The Last Englishman: an Arthur Ransome biography


Several years ago, I bought a copy of Roland Chambers’ 2008 biography of Arthur Ransome, The Last Englishman, in paperback. The book was written in the wake of the release of formerly classified papers documenting that the writer of Swallows and Amazons had operated as a British Intelligence Agent in Russia during the Revolution. I disliked the book, and especially its author’s attitude towards Ransome, and out it aside, intending to write about it. It’s been at least five years, if not more, without my returning to it, but I’ve pulled it from its position in hiding and re-read it, and am giving my opinion of the book before I confine it to the outer darknesses of a sale on eBay.
I was introduced to Arthur Ransome, via the last of the Swallows and Amazons books, when I was still in single figures. I still have the original green bound hardback set, all but two of them bought for me secondhand from Shudehill Book Stalls. I have, and have read at least three times, Hugh Brogan’s comprehensive Biography of Ransome, and his own, unfinished Autobiography. The contrast between the man’s life and the children’s fiction for which he is known is fascinating, and I am unashamedly a fan.
Roland Chambers very definitely isn’t. The Last Englishman, a title appended to Ransome during his time in Russia, has very little value as an emblem of the book, whilst its sub-title – prominently displayed on the paperback cover and decidedly sensational – is The DOUBLE LIFE of Arthur Ransome, capitals in the original.
Where Brogan was writing about the life of the Swallows and Amazons writer, a man with a fascinating and complex background in great contrast, Chambers offers a much narrower compass. He is only concerned with Ransome the Reporter, the witness to the Revolution, the man who worked for British Intelligence yet was considered by a great many to be an out-and-out Bolshevik.
Ransome’s years leading up to 1917 are only of importance in establishing his character (defective) and personal circumstances (self-inflicted), and the post-Russia years, including the Swallows and Amazons series is waved by as being totally irrelevant, though this doesn’t prevent Chambers from following the theme that runs through the book.
Because there is not very much in The Last Englishman that isn’t already in the Brogan biography. The only substantive difference is in emphasis. Plainly put, Chambers loathes Ransome, and whatever the writer says or does is wrong. There is no consideration of context nor attempt to present the circumstances that lead Ransome to take an attitude: simply by taking one at all he is at fault. Where Brogan may have been said to be too sympathetic, his Biography presents Arthur Ransome in his own light: who he was, what he thought and felt, and why. Judgement is reserved for the reader. Roland Chambers is delivering the Prosecution Speech in a Trial where the Hangman has set up the gallows before the verdict.
Obviously, this book goes into what seems to be a mass more detail about events in Russia in 1917 and afterwards. But for all this, I learned very little that I hadn’t known. Chambers is mainly concerned to present Ransome as, at his very best, shallow. The reporter is alleged to be stupidly impressionable, particularly in his adoption of the Bolshevik cause. Brogan reports this course through Ransome’s eyes, as a patriotic Englishmen observing at first hand the disintegration of one of his country’s allies in a major war, concerned for the effect on Britain and, on a pragmatic assessment, presenting the Bolshevik’s as the only source of stability. Chambers draws the like at accusing Ransome of being Bolshevik himself, of believing in all aspects of their political creed, and especially its viciousness and brutality, but the distinction between the true believer and the ‘useful idiot’ is deliberately blurred.
Chambers’ attitude is clearly the Trollopian one that ‘one cannot touch pitch without being oneself defiled’. That Ransome does not present whole-heartedly against the Bolshevik menace, that he doesn’t denounce it at every opportunity, that he doesn’t highlight massacres and executions damns him for all time.
That Ransome’s value lay in his having close contact with all the major figures of the Revolution, and that skating them at every opportunity may have potentially damaged that connection does not even enter Chambers’ thinking or, if it does, is ruthlessly suppressed.
But it’s the same everywhere. Ransome is mocked for his Bohemian period, bears the sole responsibility for the failure of his first marriage, and is in the wrong over every aspect of his relationship, or non-relationship with his only daughter: it is apparently perfectly alright for Ivy Walker to refuse to allow Tabitha to go on a Norfolk Broads holiday with her father by telling her that Ransome means to drown her, or for Tabitha to write to her father flatly telling him he is burnt out and will never write anything decent, before Swallows and Amazons. Ransome alone is responsible for this.
And Chambers is dismissive of the books for which Ransome gained his fame. They are a hollow, unrealistic fantasy that take no account of working class lives, nor War and there’s nothing about the Bolsheviks in them, which in Chambers’ eyes is utterly damning. Despite the fact that Ransome had never wanted to be a Reporter, that he saw that period of his life as an intrusion that threatened his true ambitions, he should instead have allowed his Russian experiences to dominate his every thought and word since: how dare he be allowed to forget?
The Last Englishman is a mean-minded book, the work of a writer who has determined to dislike his subject and to attack everything he did or thought. There is a measure of praise, balancing things out, but it is limited, only occasional and unconvincing: clearly, Chambers heart is not in allowing Arthur Ransome any triumph.
That, more than anything, is why, having finally re-read it, I shalln’t be holding on to this book. I’m not blind to Ransome’s contradictions, nor his failings, but I’m also aware of his qualities, and I can balance these out. Roland Chambers can’t or won’t. His stance is that of the men in England who wanted Arthur Ransome imprisoned or executed as a Bolshevik, and yet somehow never actually went ahead and did it when they had the opportunity: one gets the feeling Chambers wouldn’t have hesitated.

