Granny and Grandad were agog with it too, and the television, that 405-line black-and-white box in the corner of the living room at 41 Brigham Street, that couldn’t get enough of it. Schedules were torn up, programmes postponed. It was not the sort of TV an eight year old boy could take interest in – though in years to come I would discover a fascination with American history and, yes, conspiracy theories about Kennedy – and I was frustrated.

The worst of it was Bonanza: a very popular Western in an era when television loved Westerns. It was on ITV at 8.00pm, until 9.00pm and I was allowed to stay up to watch it because there wasn’t any school in the morning. But it was gone, postponed, for another discussion of what had happened, and what it meant, and why, and how, and what next: all the 24-hour rolling News paraphenalia with which we’re familiar now but which was rare, if not unknown, in 1963, and I can’t help but think that maybe on that occasion the words weren’t necessary to justify salaries and careers and fill otherwise blank broadcast hours, but were instead weaving a protective nacre hardness around people stunned, and a little frightened at what might come next: like an oyster that has got an obtrusive piece of grit between its shells and is weaving something to smooth things out, and relieve it of the intolerable pain.

All of which is being wise after the fact: my first recollection of being conspicuously smartarse about anything didn’t come until 1968. At the time, I simply grumbled, like any seven year old deprived of what he expected.

But yes, I too recall where I was and what I was doing when I heard that Kennedy had been shot. I was complaining about why they had to take Bonanza off: “It’s not going to bring him back, is it?”

