ON the shelves of our library here at Rydal Lodge, there are books which get picked up time and time again by visitors from all over the world.
The Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, set in a world that seems very old fashioned, with scarcely-recognisable habits and attitudes, nevertheless seems as popular now as they were almost one hundred years ago.
It was in 1930 that the original story was published, telling the adventures of the Walker children – the Swallows – who meet Nancy and Peggy Blackett – the Amazons – sailing together to an island in a lake which bears similarities to both Coniston Water and Windermere.
They were allowed to spend nights camping on the island, unsupervised. They sailed without lifejackets. They made camp-fires, on the lake shore and on the island. And they went off together – unsupervised – to climb a mountain named otherwise but clearly Coniston Old Man.
Is it the nostalgia for a simpler time when children really were given much more freedom, were told – in a telegram from their father – “Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown”? Or is it the exquisite artistry of Ransome as a writer, a master storyteller? Probably a combination of both.
When we took part earlier this year in a marathon reading of one of the books in the series, Winter Holiday, at the Windermere Jetty Museum, we were joined by people much younger, and much older, than us. A well-known radio broadcaster read a chapter, and so did her teenage daughter. We had an ultra-distance runner, an artist, a university lecturer, a couple of journalists, and a woman who had travelled all the way from Cornwall to take part.
Visitors to the Lake District try to find locations from the books. The island the children call Wild Cat is actually Peel Island on Coniston. The lakeside town they call Rio has to be Bowness. The tumble-down hut used as a refuge by Dick and Dorothea in The Picts and the Martyrs can be found on the hillside above the eastern shore of Coniston.
Many books have been written about Ransome, his storytelling, and the search for locations; our favourite is Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Truck by Christina Hardyment.
There are many members of The Arthur Ransome Society, a multi-generational community of like-minded people who enjoy Ransome’s writing and “the philosophy of self-reliance”.
But the stories themselves are read and re-read time and again, here in our library, and around the world. When you come to stay, take a little time out to sit and enjoy one of the books. Ask us if you want to know more, or to visit locations from the books, or from the still-popular 1974 film version. It’s a perfect way to immerse yourself in the world of the Lake District.
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