Film 2018 – Swallows and Amazons


It’s my working Sunday again, which influenced my choice this week to a film I’ve already written about, here.

This is the third time I’ve seen this film, the second time on DVD, and to be frank I’ve no new thoughts to add to those I recorded in 2016, home from a visit to the now-closed Showcase Cinema.

With more time to consider the film and the degree to which it succeeds in animating a book both classic and archaic, it becomes even more a film of two halves, two stories rather, joined at the hip in a manner that is well done enough without ever convincing anyone here for Arthur Ransome that it was worth doing.

On the one hand, we have a decent representation of the bones of Ransome’s original story, the children’s holiday adventure, the first of its kind: camping and boating and rivalry and making up your own world that is perfectly real behind the adults’ backs. I’m still no more convinced of Seren Hawkes as Nancy Blackett, but one understrength child actor is bearable, and any defects in the young lady’s wooden performance are more than made up for by those of the Swallows, and especially the two genuinely child actors, Teddie-Rose Mallesen-Allen as ‘Tatty’, and Bobby McCullough as Roger.

And I simply cannot watch young Bobby onscreen without a sense of awe that fortunately does not interfere with the flow of the film: he isn’t acting, he’s a seven year old boy from 1929 (sod the film’s updating to 1935) brought into the Twenty-First Century. They’re all good, but he just is Roger Walker, untouched by nearly ninety years since the Altounyans spent that summer on Coniston Water.

Whilst it would have been nice to have had more of the film take place on Windermere and Coniston Water, the modern world has impinged too much on the former, always the most accessible Lake from the south-east and thus the most commercial. Derwent Water may be wrong for ever so many reasons, none of which will affect anyone not a purist, but it has the advantage of consistency: unlike the 1974 film, the constant distraction of watching the little boats glide from lake to lake to lake indiscriminately is not present. And it is, of course, beautiful from every angle.

It’s still noticeable that, even though the film explicitly acknowledges it’s taking place in the Lake District, there isn’t the faintest effort to provide a Cumbrian or Westmoreland accent. If anything, particularly in the Blackett family, the accent drifts vaguely in the direction of Yorkshire, which is heresy so far as I am concerned.

That aside, there’s a comfortable familiarity to language in use by those Northerners. In the book, Ransome makes no play with accents or dialect. Beyond individual characteristics, the Amazons speak with the same middle-class voice as the Swallows. Like his prose generally, Ransome goes for a clear, limpid, smooth speech that assumes intelligence on his listeners’ parts but which never offers them any difficulties.

The film, however, unashamedly goes for northern epithets. Peggy Blackett calls her elder sister ‘cleverclogs’, and the General Store lady, upset at her corned beef display being knocked down, sends Tatty out of the shop with the words ‘you cheeky monkey’. Not having been brought up in Cumbria in the Twenties/Thirties, I can’t speak to local authenticity, but this is the language of my East Manchester boyhood all right.

Of course, the film still has its other half to negotiate, the spy plot that’s half John Buchan and half Arthur Ransome’s background. The book’s Jim Turner/Captain Flint has always been Ransome himself, spiritually as well as physically, and so the idea of turning him into the secret agent Ransome appears to have been in Russia during the Revolution at least has the merit of authenticity, though turning him into Rafe Spall doesn’t.