Series 2 – 33: Two Yewbarrow Days


Despite the uncertain weather I often faced, I was rarely frustrated from my object. Pavey Ark in the snow, Green Crag in a blue funk, and then Yewbarrow, one of the symmetrical frames for the image of Great Gable, over Wastwater.
I’d switched to Saturday expeditions by then. These allowed me to stay later without fear of ten miles of crawling on the M6 to get past the end of the Blackpool Motorway and the weekenders pouring out: on a Sunday, I had to leave the Lakes not later than 4.00pm to avoid that.
I forget the weather in Manchester before I set off, but for some inexplicable reason, I had brought with me a change of clothes, something I had never done before, or since. Usually, I was perfectly happy to drive home in the sweat-stained gear that had seen me into the heights.
The sky above Wasdale Head was grey but there seemed no risk in going ahead. I wanted to tackle Dore Head and approach Yewbarrow’s summit over Stirrup Crag, which meant the alternate path into Mosedale: across the packhorse bridge immediately behind the Hotel, on lush grass, rising to cross a small saddle of land at the mouth of the valley, and locating the bottom of the broad, grassy ride that led confidently upwards: no difficulties but steepness.
Ahead, across the screes of Dore Head, a narrower path continued, inviting in its twists and turns, but to my dismay it was inaccessible.
Dore Head used to be known as one of the great scree-runs in Lakeland, a steep drop of loose stone down which enthusiastic and energetic walkers and climbers would hurtle themselves, body upright and tilted back, leading with the edge of the boot, descending in a series of controlled slides at immense pace. Unfortunately, too many years and too many runners had scraped all the scree away, leaving a bare, ground-out slope, and at this point a trench at least ten feet deep, with overhanging sides, no rock, and no visible means of getting down or, worse, getting up.
I don’t doubt that walkers slimmer and more agile (and braver) than me would have been across without a thought, though not without a struggle, but it wasn’t on for me. What, then, was my alternative?
Very simply, it was up or down. There was no path on this side of the scree, no route, just broken slopes, increasingly steep, and overhanging cliffs. On the other hand, I was not about to give up 5-600′ of fellside and then hunt for another way to start the walk, so up it was.
And carefully. I scrambled carefully across towards the crags, figuring I would at least have something to grab on to, and with slow and cautious steps, no more looking down than was unavoidable, and a very thoughtful examination of the ground before me, I slowly got to within ten feet of the ridge, at the foot of that unnerving groove down which I had refused to descend on that hot afternoon returning from the Mosedale Horseshoe. I crossed the nascent groove quickly but with everything alert, then found an easy way up onto level ground.
During this time, I had been oblivious to the weather. The cloud was down to almost the ridge, Stirrup Crag just a few dozen feet of forbidding rock, above which all was invisible, and Yewbarrow was clearly out of bounds.
Once more I would have to retreat down Over Beck, and settle for circumnavigating Yewbarrow, rather than climbing it. And, since rain now looked inevitable rather than probable, I got into kagoul and waterproof trouser.
It came down. I’d last been out in such rain descending from Great Gable into Seathwaite, but this was immense: solid, unceasing, sheeting, hammering rain, down the length of Over Beck and all the way back along the road. I learned that my waterproofs weren’t, that after a certain point they became waterlogs. I was soaked to the skin.
But I’d, improbably, brought a change of clothes with me, and there was a towel in my rucksack. I squelched into the car, drove the short distance to the hotel car park, pelted into the Men’s Toilets and got my roughly towelled self into dry clothes. Shirt, pullover, jeans, socks: no underpants.
Only a couple of years later I’d have unhesitatingly ‘gone commando’, but I was sufficiently inhibited to feel uncomfortable at that thought so, after as much squeezing out as I could physically produce, I slipped the wet things back on.
Which proved to be an embarrassing mistake since they, still sopping, immediately started to soak back, giving my jeans a two-tone effect not dissimilar to Superman’s red trunks. I stopped in both Cockermouth and Keswick on an extended way back, having come out of the hills far sooner than I’d planned, and there were plenty of eyes on me.
Of course, I had to go back. It was over a year later, in mid-October, the year’s last walk, at the end of a week of preternaturally clear skies that I longed would last until I could get up there. United were at home Saturday, so early on Sunday I was off to Wasdale.
Had I realised just how crisp and clear the atmospheric conditions were, I would have been out of bed two hours earlier, before dawn if I needed to, to give me the time to climb Scafell Pike. In clear conditions, not only is Snowden in Wales visible from its summit, but also the Mountains of Mourne, away across the Irish Sea: if they couldn’t be seen that day, they would never be visible at all.
My first inkling of just how good the views could be came when I crossed the top of the Corney Fell Road, and the seascape smashed itself into my face. The Isle of Man, familiar enough, but never so large, so sharp, so near, almost as if the sea behind it could also be seen. The Irish Sea a brilliant turquoise blue, a colour deeper than I had seen before, and as placid as a painting. And further along the coast, a mysterious silver coin laid on the water, a circle of white in incredible contrast to the Sea: the freshwater of the Ravenglass Estuary, pouring out into the turquoise, and not mingling with it. An astonishing sight.
And so to Mosedale again. I ignored the inviting green ride, passed beneath the bottom of the old screes and went looking for a route upwards. I found a small channel, like a dried grass rivulet, first of a succession of such guides, carrying up some 3-400′ on grass in which the cold sparkle of frost had already begun. From there, on leveller ground, I worked back towards the trench, crossing above bluffs, until I’d regained the height I’d reached the previous year and picked up the twisting path, which contoured back and forth and led me easily to the ridge. I fixed the point of arrival in my memory for future descents (I haven’t descended there yet, but I will remember for when I do).
Wainwright describes the ascent of Dore Head as “a tedious plod”, but by this route it’s anything but.
Stirrup Crag was a joy, a real hands-and-foot, where-will-the-next-bit-take-me scramble, that disappointed only in ending far too soon, after which the rooftree of Yewbarrow was simple to negotiate and the summit an easy upthrust. In the October sun, the western wall of the Scafells was a magnificent sight. My favourite view of the range is of the Pike and Ill Crag rising above Upper Eskdale, but this side wasn’t half bad.
I descended to Great Door, a tremendous, shattered gap in the skyline, seen as a square notch from the road below (the door opens, and closes). We got this far once, as a family, my sister so young and the area sufficiently treacherous that Dad roped her to a convenient rock for safety if she should fall. It’s not a good place for anyone insufficiently appreciative of danger.
From here, the path turned inwards, descending to Over Beck to avoid the impassible rocks of Bell Rib, before regaining Yewbarrow’s long, boat-like prow, and once again that walk up the road into Wasdale Head. Once in warm evening sunshine, a golden glow, once marching cheerfully under sluicing rain, once in October cool and clarity, this time in triumph.
The picture is of Dore Head, showing the screes, and the two flanks up which I made my separate ascents. No need to have been there to decide which one is the preferable route.

