The Swallows, however, were not destined to have an adventure on the Lake ever again, except, perhaps, as ghosts in an unwritten book. During the writing of Pigeon Post, an idea had come to Ransome, that he described in a letter to a friend as an absolutely gorgeous notion, a fresh angle of attack, an absolute natural. And he was right, too.
Hugh Brogan may give the palm to Coot Club, but in my eyes, Ransome’s finest book was We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. It’s the only book to feature the Swallows alone, and it’s a book of high drama, and serious danger that had the side-effect of transforming these children to such an extent that they were no longer suited to adventures such as those that Ransome wrote. It’s an involving, gripping book, with a beautifully judged, gentle introductory section that gives the Swallows (and the reader) the learning upon which they will rely when the drama unexpectedly, but completely naturally, kicks in.
It is the same summer as Pigeon Post. The Swallows have been summoned south to join their mother and Bridget at Pin Mill, near Orford. Commander Walker (despite having been in Malta at Christmas) is on his way home from service in the China Seas. He’s travelling overland, so the family are gathering within easy reach of Harwich, to meet him off the boat the moment they know which sailing he’s on. And, being the Swallows, they are out on the river on the evening of their arrival, not merely rowing, but helping a tired young man by the name of Jim Brading, singly-handedly sailing his boat, Goblin, to secure safe mooring.
Brading, who is only 18 years old, agrees to occupy the Swallows by taking them on as crew on Goblin, for a few days sailing up and down the rivers. Mrs Walker agrees, upon three conditions: that they telephone every day for news of their father’s progress, that they do not go further than a day’s busride from Pin Mill, and that they don’t go out of the rivers, into the sea.
All progresses smoothly. The Swallows learn quickly about sailing Goblin. Roger is fascinated with the engine, which gets them into Harwich harbour on the last of its petrol one night. The following day, Brading rows ashore to top up the tank. He doesn’t return. A fog descends on the harbour. The children wait and wait, growing increasingly disturbed at Brading’s absence, but stranded on Goblin, with no means of getting to shore. The impasse lasts all day. What none of them realise is that they moored at low tide, that the tide has been rising all day, and, on the edge of evening, it is about to turn.
Goblin’s anchor chain is too short and the boat starts to pull away from its mooring. John’s efforts to release more chain are clumsy, and only result in the anchor going overboard, leaving Goblin unmoored, and being dragged out of harbour by the tide, in the fog. What is worse is that, when they are outside the harbour, out of the fog, in the dark – at sea in breach of their promise – the Swallows, four children aged between about 13 and 8, find themselves facing a violent storm, without lights.
The skill in this book is in the natural, plausible manner in which Ransome creates a horrifying situation, but one in which the skills the Swallows have learned in the opening part of the book make equally plausible that they can survive the experience.
There’s an early division between the two elder children. Susan, the manager, the carer, the mother-surrogate in all these adventures, is consumed by the breaking of the promise to their mother. It’s her first and only thought, that they must undo that breach and as quick as possible. Opposing her is Captain John, captain indeed on this occasion, whose instinct is for the ship and the sea. The promise can’t override their safety, and the only safety in these conditions is to get out to sea and stay there, until daylight and calm weather. When Susan’s insistence overrides John’s instincts, Goblin comes closest to disaster, although there is another, personal trial for John to overcome, when, in service to his ship, he comes closest of all to death.
By luck and good judgement, and the Swallows’ judgement IS good, they survive the night, not just intact but grown. Ransome symbolises this in the rescue of a kitten, floating on some sea wreckage. Sinbad is brought aboard, fed, warmed and saved: the children have passed their initiation and can take charge of others.
By now they’re in sight of what proves to be Holland. The next task is to get ashore without allowing someone to claim salvage on Goblin: the Swallows are determined not to let Jim Brading’s boat be lost. They signal for and take on a Pilot, with John playing cabin boy and Roger leading the rest in a racket below that’s supposed to be the Captain celebrating. Thus Goblin is guided safely into Flushing Harbour, the journey ended safely.
