The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage Two – South to West


Coniston Water and its Old Man

The Second Stage of the Grand Tour covers the quarter from South to West, my family’s old home territory. It’s a long drive round from Consiston to Wasdale, and whilst there’s a Lake at the beginning and a Lake at the end, there’s none in between. On the other hand, there are enough variants on the route my Uncle would have taken to keep the fertile mind amused in planning.
The way forward is the Broughton road, from the south end of Coniston Village. The lake is soon visible, dark in its narrow valley on the left, for those who haven’t come round via the Ferry option. I have traveled this road more times than any other in the whole Lake District, all the way round to Ravenglass, and pleasant as it is, the option for variation is frequently uppermost.
The first of these comes just after Torver, where the main road bears left to follow the shore of the lower end of the Lake. A short while after the roadfork, a steep, narrow, unwalled fell road, signposted Broughton Moor, leaps steeply off to the right, leading to a narrow, high-level route with interesting views, and pleasant solitude. It’s as difficult to imagine meeting another car along here as it is easy to imagine the problems of trying to get past one.
Meanwhile, the main route follows the valley until emerging suddenly on the lip of the Lickle Valley and bearing left towards Broughton. No need to pass through the village: a mile before it, bear right to come out by a fine pub. There is a double right turn, and suddenly you’re hurtling down the hill on a wide highway, picking up speed in happy fashion towards the Duddon River. Don’t get too enthusiastic: the bridge in single-tracked and traffic-lighted, and in any event there are double ninety degree turns to cross from one bank to the other, so the inrush of speed is only ever going to be a brief one, but exhilarating while it lasts.
Back to the Broughton Moor variation. This ends at an unsignposted T junction where a left turn quickly brings you back to the main route, on the lip of the Lickle. However, a right turn heads along the valley wall before descending to the tiny hamlet of Broughton Mills, in the heart of the valley. The road forks, the left branch visiting all the farms along the western side of the valley and culminating at Low Bleansley, of long ago memory, but the right fork quickly begins to rise, along a narrow valley between low ridges of fells.

The Lickle Valley and Duddon Bridge

There are gates at two points on the ascent, to be opened and closed which, apart from the possibility of pleasant company, is a good reason for bringing along a passenger, and the road rises to a fresh, narrow, grassy col with room to park on the verges. I mention this solely because, if the weather is good, and the ground dry, a delightful mini-expedition lasting all of ten minutes, even in trainers, can get you to the little peaked top of Stickle Pike. Take the path on the left, but don’t be too long.
With or without a halt for peak-bagging, the road now descends into the Duddon Valley, emerging just north of Seathwaite: turn left and drive three miles, almost as far as Ulpha.
Pause here and return to the main route. At the foot of the hill running down from the pub, is the road into the Duddon Valley. If you haven’t fancied the Broughton Moor/Broughton Mills variants, you can always turn right here and enjoy a leisurely ride along to the Lower Duddon, as far as Ulpha where, at the Travellers Rest, just beyond the hamlet, drivers who have gone over the moors will be found proceeding towards you. Let both of you here turn onto the Birker Moor Road.
Meanwhile, back on the main route, having crossed Duddon Bridge, the road hugs the riverbank for a quarter mile before veering left and starting to gain height to cross the low pastoral country descending from the Black Combe massif. This is another, beautiful country drive, as long as you ignore turnings towards Millom. The road wends its way down the Whicham Valley towards the Irish Sea, meeting this just north of Silecroft. Turn right, and speed northwards. The route passes through Bootle, after which you should, in decent conditions, be able to see the Isle of Man out in the Sea, but this will have slipped behind by the time the route is joined by a road on the sight, signposted Corney. Funnily enough, there was a road on the right signposted that way, just as we turned away from the Duddon…
This variation is an enjoyable exercise on its own, having no connection with any other short-cuts or fell roads. It cuts off a massive corner by crossing the moors behind Black Combe, instead of going all the way round it. The turning follows the Duddon initially before climbing through woods onto the open moorland. This reveals a stunning view of the Duddon, which the driver is especially placed to observe, so make sure any passengers see it. The road crosses the watershed at about 900′, immediately revealing the Irish Sea, and the Isle of Man is soon in sight on the long, slow descent to rejoin the main coast road just as it descends to cross the River Esk and the mouth of Lower Eskdale. One final variant comes up as the road sweeps toward the bridge, an unsignposted, country lane. This is a haven of peace and solitude, sliding up through the unfrequented Lower Eskdale, and joining the road coming down off Birker Moor at its further end.