Recognising Robert Neill – Epilogue

Reading the complete collection of Robert Neill’s work, some of it for the first time in decades, in chronological order, has been an interesting experience.
I never intended to extend the exercise to anything more than the published works, especially given the complete absence of biographical material to be found outside the dustjackets of the books in my collection. As I said, I do not know Neill’s date of birth, nor his death, let alone any information about the events of his private life during the three decades of his career. Is there any correspondence to be had between the moments of his personal experience, and the shape of his fiction?
Which is as it should be, in one respect at least. What lies on the printed page is, and must be, the fundamental aspect of any writer’s career, and the only honest reviews of his or her work must come from the work that is published.
Though I’d give a lot for reliable sales figures for each novel, and some idea as to why some novels took more years to produce than others. I have certain guesses as to what may have driven Neill’s career in certain directions at certain points, based on the shape of his fiction, but it’s never wise to draw out of somebody’s fiction any kind of reality for them. Come on, it’s not safe drawing lines from fact into fiction: you really cannot mark the trail the other way.
It’s desperately disappointing that the final two novels came out so poorly, but they are really not to be spoken of in the same breath as the body of Neill’s career. They are written without a sense of conviction, and with a curious attitude towards the Witches that the publishers perhaps insisted upon that is taken very much out of contemporary thought than the religion dominated eras of the past.
Instead, let’s relish the solidity, the conviction and the determined hold on the reader’s attention that marks Neill’s best work. We have to praise Mist over Pendle, not because it is the only easily available book but because it is, really, good. And as I’ve already said, that assessment goes too for all the next three novels, and possibly Hangman’s Cliff should be included in that bracket: I don’t have the years of repeated reading to say so with absolute certainty.
I recommend too The Devil’s Weather, not solely for the resonance of its setting, but really it is the Stuart trilogy, the sweep, depth and personal detail of the trio of books, Crown and Mitre, The Golden Days and Lilliburllero that should stand in print as testament to the best of Robert Neill’s writing. Those who read these books will do more than entertain themselves, they will understand a part of our history that shapes our world today.
So there remains only to thank you for reading, and to hope that I’ve inspired you to read some Robert Neill. If that’s the case, I think you’ll thank me.

