Friday, 10 February 2017

On the do it yourself trail of Arthur Ransome

Literary heroes; the Lake District has plenty of them. But some fare better than others when it comes to following in their footsteps. Take William Wordsworth for example. You can visit his birthplace, his old school, two of his homes in Grasmere, and his final home in Rydal. You can even eat at a restaurant where he used to have an office. In fact, you could probably spend the best part of a 5 day break just following the Wordsworth Trail.

The same is true of Beatrix Potter. Her home, her husband's workplace, even a couple of her holiday homes, are all available for modern day visitors to wander around and get an insight into the life and times of this remarkable lady.

But when it comes to the writer of one of Lakeland's best loved fictional works it is a very different matter. "Swallows and Amazons" is one of the most popular childrens' books of all time, thrilling readers young and old since 1930, as well as entertaining television viewers and cinema goers since the 1960's. But look for an Arthur Ransome trail and you'll be sorely disappointed. There is no museum dedicated to the author. No house visits are available. With the exception of the efforts of the Coniston Launch company, whose 'Swallows and Amazons cruises' explore the areas on Coniston Water thought to have inspired the locations in the book, and a relatively small number of exhibits in the region's museums, there is very little trace of Ransome, or his association with the Lake District.
Arthur Ransomes desk, which is on display at the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, Kendal
 So why is this? The simple answer is that whilst Arthur Ransome lived in the Lake District for a while, and set some of his books in the area, his tenure in the region was quite limited. Unlike both Wordsworth and Potter, who lived in the  area for a good part of their lives, and contributed to local society in many different ways, Ransome's influence was spasmodic at best. He was not a permanent resident in the Lake District. He spent holidays there as a child, went to school in Windermere, and returned occasionally in his early adult life, but the focus of his attention tended to be elsewhere. For, rather like the characters in his books, Arthur Ransome was something of an adventurer, seeking out and enjoying a life of danger and excitement.

In his late teens, Ransome attended Yorkshire College, training to become a chemist. But a year into the course he got bored and packed it in, moving to London to take up a career as a writer. Having lived in poor conditions, struggling to make ends meet with a number of low paid jobs in the publishing industry; getting married, and eventually publishing critical biographies on Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde; he ended up in court on a libel charge.

In 1913 he left his wife and young child and went to Russia, originally to learn the language and study Russian folk tales. But in 1915 he become, almost by accident, a war correspondent, covering the conflict on the Eastern Front for the Daily News. He also covered the Russian Revolution in 1917, and became friends with both Lenin and Trotsky. He passed a limited amount of information to MI5, who in turn paid him and gave him the code name S76. However, MI5 didn't fully trust him, believing him to be a double agent. This may have had something to do with the fact that he had an affair with Leon Trotsky's personal secretary, Evgenia Petrovna, however, this was to be no brief clandestine liaison in the name of national security. Love was in the air, and an acrimonious divorce from his first wife, and marriage to Evgenia, followed.

Ransome's career as a foreign correspondent was spiced with moments of high excitement and adventure which would not be out of place in one of Ian Flemings 'James Bond' novels.  In 1919, he was asked by the Estonian foreign minister to deliver a secret armistice proposal to the Bolsheviks. He had to cross the battle lines on foot and under cover, at great risk to himself, and then return via the same risky route with the reply.

After the hostilities ended,  Ransome set up home in Estonia with Evgenia, and built a cruising yacht, in which he sailed around the Baltic. Upon his return, he published a successful book about his experiences.

By the time he returned to the Lake District in 1925, he was a seasoned adventurer. He and Evgenia bought a property at Low Ludderburn, near Windermere, and soon after he became re-acquainted with the renowned Lake District artist WG Collingwood, who he'd first met in 1896. After a summer of teaching Collingwood's grandchildren to sail, Ransome wrote the first book in his Swallows and Amazons series, allegedly using the names of some of Collingwood's grandchildren for his characters, the Swallows.

Although the lake and islands in the book have fictitious names, the settings are unmistakeably the Lake District, and range from areas of Windermere and Coniston. But exactly where in the Lake District Ransome would not say, preferring to let his followers do the detective work for themselves.

The Ransomes stayed in the Lake District for just 10 years. In 1935 they moved to Suffolk, and may well have remained there had it not been for the outbreak of war. The Lake District was a far safer place than the Suffolk coast in 1940, and they returned to Coniston, to a property called The Heald, close to the Lake Shore. Whilst there, Arthur continued writing, producing 'The Picts and the Martyrs', the eleventh book in the Swallows and Amazons series, and the last to be set in the Lake District.

In 1944 the couple moved South again, this time to London. He returned to the Lake District in 1960, having bought a derelict farmhouse, Hill Top,  at Haverthwaite, although he was not able to move in properly until it was fully renovated in 1963. By then the adventurer was a frail elderly man who was confined to a wheelchair and who lived out his days overlooking the peaceful fields of the Cartmel peninsula.  He died in 1967, and is buried in the churchyard at Rusland, a short distance from Haverthwaite.

So what of the properties and locations with which he is associated? Well, there are many, but for fans of Ransome the sad reality is that they are either privately owned, or have been converted to a state where they are significantly different to how he knew them. To add confusion to the Ransome trail, there are also many locations used by film makers that may, or may not, be the same as the inspirations for his books. Take the fictional town of Rio. It is generally accepted that this is based upon Bowness on Windermere, and the makers of the 1974 film certainly thought the same as they used Bowness as their filming location. But no one actually knows for certain.

The following is a short list of the properties with which he is known to have a direct association.

The Old College, Windermere. Ransome went to school here before moving on to Rugby. The building ceased to be a school in the 1960's, and has now been converted into flats.

Low Ludderburn, where Ransome had a study and wrote Swallows and Amazons, making it the holy grail for all devotees, is privately owned. Items from his study at Low Ludderburn are on show at The Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, in Kendal.

The Heald, on the shores of Coniston Water is also privately owned.

Hill Top, Haverthwaite, his final home, is perhaps the most accessible of all the properties associated with him. It is now a self catering property, and available to let. So followers of Arthur Ransome may not have an official trail to follow, but they can spend a week living in his last dwelling.

As for film locations associated with Swallows and Amazons, well I am not an expert on those. But I know someone who is. Sophie Neville, who played Titty in the 1974 film production, has written a fascinating blog about the locations used. You can find it here.

No comments:

Post a Comment