Spall underplays his part with a genuine sense of period overlaid by a low-key Buchan heartiness, which provides a useful contrast with the spicier Andrew Scott as Laslow, supercilious and cold, adapting his manic Moriarty to a role demanding naturalness. For what it’s worth, with the exception of the attempt by the two little boats to halt the seaplane from taking off – which in isolation is exactly the kind of thing children of their age and resourcefulness would think of trying – the spy plot works and works effectively. The jury is still out as to whether trying it in the same film should have been done at all.

As a Ransome fan possessed of all twelve books in those classic greenbound Jonathan Cape hardbacks, naturally I find against the film. But I enjoy it too much, and respond too much to those parts that represent the book at its most honest to hold it too badly against the film.

It’s getting on for three years since Swallows and Amazons was filmed and there are no proposals of which I am aware to adapt other books in the series. And Bobby McCullough is now ten, or thereabouts, so unless you’re going to clone him and grow the clone to age seven (or at worst eight), more fundamental damage would need to be done to Swallowdale to have him repeat his role. More’s the pity. I’d love to see a decent stab taken at that, at least once, especially if they genuinely climb Coniston Old Man as part of it.

But this film enables me to go back there whenever I want, not just to the Lake of 1929, but the sitting room at Brigham Street where I received my first Swallows and Amazons book from my Dad: he’d have found Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott stupid, but he’d have drunk in every other bit of it, the way I do.

Uncollected Thoughts: Swallows and Amazons (2016)


The Swallows

Speaking as an Arthur Ransome fan and a Lake District buff, I have to say that this was nearly a very good film. And in large part, being the parts that were derived directly from the book, this was close to being an excellent adaptation. Those bits where the film dipped below its generally high standard were, naturally, when the absurd Russian spy plot was allowed to intrude, which included the out-of-whole-cloth all-action ending. It was decently done for what it was, and could have been very much worse, but what it represented was a lack of faith on the part of the Producers in the film that they felt it couldn’t perform without adding so uncharacteristic and ill-fitting a story.

We’re going to have to deal with that part of the film eventually, but first let’s look at what did go nearly all right, and this was the Walker family, and especially the Swallows. Dane Hughes, Orla Hill, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby McCulloch play John, Susan, Tatty and Roger respectively, and they are all completely convincing in their parts, but little Bobby McCulloch especially deserves praise for being perfect in every moment.

All the Swallows are written to their personas in the book, though changes have been made to the two elder siblings. Susan simply cannot, in 2016, be portrayed as the impossibly domestic, docile mother-substitute she is in the books, but by representing her gently-increased aggressiveness as a form of sibling rivalry with her dominating elder brother, a more modern female emerges without doing damage.

If anyone is shown to be out of character, it is Captain John. In the books, he is a natural leader, already a decent sailor, a totally trustworthy and honest boy. As might be expected from one of two of Ransome’s personae in the series: Captain Flint, balding, perspiring, fixed on writing his book, is Ransome in real life – that’s not ‘Mixed Moss’ that Jim Tyrner is working on, it’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – whereas John, a substitute for a real life elder sister, is the boy Ransome, bringing himself into the book to join in the games as the boy he was never allowed to be.

John Walker in the film is not a paragon. He accidentally breaks a window on the houseboat but doesn’t admit to it, he’s not as good a sailor, as Susan getting a crack on the head from the boom, and the loss of all their food demonstrates, and he has a tendency to blame his sister for whatever goes wrong.

I can understand, if I don’t welcome, the change, and this bleeds into the spy plot in due course. It alters the family dynamic to a degree, but not so much as to radically change the story, which is anchored in the utter naturalness of the younger pair and cannot escape being grounded as a children’s holiday, and a children’s adventure.

As in the book, the Amazons don’t come into the story until almost halfway through, though in the film, they appear out of nowhere, unforeshadowed. Surprisingly, the Blackett sisters have a distinctly minor role in the film, even though they are Jim Turner’s nieces. Hannah Jayne Thorp is very good as Peggy, though she’s a bit more assertive against her elder sister than is written, but the true disappointment is Captain Nancy: Seren Hawkes is simply not up to the standard of her fellow junior actors and actresses, being wooden in speech and personality whereas Captain Nancy has to be tomboy-forceful and bursting with life. I suspect this, more than anything else, is what reduces the Amazons’ role.

And she speaks with a strange, unplaceable accent that comes closer to Yorkshire than anything else. This is the place to make a few points about the film in general. The Walkers are southerners and speak as such: the film starts with their train journey from Portsmouth to Cumberland.