Series 2 – 32: A Well-Mixed Bag


The freedom to take off on a whim, hit a summit and be home to sleep in my own bed, was glorious, but it still didn’t compare to a week sleeping on the spot, getting into the fells without two hours driving first. September was here again, and each walk would build indelible memories.
Troutbeck Tongue was my Sunday afternoon leg-warmer, a beautifully sunny, hot even, day. The Tongue could only be approached on foot, a mile and a half along a valley road that did not admit of parking, so I left the car in the far corner of the Mortal Man pub (closed for the afternoon in accordance with traditional Licensing Laws) and rambled along, eager to get off the tarmac. It had rained heavily, recently, and the fields were full of informal tarns.
Once through the brush at the foot of the fell, I was chuffed to find a miniature ridge, successions of little outcrops, requiring a gentle, manageable scramble, but a scramble nevertheless. Midway, an impassable barbed wire fence crossed the ridge. I wadded up my anorak, placed it across the top strand, and slid over, preserving certain organs for uses that I hoped to resume. The ascent was a gentle delight, and could have been twice as long for me. And, in addition to the tourist view down Troutbeck to Windermere, I found a massive upland bowl behind, stretching to Threshthwaite Mouth at the valley head.
A stroll along the back of the fell, another anorak slide across the other half of the fence, and back along Hogg Beck, under the commanding heights of the Ill Bell Range, the grooves of Scot’s Rake, where the Romans began their long ascent to the tops, visible from far below.
The next day, I took myself off to lonely country, between Wasdale and Ennerdale. I planned to use the valley of Nether Beck to make a long, steady ascent to the ridge descending from Pillar, cross Haycock to the otherwise almost impossibly remote Caw Fell, and, returning over Haycock, end with the grassy, sprawling Seatallan. One look at the amount of additional climbing involved in getting back up to the latter’s summit put that idea out of court: any ridge route involving 500′ or more additional climbing is a new ascent.
All went well until I reached the ridge and found cloud dipping down to the col. But it was light and thin, and Haycock, the highest fell of the walk, was not too far above, so I plugged on, to its dome-like summit, with the cloud line hovering pretty much level with me.
It was my first opportunity to see the semi-legendary Blengdale, legendary in my mind anyway, after the suggestion, decades earlier, that a fourth Ratty steam-train should be named River Bleng. So I hunted out the expansive, full length view of the empty, featureless valley, and wondered aloud what idiot had selected Ennerdale for afforestation when this useless soggy waste was available.
The cloud had lifted sufficiently for me to continue to the flat-topped Caw Fell, miles away from everywhere else, though it remained sufficiently menacing to ensure I turned around quickly. Haycock stood, a giant dome presiding over Blengdale, and I was at a height that raised it to immense proportions. For a brief time I considered a direct, trackless contour around the head of the valley, but the utter loneliness of the setting, the feeling that an accident would leave me undiscovered, persuaded me to climb back up into the cloud, manoeuvre around Haycock’s top and locate the gully that gave direction to the descent onto the lowlands that would lead me back.
All that remained was a somewhat soft and damp walk over to the falls that led me back down to Nether Beck, and it was back to the car again.
To Keswick again, and another lonely day Back O’Skidda’, concentrating my efforts on the grassy giant, Knott. This fell, occupying miles of unfrequented territory, is the hub of this region, linking the Uldale Fells with the Caldbeck Fells and dominating both.
I made my approach from the lower part of the Dash Valley, but instead of approaching Whitewater Dash, the chalk-white falls, I diverted into a surprisingly broad and empty valley, containing Hause Gill. Wainwright’s route bore to the right of Burn Tod, but on a happy whim, I took another track, left, and made my way up Burntod Gill.
It was the highlight of my day: an enclosed beck in spate, twisting and turning frantically, scrambling along the bank, unable to see ahead or behind, nor escape save by advancing, until, after a period of time far too short to be fair, I emerged in an unexpectedly familiar place, on a lawn by a now quiescent beck, under the shadow of Trusmadoor.