Instead, though, disaster threatens at the last. Entering the harbour, Goblin passes a departing liner. From the rail, a sun-browned figure suddenly hails John in a voice used to making itself heard across the China Seas: it’s Daddy, bound for England, just when the Swallows are in Holland.
But Commander Walker is a resourceful man. As the children try desperately to explain to the Pilot how things stand, their father gets himself taken back ashore in a launch, thinking the whole family has come to meet him. But once he grasps the essence of things, the Commander takes charge: cool, quiet, completely unlike the exciteable child-man, Captain Flint. Full explanations wait until the situation is protected by buying petrol for the tank, and the quick sending of telegrams to reassure Mary Walker that her husband is still in transit. Only when this is done does Daddy sit down with his children, waiting for the return tide, and hears their explanation.
And there’s a wobble. Captain John, the stuffy, repressed, anxious, dutiful son, explains his actions to his father. And behind the scenes, Arthur Ransome, for whom John is a surrogate-self, who never received his father’s approval before the latter died all too young, waits for judgement in equal measure to his creation. The Commander is not effusive. ‘You’ll make a seaman yet, my son,’ is all he says, but there’s a world in those words and both John and his creator threaten for a moment to lose themselves.
The last remaining possible fly in the ointment is Jim Brading: where he is and what he’s told to Mrs Walker. The Commander sails Goblin home overnight, having considerable fun himself, and no sooner do they dock at Harwich than does a turbaned man row out to them: Brading, who’s lost three days in hospital after being knocked down by a bus and has told no-one that his charges have been lost at sea. And he’s rapidly followed by Mrs Walker, with Bridget, quietly angry and let down by her children, only to suffer the shock of her life as a rescue kitten and her husband rapidly follow each other from below.
Of Ransome’s books, this presents the most sustained and realistic danger to the children of his creation, an adult danger that they overcome from their own resources. What Ransome perhaps did not appreciate immediately was that the Swallows could not be the same again.
Secret Water follows almost immediately on from We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. Commander Walker, re-established in the family, has a fortnight’s leave. The Walkers plan a substantial family holiday, to the nearby Hamford Water, in a borrowed Goblin whilst Jim Brading recovers from his head injury. Father and Mother will sleep on the boat whilst the children – and yes, to her great delight, this includes for the first time Bridget – will camp ashore. The holiday is a mapping expedition: Commander Walker, who has gotten seriously involved in this, has created a very sketchy map of the area, and the expedition will explore the surrounding country and fill it in.
Unfortunately, the plan goes awry before the opening line (“The First Lord of the Admiralty was not popular at Pin Mill”). Commander Walker is called back to duty a fortnight early, but he proves determined not to let his family be disappointed so, in a whirlwind of activity, he arranges for the Swallows (and Bridget) to set up camp, receive milk etc. from a local farm (the Kraal), and leaves them to carry out the expedition under their own charge. More than that, though this is not apparent until their sudden arrival, almost halfway through the book, he has the Amazons brought down from the North to extend the expedition.
By then, the Swallows are already aware that, inadvertently, they have crashed into someone else’s equivalent of the Lake and Wild Cat Island. The Secret Water is infested by the Eels, a barbarian tribe.
The Swallows first encounter Don, the one local boy in the Eels. Don sees their camp, assumes it’s his friends and leaves them a carved Eel Totem. Because of the tracks he leaves with his wide-bottomed mud-splatchers, the Swallows nickname him the Mastodon. But for him and them the potential friendship is wrecked when a message comes through from the rest of the Eels that they don’t want anyone else about, and he’s to chase the interlopers off, wreck their boats if necessary.
The Mapping Expedition goes on under this threat. And the sudden arrival of the Amazons, whilst boosting their numbers, threatens to derail the purpose further. All Nancy can see is what a perfect place this is for ambushes and barbarian attacks on missionaries. But the Swallows have changed. Their expedition is a responsibility to their father, and they will not let him down. When Nancy says ‘You’ll be famous’, a friendship breaks.