Now the Blackett girls are nearly as middle-class as the walkers in the book, but if the ‘Lake’ has been identified as being in Cumberland, then surely the locals, if not the Amazons, should betray a Cumberland drawl in their speech. (If we’re being technical, as Ransome’s ‘Lake’ was a composite of Coniston Water with the middle of Windermere inserted, the accent should strictly be a blend of Westmorland and Furness Lanacstrian). Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes, as the Jacksons, are generic northerner, as in every other local in the film.

But authenticity is out for the afternoon. Mrs Walker’s accent has been shifted from Australian to Scottish for no apparent reason other than (presumably) to accommodate Kelly Macdonald whilst even Ransome’s map of the ‘Lake’, originally designed by Clifford Baker, has been totally transformed, with all the salient locations shuffled around. It’s not as if they’ve been redesigned to accommodate the actual lake being used for 99% of the sailing shots: this is Derwent Water (ironically, a genuinely Cumbrian lake).

Though the actual Lake on which ‘Swallow’ and ‘Amazon’ sail is Derwent Water, except for the few brief scenes of Jim Turner’s houseboat, which are, ironically, on Coniston Water, I shalln’t kick up a fuss: the filming is gorgeous and any film that allows itself that many spectacularly sunlit shots of the Jaws of Borrowdale, and the fells surrounding the Lake will get no complaints from me.

Though I was intrigued by the first shot of the ‘Lake’, a narrow, winding body of water with a single island in it, which corresponds to neither Coniston nor Derwent (nor even Windermere). I could not place it.

I suppose we are going to have to deal with the spy bit, or Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott won’t get to be mentioned. If it had to be done, it was at least cleverly done and integrated well into the story. Instead of Jim Turner being a kind of black sheep who’s knocked around the world and is now writing his memoirs, the Producers have borrowed the confirmation that Arthur Ransome himself was, in one degree or another, a British Agent feeding information during the Russian Revolution, and converted Turner into an active British spy, who has smuggled vital information out of Russia which, instead of taking to his superiors at MI-pick-a-number, he’s concealed on his remote houseboat in the Lake District (maybe this isn’t so well done after all).

But Turner – a decent if unspectacular performance from Spall – is being pursued by two Russian agents, Laslow (Andrew Scott being a very calm, cool, composed version of Andrew Scott in Sherlock) and his confederate (whose name and part I can’t find on any internet cast listing, not even imdb).

Through an entirely plausible set of circumstances, Commander Walker’s knife – entrusted to John but temporarily lent to Roger, who drops it into Flint’s boat when Laslow is searching it – John is blamed for the vandalisation of the houseboat and the theft of Mr Turner’s papers. His previous lack of candour tells against him and he, and the rest of the Swallows are banned from the Lake and returned to Jackson’s farm.

Where the children put all their several bits of info, work out that the Russians are holding Captain Flint prisoner on their island. So, in complete defiance of their banning, they steal ‘Swallow’ and join up with the Amazons to rescue him. John, having taken Turner’s service revolver, attempts to hold Laslow at gunpoint but is incapable of firing, especially as Turner is urging him to lower the gun.

So it all comes down to the big action ending, which, though well-made, is utterly stupid. By stringing a rope between both prows, the two little boats try to stop the seaplane from taking off by getting the rope across the floats. It’s a kids notion, and it’s doomed to disaster: both boats end up having to cut the rope to avoid being dragged into the Lake by the greater force of the seaplane.

Still, it buys Turner time to gnaw his way through his bonds (how old-fashioned) and force the plane to land, so the kids done good, the adults queue up to apologise to John, who is thus redeemed, and there’s time for a party on the houseboat and Captain Flint walking the plank in the grand manner.

That stupid ending, which really really doesn’t belong anywhere near this story, apart, most of Swallows and Amazons works with an easy and believable naturalness. There are still parts where inexplicable changes have been made – the story has been moved from 1929 to 1935 so as to drag it closer to the onset of war, despite the Russians not having anything to do with that terrible event, and the film containing no international elements at all.

And there’s a totally purposeless carnival in Rio, featuring women dressed up in Japanese costume that’s ridiculous in the extreme.

But let’s get back to Dane, Orla, Teddie-Rose and Bobby, who make this film the joy it was to watch, and on the strength of whose performances, I would dearly love to see a sequel. That depends on this being a success, and enough people holding their noses during the stupid bits, but I’d definitely sign up to watch a film adaptation of Swallowdale next.

