Literary travels with a child: Arthur Ransome travel article
The seven-year-old cannot sit up. “I feel sick,” Cúán whimpers. He’s flat on his back across the seats of this Manchester-to-Ulverston train, pale and clutching his tummy, while out the window the Lake District landscape of Arthur Ransome novels we have come specifically to explore flashes past ignored.
Once we arrive at the Ulverston railway station, I discover that there are no buses running on Sunday to Coniston, 17 kilometres away. This is where Bank Ground Farm is located, a bed and breakfast I have chosen because it’s the inspiration for the children’s home in the Ransome books. It’s an indication of how remote, and perhaps unsuitable, the accommodation is. By the time we arrive at Bank Ground Farm, via a resented $50 taxi ride, I am carrying the contents of Cúán’s tummy in a very small bag.
The farm, known as Holly Howe in the celebrated British author’s novels, sits snug along the shores of Lake Coniston and has a Merchant Ivory feel to it – chimney pot overgrown with moss, white exterior, flowerbeds galore. Daffodils welcome us and a couple of lambs head-butt each other in a neighbouring field.
But poor Cúán, who has puked all the way along the bumpy road, is too weak to even look at the famous field where Roger, aged 7, zigzagged, waiting for a telegram with permission from his father to go sailing on the first page of Swallows and Amazons. The housekeeper seems a little surprised at my frustrations with local transport. “We’re out in the middle of nowhere. What do you expect?” Reality appears to be thumping fiction today.
Canadian children are more likely to beg to visit Harry Potter’s King’s Cross train station or Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm rather than the sailboat territory of John, Susan, Titty and Roger – the Walker children – from Swallows and Amazons. Young Canadians usually find Ransome via an enamoured librarian, a parent or, like us, a friend. He’s the kind of author a Books editor may call a “classic – and if you haven’t read him, you should.” Elsewhere, though, he continues to attract a nerdy demographic – think 30s male with innocent girlfriend in tow, who are willing to tramp in marshy spots for the hope of spotting a vague shed they might attribute to one of his novels.
Arthur Ransome, born in 1884, in Leeds, England, spent his childhood summers on the South of Coniston water, where he eventually penned Swallows and Amazons, his most famous book, and many others. His children are regarded as classic characters in British literature. Set in the Lake District and on the Norfolk Broads during the 1930s, the books concern two gangs of children in the days of autonomous adventures, sailing and protecting birds.
When my son begged me not to read the last 50 pages of Swallowdale because the thought of it ending was too painful, I figured the time had come to break out of the bottom bunk and plop him into the landscape he has so fictionally adored.
Ransome aside, the Lake District is a landscape well known for its watery scenery 6,000 archeological sites. Geology to this place is what skyscrapers are to New York.
But, for Cúán and I today, the moral of the story is to be practical about the lure of literary locale. Fortunately, I have taken an unstructured approach to our adventure, with the only stipulation that we explore both the Lake District and Norfolk.
Upon arrival, we have to pass on the promising two-hour Swallows and Amazons boat tour because of a dodgy young stomach. Recuperation takes us to bed to watch a TV rugby match with our ski jackets on.
By 5 p.m., with Cúán reluctantly woken, we are finally experiencing Ransome’s landscape, but there’s no persuading the seven-year-old that the distant settlement on the opposite side of the lake is where we need to be. You cannot turn up the spirit of adventure like a radio. I nudge him a few inches along the road, but he folds to a squat every step, so I thrust out a thumb in desperation. Two London tourists apprehensively rescue us.
Out the window, we pass farmhouses, sheep a-plenty and the wondrous spectacle that is Lake Coniston, with the odd sailboat and the mound of Old Man Coniston mountain defiantly above it like a row of pudgy fists. The simple black-ink sketches that pepper all of Ransome’s novels mean that it’s like meeting a relative you have seen only in photographs, but years later looks no different in the flesh. If you blot out all the cars, it could easily be 1930 on this stretch.
We walk the lakeside path back from Coniston village to Bank Ground Farm, swinging our ginger ale, and gradually my child awakens to his literary landscape. “Pike rock!” he shrieks, spotting some rocks in the water. “Now where is Horseshoe Cove?” He points at a hut on a distant hill. Swallowdale! He announces the title of his favourite Ransome novel in triumph. He approaches a small stone bridge arched over a beck, gets down on his haunches and peers through it. “Can I crawl under it?” His face suggests that he thinks he will find all four characters in the novel waiting in a boat on the lake.
“Mammy,” he says, “let’s just drop the shopping right here and follow the beck all the way to the top of the mountain.”
It’s the spirit of adventure I have been waiting to hear.
The great advantage to Bank Ground Farm is the breakfast table. They offer a spread with home-cooked ham, bread, whisky jam and fruitcake that guests are free to graze on throughout the day.
Even though the helpful, volunteer-run Coniston tourist office suggests the Tarn Hows trail up to a mountain lake – likely the frozen tarn the children skate on in Winter Holiday – the seven-year-old says he’s going up Old Man Coniston mountain (803 metres high) in search of “a ledge” that played a major role in Swallowdale. The story also included a sprained ankle and a tree branch crutch.
