Britain’s Lost Waterlands: An Arthur Ransome Excuse


I’d been looking forward to tonight’s BBC4 Nature Documentary for half the week, thanks to the official sub-title: Escape to Swallows and Amazons Country. You know my lifelong enthusiasm for Arthur Ransome, and if that were not enough, it’s impossible to do anything with the real landscapes without going to the Lake District, and I’ll watch any TV programme that does that.

Though the Swallows and Amazons books provided a thematic link, in the end the Ransome connection was not much more than a hook to draw together three entirely disparate kinds of waterlands: the natural, glacially-formed Lakes of Cumbria, the man-made, ancient flooded peat-cuttings of the Broads of Norfolk, and the tidal waters of the Orwell Estuary and Hamford Water on the Suffolk/Essex border.

The programme was jointly presented by Dick Strawbridge, engineer, sailor, and occasional presenter on the long-running Coast and naturalist, anthropologist and Coast mainstay, Alice Roberts. Strawbridge evidently drew the long straw, dominating screen-time (he was the only one of the pair to be let loose on the Lakes, more’s the pity) as he pursued the sailcraft, the engineering and the people whilst Roberts brought up the rear, revelling in the countryside and the wildlife.

It was a shame, not because she was far better looking than Strawbridge (who was at least possessed of a moustache of truly Ransome-esque proportions) but because she’s incomparably the better presenter. Strawbridge was all enthusiasm and expostulation, greeting everything as fantastic, but his larger-than-life approach came over as tv puff rather than natural, like ITV commentators desperate to convince you that the bore-all draw you’re watching is the most exciting football match ever played. Roberts, on the other hand, is much quieter and calmer, and less extravagant in her choice of words, yet her genuine love for what she sees and her endless fascination with nature shines through at all times.

Like I said though, the Ransome connection was little more than an excuse. Strawbridge had the Lakes to himself, progressing from sailing on Coniston Water (with one sly, unadvertised shot of the Fairfield Horseshoe from Windermere, a subtle nod to how Ransome’s Lake was an amalgam of the two) to mines in Coppermines Valley, reaching high into the Coniston range.

But there was no pointing out of any places connected to the Swallows and the Amazons, and Pigeon Post, which was directly connected to Coppermines Valley, was only mentioned in passing, without its context being identified.

There was more of a Coot Club theme to the Norfolk Broads section, which taught me things I didn’t know about the landscape, and which had a couple of quotes from Coot Club itself. I have been to the Broads a very long time ago, when I was very young, too young to associate any memories with it. One thing that impressed me was the sheer scale of it, the breadth: I have always seen the landscape in the two Broads books as narrower, more confined than it really is.

But what moved me most was the final section. Not Strawbridge, arriving in Pin Mill, the start of the epic We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, nor his evident belief in the reality of that experience, but Alice Roberts at Hamford Water, the Secret Water, the hidden lagoon, as she called it, a place I’ve never been nor seen before, a place lacking in fame beyond its locality and this equally splendid Ransome book. She, here, was the only one to really relate the landscape to the book that was supposedly the cause of her presence, and for the only time, the programme acquired that additional layer of significance, and seemed to stretch across time to Ransome’s days, to his ‘children’s days.

An interesting hour, though I for one could have done with far more of the landscape and the waters than we got, and certainly less of Dick Strawbridge.

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