 

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.

Crap Journalism: Re-naming Titty


This next example of Crap Journalism is by regular Guardian columnist Ben Child. The article is about the forthcoming new Swallows and Amazons film, which I mentioned here months ago. Famously, the Swallows themselves were based on a real life family of four children, the third of whom, Mavis Altounyan, was immortalised under her family nickname, Titty.

Yes, I know. Times change and the book was written in 1928. For the forthcoming film, Titty has become Tatty (she was Kitty in the 1963 BBC TV adaptation). You could hardly do anything but change the name, but the late Mavis’s niece has complained about the change, calling it disrespectful to her aunt.

In that she’s objecting to applying the name ‘Tatty’ to her late aunt, Barbara Altounyan would appear to have a case. It seems to be completely unsuitable. On general terms, however, objecting to any change at all, she’s on dodgy ground.

But the crap journalism that made me snap at this article is when Childs sets up the background of Ransome’s using the Altounyan’s as templates for the Swallows. He names them all, starting with Mavis’s elder brother John, the model for Captain John Walker. There’s just one problem: John Altounyan never existed!

The eldest Altounyan child was the tomboyish Tacqui, a daughter (who later wrote a memoir, In Aleppo Once). Ransome used her as a model, but changed her into the boy, John, for commercial reasons (a two boys, two girls split read better), sexist reasons (a girl giving orders?) and possibly unconscious personal reasons (John Walker was a means by which the 40+ Ransome could take part in his children’s adventures).

This isn’t esoteric information, it doesn’t take ages to dig out, it’s crap journalism. Get the facts right, Child, it’s your job to be accurate.

Incidentally, if the film is a success, there are hopes to turn it into a series. I for one would support that gratefully. But I’m on the family’s side over ‘Tatty’.

Swallows and Amazons: Let’s Try Again, or maybe…


Can you imagine this man in ‘Swallows and Amazons’? Me neither.

Reading a feature interview in today’s Observer magazine with Andrew Scott, the impossibly charismatic Jim Moriarty of Sherlock, I was startled by a passing mention of his filming a re-make of Swallows and Amazons, set in the Lake District (I’m sorry, did someone think you could possibly set it somewhere else?).

The news of a new film, some forty plus years after the good-hearted but ultimately unconvincing Virginia McKenna/Ronald Fraser version in 1974, came as a simultaneously welcome and unwelcome thought. I mean, I love the book, and anything set in the Lakes that uses the landscape will drag me down Grand Central, but what the heck are they going to do to it this time? I mean, Andrew Scott, utterly brilliant, but who the hell is he going to play? Surely not Captain Flint?

One hasty Google later, I am left yet more concerned. No, Scott is not playing Captain Flint, that honour goes to Rafe Spall (so we’re not casting according to descriptions in the book then). No, silly me, I should have realised, Scott’s going to play Lazlow. How obvious.

That there is, of course, no such character in Swallows and Amazons alerts us to the fact that some serious fuckery could be about to take place. The news that they’ve also been filming in West Yorkshire (I’m sorry, but reservoirs off the M62 don’t look anything like the Lake District) doesn’t fill me with anticipation, either.

What the film plans to do, I would surmise, is to shift the balance of the story well away from the Walker and Blackett children, who are the whole point of the novel, and towards Captain Flint. Notably, Spall’s part is not being referred to by the cognomen that Nancy and Peggy Blackett have long since lavished on their Uncle, but as Jim Turner.

Turner/Flint in the book is a mainly offstage character, until the final phase of the book, where he is brought properly onscreen by the robbery on the Houseboat. It’s widely recognised that the preoccupied author is Ransome himself, and that’s the key to the new film. It’s now recognised that Arthur Ransome was not merely a journalist in Russia during the Revolution, but that he was also an operative of MI6.

What the film plans to do, according to reports, is to bring that hitherto hidden aspect of Ransome back to Jim Turner: Lazlow is an old enemy from the spy world. This has the potential to be A Very Bad Idea Indeed, not least if the film intends to follow through on this descriptive paragraph: “The story follows four children dreaming of an escape from the tedium of a summer holiday with their mother. When finally given permission to camp on their own on a remote island in the middle of a vast lake, they are overjoyed. But when they get there they discover they may not be alone… As they battle for ownership of the island, they learn the skills of survival and the value of friendship, which helps prepare them for the real danger they must face from the adult world.”