Agreement between the three sides is reached when Bridget is ‘kidnapped’. Finally everyone gets to talk, and the result is much the same as that original meeting on Wild Cat Island. The savages agree to assist the visiting explorers, whilst Nancy finds a new friend in the aggressive Daisy, leader of the Eels. Something is in the air.
The days of not being able to leave the camp have put the expedition behind schedule, and there are two large sections outstanding – not in convenient corners, but front and centre. And damage to the rudder of their temporary boat forces the Swallows into an overland journey, at low tide, to the mainland for repairs. They have to return before the tide turns, and they get cut off, so the younger three are sent ahead. Unfortunately, they get delayed by Bridget playing with Sinbad and a spot of unexpected map-making, and whilst John and Susan return safely, the others push their luck too far and find themselves stranded, unable to press on or retreat, with the tide rising.
The Mastodon rescues them, but suddenly the Swallows face failure. Their parents are collecting them at first tide tomorrow, there are two front-and-centre prominent sections of map incomplete and the last chance to do them at all evaporates when the Amazons and the Eels,in Savage mode, attack the missionaries ans seize Bridget as a human sacrifice.
And the youngest Swallow, who is the absolute star of this book, doesn’t want to be rescued!
With a sense of resignation, the Swallows join in one last time with their friends’ games, even though it means letting their father down. Their reward is a literal last-morning dash by, onstage, Titty and Roger, redeeming their part by surveying the ‘North-West Passage’ whilst, offstage, the Amazons repay their dereliction towards their friends by surveying the ‘North-East Passage’, completing the map with seconds to spare.
Though they, or rather their seemings, were to appear in another two novels, this was the last that would be seen of the Swallows. The older children’s experience on the North Sea had ended their fitness for the games of fancy and pretence on which the Amazons survived, whilst Bridget, having burst onto the scene in grand style, could not appear without her brothers and sisters. But Ransome had to be true, not merely to his craft, but his creations.
And still the great summer wasn’t over. With the Swallows and Amazons engaged in Essex waters, Ransome moved back a little west and a little north, returning to Horning and the northern Broads for a second adventure with the Coot Club and the Ds, in The Big Six.
It’s the end of the summer, with Dick and Dorothea due to stay (on land) with Mrs Barrable, but not yet arrived, and Port and Starboard in Paris courtesy of their father. This leaves only Tom and the Death & Glories, and the book belongs to the latter.
In gratitude for their work in saving Margolotta, the boat-builders have refitted the D&G, enabling the lads to live on the river through the summer. This has already enabled them to get the Bird Protection Officer onto George Owden when he went egg-stealing. But, suddenly, wherever the boys moor, boats are being cast adrift, Margolotta-style. And though Joe, Bill and Pete protest their innocence fervently, public opinion is against them, and it looks like they will have to be taken off the river.
Into this horrible mess, which the boys feel keenly, arrive the Ds. This time it’s Dorothea who takes charge, leading the investigation into the crimes being pursued, and gradually building a case to show the Death & Glories’ innocence.
It’s not difficult to guess who is the true villain, although the Death & Glories reject the idea of it being their ‘arch-enemy’ Owden, but the conclusive information, in the form of a photograph, showing Owden and his friend pushing off a willing victim, is provided by the two least likely heroes: Dick, who sets up the conditions to take a flash-photo at night, and Pete, the youngest of them all, who takes the actual photo and preserves it.
The Detective Story ends with its own equivalent of a court scene, as Mr Farland receives the evidence that, until Dick and Pete arrive with the crucial photo, bids fair to condemn the Death & Glories.
Their vindication completes the story, and the society from which they were being progressively excluded, welcomes them back with pleasure, but the book’s epilogue deals with something that feels even better to the boys, the unveiling of the record pike they landed in a seemingly unrelated episode early in the book. So young, says an elderly fisherman, and nothing left to live for: I used that line myself to a seven year old supporter at the 1999 European Champions League Final.
So, after five novels, written over six years, the third summer ended.