Remember Swallows and Amazons? Tales of adventures and holiday intrigue by Arthur Ransome? Remember climbing Kanchenjunga, mining for gold and avoiding pirates? Remember protecting birds and sleuthing? So do I, fondly. So, this year I went sleuthing. I travelled to the Lake District in Northern England to climb Kanchenjunga in search of Arthur Ransome; journalist, novelist, sailor, spy.
That’s right. You read correctly. Spy.
Ransome was a British spy (codename C.76) during the Russian revolution of one hundred years ago. He also wrote the biography of Oscar Wilde which precipitated Lord Alfred Douglas to launch into a scandalous trial. In Russia, Ransome liked to play chess — with Lenin — and married Trotsky‘s secretary, Evgenia.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Arthur Ransome’s heart lay in North England, in the Lake District. As the train pulled in to Windermere Station I felt the same excitement and anticipation stirred up before meeting an old friend. This was where I’d spent my childhood – albeit while reading. There was no homing pigeon to let go but I felt I was coming home. I was determined to see the lake. Hefting my pack, I walked down the hill. And kept walking. After too much walking I was hungry for lunch and annoyed they called the town the same name as the lake when the town is actually called Bowness. The lake is far from the town.
The sun came out as I reached the water. The farms and forests made green-hued patchwork around the glinting lake. Struggled to find suitable food, bought fixings and, as fat swans too lazy to even stand watched me balefully, strolled on board a cruise of Windermere.
The lake itself was just as I remembered – from the books and the screen version (only the first, haven’t seen the most recent) – Swallows and Amazons for EVER! The captain sat on his comfortable stool and sighed as chatty Chinese folk cheerfully ignored his interesting details about the length and depth of the lake.
People enjoyed the sunshine, both around the water and on it; lots of different sailboats and cruisers. There was a houseboat. I did not see a plank. It was lovely; the water’s edge, the forests and the remarkably few buildings. The place was incredibly preserved. Scattered buildings fitted into the theme with one or two modern outcrops that implied influential friends. The Lake District, a living National Park, features farms, tourism and some industry but there you go, it might have developed like Surfers Paradise if someone hadn’t protected it to some degree (surfing on Windermere is unlikely).
Gathered myself together. Found my bus. I could only get as far as Ambleside where I had to wait for an hour for the next bus for Coniston. Found supplies and then dropped into a pub for grog (ginger ale) and hot chips. Thank goodness I did because, after an excellent bus trip (the driver a Henna Dame, recently widowed and newly full-time on those curly stonewalled roads), I needed that fuel for the refreshing walk up to my hostel. My pack was heavy but the views were incredible. Note to drivers: Henna Dame supposed car hire firms kept big cars so punters would have to bring them back scratched. You will pay extra for any damage, of course.
The land was stunning and relatively untouched. I couldn’t believe how green and wonderful the forests were and then coming around a corner, I saw Coniston; a sliver of wonder, a slip of lovely, a slide of thought, a glimmer lake in place.
I called in to Holly Howe YHA by mistake and, redirected, marched on up the hill, on the way to Dixon’s farm. Sheep yelled to each other. The Copper Mine YHA was nestled into the hills curving around behind it. With a well-stocked kitchen and dining area, it had a comfortable living room and a terrific view down the valley. The staff were relaxed and friendly, used to dealing with walkers, school groups and naturalists of all ages and stripes.
My shared room was labelled Old Man of Coniston. In the morning I got up, ate a hearty breakfast and sat on the front door step to tie my boots. The house martins flew across my vision, getting closer and closer, curving around the front of the building. Worried they were trying to get to their nest, I backed away and one did disappear into the eaves. The others continued to buzz me. We squatted in the sun while the young YHA host spread his map on the ground and pointed the Old Man out to me. It’s obvious after you’ve been up there.
As I climbed I recognised the lie of the land from Ransome’s drawings. I expected to see those little figures in shorts clambering up the slopes beside me. (I’m sure I saw a man in a squashy hat out of the corner of my eye. He ducked into one of the old workings.) The weather came and went. I felt shivery even in June especially through my sweaty shirt.
There were friendly folk murmuring over their picnics, people walking their dogs and plenty of grass for the sheep to gnaw. A small dappled brown bird came along the path with me, a white patch on her rump showing as she flashed away to the side or flounced up ahead. She didn’t seem distressed or leading me anywhere, just hopping along. Like me.
The rocks were bursting through the green grass and there was plenty of bracken growing. But higher up, around the old workings, slate lay piled artistically. There must have been good reason; water, or those enormous cables needing housings or perhaps some kind of machine required flat areas. The closed copper and slate mines left more than their scars on the hills; their rusty remnants now crazy sculptures in the landscape.