The rest of the walk was not an anti-climax, though nothing of my endless odyssey up grass slopes onto Knott’s broad and level summit, nor the long walk to Great Calva, at the head of the gap between the Blencathra and Skiddaw massifs matched up to it. A long descent through the tough purple heather to the Skiddaw House Road, a descent by Whitewater Dash and a long cross-valley tramp to the car made for a satisfying end to the walk.
Reading Wainwright as often as I did, I couldn’t help but devise walks that allowed me to take a circular route to my transport, catching as many unvisited tops as I could. Long ago, Helvellyn had been my first acknowledged solo ascent, but there were several satellite fells around it that I had yet to visit. I’d devised two walks, each with Helvellyn at the centre, which I mentally dubbed the ‘Inner Circle’ and the ‘Outer Circle’ and, for a very ambitious Big Walk to end the year of 1992, I was set on the latter.
It was another occasion for trying to balance the low cloud and and the wind moving it along, and setting off with my usual more-in-stubbornness-than-in-hope.
The approach along the old road to the former Glenridding Lead Mine was easy and tedious, but there was more interest in the zigzag ascent of the old slagheap behind the derelict mine buildings. This led me to the sad, dingy basin that used to hold the old Sticks Reservoir – shown in Wainwright but drained before I ever got into the hills – and from there a long, twisting, enclosed gully through which the beck ran, which became tedious under the best sun of the day and turn succeeded turn. Eventually I was back at the top of Sticks Pass, only a fortnight since I had approached it from the west – the fastest I had ever returned anywhere in the Lakes.
Raise was an easy walk up a gradual slope, but once I reached the ridge, I lost my shelter from the wind, and paused to pull on my anorak for the rest of the walk. The cloud ahead still clung to the top of the ridge. I descended to the col, where a broad path arose from the valley to the left and swept onwards in unbreakable step over the summit of White Side and beyond. It was about six walkers wide and completely free of vegetation, as if an unusually focussed cloud of locusts had breezed through. It went over White Side’s highest point as if it weren’t there, and dragged me in its wake, there being little to halt for, until it expired at the foot of the climb up the sharpening ridge of Helvellyn Lower Man.
The cloud clearly enveloped Helvellyn, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I had, after all, climbed it before, and if it were feasible to get across and onto the second half of the walk, I was still determined to do so. To my left, small figures appeared and reappeared between gaps in the crest of Swirral Edge, unconcerned about the cloud.
Once I reached the summit plateau, I knew that progress was not on. I could navigate to the cairn, progressing uphill and keeping a wide berth on my left where I knew there to be crags, but in practical terms the whole of Helvellyn’s top is so well-walked that it is one omni-directional path.
There must have been a dozen folk on the summit when I reached it. There is a cross-shaped wallshelter, but it was so well subscribed, I would have had to book a fortnight in advance to have gotten a place on the leeward side. The cloud muffled conversation, the sheep had so far lost their natural timidity as to not merely beg food from our hands, but try to snatch sandwiches before they reached your mouth, and in the twenty minutes I relaxed there, not thirty seconds ever went by without a ghostly thickening of the cloud that transformed itself into another walker, reaching the summit. Capped by 300’ of cloud.
Given the land ahead, I wasn’t prepared to risk advancing, and so worked my way back to Lower Man, from where I descended into the daylight again, rejoining the locust path over White Side and down: past the ruins of the destroyed dam at Kepple Cove, and into the descent to the former Lead Mine again.
There I saw a path along the other side of the gill, and decided to explore. It turned out to be a beautifully level engineered path, a much happier route of retreat than the mine road, though I had to scramble down when Glenriddng village came in sight and the path showed no signs of going anywhere near it.
But that’s an enduring memory from the summit: cloud makes no difference to Helvellyn’s popularity. This is not a fell to visit when in search of solitude and your own company.
Being unable to find any photos that suggest a reason to climb Haycock, I’ve selected this shot of the approach to Helvellyn along this ridge, taken from below Raise’s summit. The peak to the left is Catstycam, joined to Helvellyn by Swirral Edge, and that to the right is Lower Man, showing the route of ascent that I couldn’t see for myself.