Birker Moor, looking north

Travellers by that route have also cut off a massive corner in this leg of the Grand Tour, and whilst drivers will not have enjoyed the steep, zig-zagging ascent up the fellside immediately behind the Travellers’ Rest, once the road reaches the fringes of the Moor, the driving is easy. Directly ahead are views over Burnmoor on the far side of Eskdale, offering an unusual angle on the mountains at the head of Wasdale. And there are expansive views over the northern part of the Moor, to the rocky turrets of Green Crag, and the peak of Harter Fell beyond it, before the road starts a much more gradual descent into Middle Eskdale, picking up drivers who have come via Lower Eskdale just before reaching the valley proper.
This is almost the end of this long, lakeless quarter. The main route crosses the Esk and races towards Muncaster Fell, with Muncaster Castle appearing and disappearing behind its screen of trees. Behind the fell, the road descends towards Ravenglass. This is the advantage of the main route, apart from the generally better and wider roads, for Ravenglass is an ideal spot to stop for tea and buns.
Leave it for the coast road north. If you can time your departure to get just ahead of a train leaving the Ratty, you can beat it to the bridge over the track at Muncaster Mill and hang over the fence as the train steams below.
With or without that bonus, continue north until hitting the signs to turn off for Eskdale and Wasdale. This quickly leads to a long, arrow-straight stretch of road over a mile in length along which, in deserted conditions, you can utterly bomb along. The beginning of the ridge separating the two valleys rises directly ahead, and it hardly needs signposting to direct you to the left when the road forks. Those still following the variations are not far away. They will have turned left onto the main valley road, by Eskdale Green and, at the next fork, borne right, to join the coast road stalwarts just short of Santon Bridge.
Across the bridge, turn right as signposted for Wasdale. Great Gable almost immediately fills the entire sky ahead, its most popular aspect rearing up majestically. The road disappears into trees until, with the shadow of the Screes growing large on the right, Wastwater itself comes into view through the trees. The road emerges on the shore and follows this along the other shore of the lake as far as a junction, at Greendale. From lake to lake, the second leg of the Tour has been completed.

Wastwater

The Grand Tour of the Lakes: Stage One – East to South


Windermere from a low level

Back in those dim, distant days when my only knowledge of the Lake District came from family holidays, we would occasionally be tripped up by rainy days. At first, these would only occur on Fridays, which meant the almost traditional drive north, over Dunmail Raise, to wander around Keswick, slickered up in raincoats, before it cleared after lunch and we would park for a couple of hours by the Derwent, down the valley.
A couple of times, however, the rains would come on other days of the week, and on one memorable occasion, my family gave way to my ceaseless clamour to see Lakes I had not previously visited, and we went driving. At first, it would be the old familiar route via the Wycham Valley to the coast, and Ravenglass, as if for Wasdale or Eskdale. But instead, we followed the coast further north, as far as Egremont, and then turned off towards Cold Fell, and the moors to Ennerdale, and beyond that to Loweswater and the Buttermere Valley and, to my astonishment, given how my Uncle guarded his car, over Honister Pass and down into Borrowdale.
I remember this for being my first sightings of Ennerdale Water, Loweswater, Crummock Water and Buttermere, and the efforts my Uncle made to find temporary stopping places that enabled me to take black and white photos of these new Lakes.
This was long ago, and in the years following, I have driven all these roads, and seen these Lakes and Valleys several times over. But I never did the Grand Tour for myself. The days were usually too good not to be walking, and those days when the fells were impossible were so bad for rain and cloud that the Tour would have been no more than driving for the sake of it, with little to see.
For the past six years I have not had access to a car, and once you are reliant on public transport to reach the Lakes, let alone navigate about it when you are there, the Western Lakes and these valleys that face the Irish Sea are far beyond the possibility of visit.
That doesn’t deprive me of the memories, and when fortunes and mobility change for the better, one of the first things I have promised myself is to spend a day doing the Grand Tour. I’ve thought about it many times, and I’ve devised it so that, in a single day, it’s possible to see thirteen of the traditionally Sixteen Lakes, without much backing, filling and contrivance.
I’ve mentioned before that my family used to confine themselves almost exclusively to the south west quarter of Lakeland, from Grasmere round to Wasdale. I’ve always been much more cosmopolitan, splitting my holidays between Ambleside and Keswick when it came to bases, and making sure of going everywhere I could. So many sights of which my family deprived themselves, and I don’t just mean the fells I’ve climbed.
Our tour, my Tour, goes round in a circle. The whole point of a circular tour is that you can join it at any point on its circumference, but my instincts always lead me to start and finish in Ambleside. On the other hand, whilst I tend to the opposite in horseshoe walks, the Grand Tour progresses gloriously clockwise.
Remember, there’s thirteen Lakes to be collected, and the first of these, Windermere, appears almost immediately. On the Coniston road, less than a half mile out of Ambleside, the trees thin to reveal a long vista down the Lake, almost to the islands opposite Bowness. I’ve never seen this view without a forest of white masts and sails.