Does that fill you with dread? It does me. At least the probability is that if Turner is Ransome 2.0, the tale will take place in the late Twenties/early Thirties, though I shudder at the devastation that could be caused if they update it.

(One necessary updating has already occurred: Mrs Walker’s middle daughter will be called Tatty).

Nevertheless, I am prepared to be more open-minded about this film, which should appear in 2016 than I am about the ever-nearing Dad’s Army re-make. As long as the scenery’s plentifully in sight, and they have filmed on Peel Island on Coniston Water, I shall be partially satisfied.

Obscure Corners – Miterdale Head


MiterdaleThat in this day and age, almost sixty years since the publication of The Southern Fells, it is still possible to call Miterdale Head an Obscure Corner is a telling comment on the vast majority of Lakeland visitors in that time. Miterdale is a shy, overlooked side valley with no obvious features, save for its unusual dale head, yet it borders upon and is easily accessible from the ever-popular Eskdale, its whole length being possible to walk in little more than an hour, and sweet in every yard. It’s been talked about continually. And still they do not come.
Isn’t that absolutely brilliant?
I first visited the valley in the late Sixties, a brief, evening excursion before the long drive back to Broughton-in-Furness. Wainwright describes there being two ‘roads’ into the valley, neither of them sign-posted. We parked in Eskdale Green, at a corner in the road, where what looked like a private road, between walls, led uphill. In reality, this was a rough track, climbing up and down across the low ridge guarding the valley mouth.
Once in Miterdale, we followed the path about half way down the valley, until the way grew wet underfoot and the sky began to dull.
All my later visits have been under my own steam, by car, using the actual road into the valley, which looks equally private (may it never acquire a signpost or, if it ever does, let it be torn down instantly), which leads to a rough car park at the road end, just short of the first farm.
The path is, initially, a tractor track on the north of the beck – or rather, the River Mite, one of the three rivers coming together to form the Ravenglass Estuary, once the busiest port in England. Further up, the way becomes a track, crossing back to the south of the beck, bordered by a wall, sometimes crossing wet ground, mostly under the shade of trees.
It’s a level walk without difficulties, though there is still an air of sadness about the middle valley, in the form of abandoned farms, working establishments in the most recent century, now empty.
The character of Miterdale changes abruptly at the end of the middle valley. The enclosing fells close in, the Mite is a winding beck carving a bubbling channel through a narrow, grassy divide, impossible to discern ahead for more than twenty yards or so at a time. The path is narrow and sporty, hugging the beck, dancing up and down.
Slowly, a low line of grassy bluffs forms a horizon, growing nearer, until this shy ravine broadens out into the wide, flat cirque of Miterdale Head.
It’s a completely unexpected sight, a grassy bowl, flat and wide, terminating in miniature grass cliffs down which a waterfall really ought to decently tumble. It is silent, even the rush of the wind diminished. There is the immediate urge, even in those who only ever sleep in beds, to start a camp here. It is a place to be alone, where it feels as if you will never be disturbed.
Several people have suggested that Miterdale Head forms part of the inspiration for Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale, in the book of the same name. It’s a romantic notion, and the valley head supports the suggestion, but it is far and away from the Furness features that Ransome built upon to create the fictional landscape of his sailing children, and the honour more properly lies in the environs of Beacon Tarn, on the moorlands west of Coniston Water’s lower reach.
But to find a neat row of tents here, and a very practical 12 year old girl boiling a kettle over a fire between two stones and cutting slices of pemmican would seem very appropriate.
Miterdale Head’s unique structure can be explained by a simple climb out of the valley, up the slopes on the south side of the cirque, to gain the lip of the valley. Ahead, a half mile distant, the flat and uninteresting waters of Burnmoor Tarn lie, invariably looking miserable. Only a low, green swell of land prevents Burnmoor from doing the geographically orthodox thing of draining into Miterdale (instead, its outflow is at the north-eastern end of the tarn, side-by-side with its main infiller).
But if nature had done what it ‘should’ have done, we would not have Miterdale Head, which would be a real loss.
It’s difficult to incorporate Miterdale into a larger expedition, the only feasible approach being to ascend to Whin Rigg from the foot of Miterdale, walk the ridge of the Screes and, descend from Illgill Head, either to the Wasdale Corpse Road or else avoiding the complete circuit of Burnmoor Tarm by taking a short cut across trackless and dull grasses to make your way to the lip of Miterdale and back from its wonderful Head.
May the millions never decide to get out of their cars!