Recognising Robert Neill: The Devil’s Door

And lastly, there was The Devil’s Door. Once again, I’ve read it only once before, back in 1979, when I was young and naïve and an Articled Clerk, and I’ve had to buy a copy to enable me to complete this series, and once again it’s thin and weak, placeless and timeless, with witches thrown in who are not witches at all, except that good Presbyterians are getting all worked up about them, even though they’re not even Wiccans this time round.
Once again, this is a sad story on which to end, given the standard Robert Neill set for himself, and to which he kept for a quarter century.
We again find ourselves in an unnamed village in a unidentified place: I say unidentified but one of the main characters, and Church of England Vicar, Peter Hallows, is mentioned in passing to have returned to his native Lancashire after ordination so, between that and the fact that the village has high moorlands behind it, we may guess that for a last time we’re in God’s Own County.
And we’re again associated with an historical period that we’ve already seen elsewhere, for the novel is set in 1662: the King has been restored to his own, as has the Church, but everyone is still adjusting. In short, it’s Rebel Heiress moved up about eighteen months.
Once again there is a baronet to lead us through, Sir Laurence Lindley, a widower in his forties, though there is no daughter to share the focal point: she, Mary, is getting married in two days time when the book starts, and is too concerned with that to be bothered what else is going on, or about how she has no personality.
Instead, we have the Squire’s elderly aunt Aletheia, his housekeeper, sometime steerer and someone who gets to call him Lory every now and then.
The story, which is pretty thin once you get it straight, is of little consequence. There are two seeming witches in the village, the ‘established’ Ellen Penney, who is training her daughter Meg to follow her in her complete ignorance, and the elderly, near-blind Ann Horrocks (a Chattox-lite for those who have now read Mist over Pendle) who is passing her ignorance on to her granddaughter Jill.
When the self-important, heavy-handed, disliked Constable Harry Dunn dies of yet another obvious stroke, the cause of death gets blamed on witchcraft, on Ann and Jill. Ann, who believes it herself, is glad of the status, little good though it does her. Harry’s widow Janet shrieks herself into an hysterical fury, crying witchcraft, in which she’s supported by the recently displaced Presbyterian Vicar, Mr Heron.
Everyone else, starting with Sir Lawrence and his old friend and appointee as Vicar, Peter Hallows, disbelieves it, but before the novel ends, Heron and Janet Dunn whip up the villagers into a mob frenzy that comes close to a genuine fear-filled riot.
This threatens to involve Susan Ashley: a decent widow whose ex-Roundhead officer husband, a hard, unlikeable, violent man, died of dropsy. Mrs Ashley, who is not the same kind of fervent believer loathed by Lory Lindley as was her late husband, is supporting herself by making salves and potions, she being an apothecary’s daughter. Unfortunately, by seeking advice from the elderly Ann, who has accidentally discovered digitalis a century too soon, Mrs Ashley lays herself open to guilt by association.
The situation is saved by Hallows, who is the real hero, and moving spirit, of this book, even as we traipse along beside Lindley all the time. Hallows, who, for some inexplicable reason reminds me of an RAF Padre, is new as Vicar, but is persistent, thoughtful and clever, opening up the village to pleasure – a time to dance, as you’ll recall from Rebel Heiress – after the long years of piety and repression by Puritans. This is a long subplot to The Devil’s Door, which is yet a keynote to the book, in the same manner that the barn building sequence in Peter Weir’s Witness, though immaterial to the plot, is the central scene of the film.
And Hallows it is who out-manoeuvres the politely determined Heron when the crowd threatens, subjecting Susan Ashley to a ‘test’ that proves her innocent, forcing Heron into a full recantation, and pricking the bubble of fear and paranoia in the village.
What about the requisite Neill romance, I hear you ask? We did at least get Tabitha Verey and Jack Ansell in Witchfire at Lammas, no matter how deep into the background they sank. Well, the signs of romance are not undetected here. On page 182, on the basis that Susan is a widow in her forties and not at all the relict of a crop-headed, snivelling Roundhead that you’d expect, and given that Lory is a widower in his forties who’s looked at her, Aunt Aletheia starts pushing towards a second marriage. So what that the book – by far and away Neill’s shortest – ends five lines into page 183? We have our romance.
I’m sorry, I really shouldn’t be so sarcastic about either of these final books, but the mere fact that they lend themselves to such an approach, rather than a sober examination of flaws, such as with The Shocking Miss Anstey is a demonstration in itself in not merely the extent of their failure but its nature.
Both books look like proper Robert Neill novels, and superficially they read like his work, but they are empty and hollow, without a proper grounding in time and place, and lacking in any real story. At the end of Neill’s career, they try to leech off the superficial elements of his first and most memorable success: Witches! In Lancashire! They’re marketed sensationally, shouting to the horror crowd, but their witches can do no more than think evil whilst their betters comment about how unimportant they are. Wise women? Esoteric knowledge? Oh, my dear, you don’t really believe in that nonsense, do you? Because nonsense is all it is in the end, because there really is no witchcraft in these last two books.
Neither in the story, nor its telling.