Elterwater – the Lake that will one day vanish

I’ve probably travelled the Ambleside – Coniston road more often than any other in the Lakes, passenger and driver, enough to be familiar with every bend and bump in the road, enough to drive it in ten foot visibility fog if I needed to. So I know that when the road passes the mouth of Great Langdale, crosses Skelwith Bridge and begins to climb through the trees, that as soon as it emerges into the open, Elterwater is visible below in the lower valley. It’s hard to see, both because the lake has shrunk considerably in my lifetime, from a small, tarn sized lake with facing promontories, to three connected pools that, within the next fifty years, will no doubt seize up and disappear.
It’s also very difficult for a driver to see it, since it lies downhill at a backwards angle on the right, so it’s sensible to pull into the first layby on the other side of the road and get out for a proper look.
Next stop is Coniston, entering the Village from the north. It’s far too early in the day to stop, but at this point I want to backtrack and refer to an alternate start to the route, that sacrifices the distant glimpse of Elterwater for a much more up front encounter with pastoral Esthwaite Water.
Personally, Esthwaite Water has never done anything for me. It’s a secluded Lake that lies among fields and hedges rather than on the fringe of the hill country, and it is the hill country that always enthrals me. Whilst it’s not far away in miles, nor obscure of access, Esthwaite feels as if it is much further away from the fells than it actually is. Bringing it into the walk involves sidestepping the familiar Ambleside-Coniston road entirely, in favour of the road to Waterhead and Bowness.
This has its advantages in extended and more intimate views of the upper half of Windermere, including the classic view of the Langdale Pikes, always looking much closer than they are in real geography. On the other hand, this approach risks considerable delays, both in driving through Bowness Bay and crossing the Lake on the ferry. Especially if you pull up on the Bowness shore just in time to see the boat cranking away on its chains on the slow journey towards the western shore, with the return journey yet to come.

Esthwaite Water – a lake of trees and fields

Once across the Lake, the road winds through idyllic country lanes, the signposts to Near and Far Sawrey invoking the inevitable associations with the late Mrs Heelis – that’s Beatrix Potter to you – and eventually the alternate routes round Esthwaite Water itself, which is calm, peaceful and beautiful, but it’s a beauty that doesn’t below to the Lakes, a beauty from which ruggedness of any kind is absent. You might as well be down south.
Hawkshead lies at the head of the lake. It’s a very expensive place to visit as cars have been barred all my life, and the car and coach parks have set their prices on the exclusive rights basis, and to be honest, even if this is Midsummer’s day and you’ve set off at sparrowfart, there isn’t enough time to stop off and visit, so continue driving north.
This road leads back to the Ambleside-Coniston road, only a couple of miles outside the village. You could still include Elterwater by doing this, and increase the number of Lakes to fourteen, but it really does mean a bit too much faffing around for something that’s supposed to be a roughly circular tour, so let’s not. Instead, a mile or so north of the village, a road turns off towards Coniston, rising gently to cross the low ridge east of the Lake, and descending in steep bends to round the head of Coniston Water, whilst offering some spectacular views over the lake. From the lake head, follow the road on into the Village from the East, to rejoin the main route.
Which, despite the relatively short distance traveled, is a suitable point to say that Stage One, from East to South, has been completed.

Coniston Water in conditions of calm

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.

The Lakes: Rain Days


I always had a great deal of luck with my holidays in the Lakes, with many more good days than bad, good here requiring only that it be dry and clear, with cloud no lower that the upper rocks of, say, Bowfell (unless, of course, I was heading out to Bowfell). Rain didn’t always stop me walking, and I have some very vivid memories of being out on the fells when it started pouring down, in that solid, unhurried, here-for-the-week-folks manner.

These were occasions when the weather turned on me whilst I was already in the high country: when I was coming down off Gable, descending through Gillercomb whilst the skies greyed and then blurred, and an impish mood saw me leave down my hood when I scrambled into kagoul and waterproof trousers just in time, letting the last afternoon rainfall wash through my face and hair: my first approach to Yewbarrow by that desperate scramble up the wrong side of Dore Head’s screes, the cloud on Stirrup Crag and the long retreat via Over Beck and the road back to Wasdale Head, hood drawn up but the persistent pressure of the unending rain turning waterproofs after a certain time into waterlogs.