It’s steep. Initially, it’s mostly fields with plenty of sheep and the odd rocky outcrop. The climb, once we haul ourselves up past the overflowing car park, turns pleasant as the path flattens and curves. Every turn reveals a new vista of the coppery red mountains. The tones, all red and dusty brown, are closer to something you would expect to see in Egypt rather than England.
We head for the pudding basin stone and Levers Water tarn, but the child is complaining of sore ankles and saying, “There’s no ledge. I’ve been duped.” I heed the ankle groans. I placate his sense of betrayal (“there should have been a ledge!”) by telling him a story as we walk down the Coppermines route, easier on the shins, that charmingly exits via a farm.
“The sun set against the hills,” Cúán quotes Ransome, when I marvel at the splashing sunset from our lakeside route. Remarkably, it’s exactly what’s happening in front of our eyes. The printed page is alive.
We stop by the fence of a field. A tree branch dangles down and offers a view that encompasses the skip of spring lambs, the calm blue water and that dusty red mammoth of Old Man Coniston. It’s a view that confirms why Potter and Ransome sunk their literary boots into this area.
In the evening, with the curtains ajar and after a few chapters of Ransome’s Picts and Martyrs, I insist on viewing a bit of a new television version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion amid seven-year-old protests. On screen, when Captain Wentworth says he wishes to find a wife “with firmness of mind,” my son yells, “Like Beatrix Potter!” All our random and intergenerational literary shoelaces are gradually tying themselves together.
After a day spent exploring the exquisite tarns, there are more hitches when we try to exit the Lake District. The single morning bus drops you almost a kilometre from the station, three minutes after the train leaves. Someone needs to sort out the pickle that is rural transport in Britain.
My moment of extreme foresight has been to schedule some maternal respite, care of a night at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cambridge, which, because of our four-day BritRail pass, is an ideal interlinking point along our train journey to the Norfolk Broads. (We had to travel from Ulverston to London, and then to Cambridge.) Respite is vital if you wish not to fall out irreparably with your small travelling companion.
The sight of East Anglia’s flat arable land is a contrast to the more calf-challenging undulations of Cumbria. The main thing that rises up here are the green reeds along the banks of the Broads: 200 kilometres of navigable man-made waterways, created from flooding after historical peat excavations. Our quest now is for mahogany boats, ropes and sails.
On a train from Cambridge to Norwich, I remember Ransome’s description of Wroxham in Coot Club as “noise and bustle.” It’s polite in comparison with what faces us today: overwhelmed by traffic, cheapened by amusement arcades and tacky shops. The Coach House Bed and Breakfast is affable. Beyond Wroxham being the gateway to access the Norfolk Broads, there’s little to recommend it.
Ludham, a nearby much prettier village, is where we find Hunter’s Yard, a charitable-trust-owned boat yard that restores and rents Ransome-era sailboats and offers skippered tours. In the yard, a dog sleeps. A distant hammer works at keeping these vintage boats in the water. On the wall hangs the Teasel boat sign used in the 1980s BBC film version of Coot Club.
The elements, most especially the wind, are critical to our success today. We are delighted to discover a coot’s nest on the launch, because the stories in the Norfolk novels involve the children protecting them. They are small pert birds, and their black heads have a tongue-shaped white splash; you can see why Ransome was so concerned about their demise, but they appear to have adjusted to the blights of technology.
Once aboard, I realize we are going to have the share the waterways with other boats. Everything is in opposites with the tiller. The seven-year-old is thrilled, grabs it, flinging it in wrong direction, and the boat heads into a bank. During the following three hours, I appeal for the divine intervention of our calm skipper, Tim, each time I see another boat, while the seven-year-old takes orders, decides the direction of the wind and calmly controls the tiller, impervious to possible crashes and calamities.
All the jigsaw pieces of what we have read fall into place. As we tack up the Bure River, I’m aware that this is one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had and I have been bought here by a seven-year-old’s favourite book. It’s extraordinary the places our children lead us.
A Ransome primer
There are two groups of children: the Swallows and the Amazons, who have fun adventures together climbing mountains, sailing boats and getting lost. They feature in 11 novels; Swallows and Amazons is the most famous. The author’s seven-year-old son, Cúán, offers a character guide.
Captain John Walker, 12. “He’s okay, but sometimes he can be a bit chaotic. For example, when Swallow sank in Swallowdale, he wasn’t very organized.”
First mate Susan Walker, 11. “Very good at boiling kettles and when you’re late for lunch she can be a bit strict and not amusing.”
Able seaman Titty Walker, 9. “Really good, very amusing. Let’s just say she’s a strategist, because alone she managed to capture the Amazon boat in Swallows and Amazons.
Boy Roger, 7. “Let’s just put it he follows John around like a puppy. He doesn’t like being the baby of the family. He wishes he was John.”
Nancy Blackett. “Head of the Amazons pirates. She bosses Peggy, her sister, about, by calling her a chump-headed galoot or a great donkey.”
Second mate Peggy Blackett. “A bit more quiet, has more sense than Nancy. If she was captain, they would never have lost that war in Swallows and Amazons.”
Coot Club Books
The D’s: Dick and Dorothea. “Brother and sister. Dick is committed to protecting the Coots nest while Dorothea is always making up very romantic stories.”