Or when I got caught on the ridge between Eagle Crag and Sergeant’s Crag, necessitating a careful and slow descent of the soaking grass slopes into Langstrath, and the silent walk back, silent but for the drumming of rain on my hood, my glasses washed clean of spots and streaks by the sheer volume of water. Or the sudden storm that blew up out of nowhere on a Sunday afternoon leg-warmer in Wythop, and determinedly struggling into the face of an absolute storm, to the miniature cairn and round it and straight back down without a pause, refusing to be beaten on so small a fell.

But when it rains in the Lakes, that for me is usually the signal for a day in the valleys, a day of villages and tiny towns, of shops and windscreen wipers, and often a long, slow holing up in a cooling car, somewhere off the road, somewhere with a semblance of a view to glimpse occasionally when I flicked on the wipers, briefly, curled up over a book, without distraction.

When we stayed at Lower Bleansley, in the long-ago Sixties, it only ever rained on the Friday. It was the cue for the only journey into the Northern Lakes that my parents and Uncle would sanction: beyond Ambleside, beyond Rydal and Grasmere, over Dunmail Raise (they would not drive over any other Pass), by Thirlmere, still mostly invisible through the dense screen of trees planted by the Forestry Commision to keep even the great road north from the Lake they had seized. We wander round Keswick, all determinedly swathed in waterproofs better suited to the fells, look in the shops, eat bread and butter in a cafe and, when it would inevitably clear after lunch, go down Borrowdale, find a place to stop by the banks of the Derwent, ‘picnic’ until it was time to head back for our evening meal.

I also remember a brutally wet Rain Day in September 1970, an impromptu, escape from the stress holiday just a few weeks after Dad died, after a long illness and a terrible last week. We were in Ulverston for some long-forgotten reason, and there’s little enough reason to visit in fine weather, but this was the hard and determined rain that fell without pause, and I remember hiding from it in the Covered Market, where clothes steamed and my glasses fogged over constantly, and I was allowed to buy the last DC comic of my childhood.

Years later, I remember a day when it rained unmercifully, a day of kagoul, when I found myself in Windermere Village, outside one of those small record shops that you no longer see. Record shops were the same kind of magnet to me as book shops, and there were always things that attracted me then, though my practical and prudent side forbade me to buy LPs in the Lakes. Older readers will instantly understand, will remember the nervous moment of first playing your buy, fearful of the click, scratch, jump etc. that forced you back to the shop, enthusiasm greatly diminished by the record being damaged.

It was bad enough when that meant a half hour trek back into the City Centre, getting worked up over the coming battle with the shop assistant over bringing it back, but a three hour drive each way?

The shop’s been gone for decades, but whilst I didn’t buy anything there, it entranced me for ages, with five rows of old singles to go through. Five rows out of which practically the entire Top 30 from 1970 to 1975 could have been reconstructed. Singles that had been played to death on Radio 1 and hadn’t made (it was a different world then, people). Records that had been played half a dozen times over as many weeks, but I’d heard it. Records that had never been played on the radio since they had slipped below no 23 in the charts, and never would be played again, not by the most nostalgic of programme controller.

A treasure trove of memory and recollection. One I would never have discovered but for the Rain.

These reminiscences have been sparked by Manchester rain – or should I say Stockport rain? – an hour or so ago. I had finished my shopping, was waiting at the bus stop to get home, and down it came, even and steady, deep and darkening. It was cool and quiet and it sparked a memory of Rain Days: of sitting in the car facing the beach at Silecroft, or in the car park at the head of Coniston Water, book in my hands, hours of the day remaining. The fells out of reach, the bookshops of every village I could possibly reach exhausted of perusal. The Lakes dark under cloud and the weather.

But not bored, or at least not often. More often, the frustrations came on days when it was dry, but low, unshakeable cloud barred me from the fells. Rain Days were another state of being, a time out even from the time out of normal life, of the Law and Property, Leases and Wills. Just as, in my turbulent teens, in the years immediately after Dad’s death, I would often stand in my bedroom, looking out into the rain, the back garden, mesmerised almost by its constancy, watching pools slowly form in the flowerbeds, watching it drive down, letting it feed what I felt inside, a shock I was more than slow to deal with, yet forbidden to express.

Just so was I prepared to spend hours, watching the rain, determinedly cut off from everything else, but connected to the Lake District. It was not how I wanted my day to go, but it was still part of a world that lay outside my ordinary, often so frustrating life. Instead of the big turning circles for the busses outside of Tesco, it would have been deeply soul cleansing to sit and watch the rain form patterns on the lapping shores at Coniston.

“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.