It was thrilling to think that I climbed, walked and stood just where Ransome might have been. Perhaps once he sat right there and ate pemmican (corned beef) sandwiches. That might have been the very spot where he contemplated the S. A. & D.’s next adventure or the place where he found his ‘Homing Rock’ of inspiration.
The Lake District inspired many writers. Potter, Wordsworth and Ruskin are honey for bee tourists, but for me, the only attraction was Arthur Ransome. He was the man who taught me to respect nature. He taught me about birds and taking responsibility for the care of the environment. I wondered about other walkers as I climbed Old Man Coniston. Were they for Ransome? I chatted to a father-son duo, both fans of Pigeon Post. (Later I bought a copy for the hostel when I discovered neither of the hosts had read it. You can read it when you visit.)
It was quiet on the Old Man as I sat in the sun. A small chirpy bird from below flew straight up very high, hovered a bit, and then dropped down again, chirruping and whirring as it sank. Looked like fun. Following a current? Far too small and chirpy for a bird of prey but then it might have sighted a tasty insect. But wait, this small, whistly, feathered thing did it again! It flew up as high as me, chirping all the while and then floated down. It was playing a game! Go up as high as possible and then drop down; wheeeeeee …
The chirpy bird turned out to be a meadow pippet, their mating flights called parachuting. It was the same bird – speckly brown – I saw flitting and flirting on the path. I know because I asked a fellow back at the hostel. He wore a tee shirt with a big black bird on it that said ‘Get Rooked’.
The wind blew too cool for sitting still. I ran out of food. I thought I’d better go back down again. It would take a couple of hours. I noticed a fault line directly behind the big mining operation. Didn’t suppose there’s many earthquakes here but it looked strange in this setting. Not quite in the lie of the land. Which was jagged and unpredictable enough already.
Because I longed to see Ransome’s desk and red slippers at the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, I spent the next day on the buses. I had to go via Grassmere where I leaped from the bus and into the Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. I felt huge and bulbous as we tourists stooped our bulky way through those cramped rooms imagining the smoke and coughing and poetry readings. How did Dorothy manage in long skirts?
I queued to buy Grasmere Gingerbread and a wonderful cross between biscuit and cake it was. I wish I’d known how good because I would have bought another packet. Several. Kendal mint cake, another local essential, was good enough for the likes of Sherpa Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hilary. I worried it would be like toffee but it’s more like a kind of delicious icing sugar fudge – not hard on the teeth at all.
From Grassmere I negotiated grumpy bus drivers and got myself to Kendal. I rushed into the museum ten minutes before closing. The Arthur Ransome room was depleted because some of the exhibits, and yes, those red Turkish slippers, were showing in a special exhibition at Coniston Waters.
But I was able to see bits and pieces; his chess board, a portrait by Dora Altounyan and some cartoons plus his very small desk. Sketches for Secret Water and Pigeon Post were framed on the wall.
On my last day at Coniston Water I was not able to find a sailing school or someone to take me out in a boat, apart from the tourist launch. Seeing I’d already cruised Lake Windemere, I found a large empty rubbish bag near the camping ground and, together with other rubbish, collected some dog owners’ bags of pets’ productions left along the path. Perhaps they think they’ll pick them up on the way back? Note to dog owners: you CAN take it with you.
Even though Coniston was considered the quiet lake and it wasn’t school holidays, there were plenty of people around. Once I’d marched for a bit to shake them off, I found some peace and quiet. Apart from the canoeing school and the little launch there was a kayak powering along with a man singing happily in what sounded like Hindi. Fellow walkers murmured behind me. Baby canoeists cackled and halloooed like lost ducks. Real baby ducks puffed and fluffed behind their proud mother who seemed to travel backwards. Oak leaves shook and danced in the sunlight. I wished I could have been sailing. That’s probably where Ransome would have been.
The Ruskin Museum turned out to be more about Coniston than the titular hero. Work implements, especially those of mining and lace were front, and a room devoted to The Bluebird project, Donald Campbell and his fatal attempt at the speed record, centre.
Not sure why it was named Ruskin lace? I’d always been suspicious of Ruskin because he was mean to his wife although apparently that’s contentious. Apart from his wife, with whom he did not have sex, he also enjoyed romance with a Spanish lady and with another girl of ten years old. His apologists think there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him and he was just high minded and moral. He certainly liked nature, painted nicely and gave inspiring lectures.
Right in the middle of all this was ‘Mavis’, a sailing dingy renamed ‘Amazon’. She was the first boat Ransome sailed with the Altounyan children.
Banners on stands featuring quotes from Swallowdale and Winter’s Holiday told me I was in the right place. I made my way up the stairs and into the small room featuring the special exhibit, ‘Arthur Ransome, Adventures in Russia’. It felt like the tip of an iceberg without much rhyme or reason. For a start, the red slippers that started off the whole shebang, the gift from the Altounyan children, which caused him to pen Swallows and Amazons, were hidden under a shelf without a label. The accompanying notes were illuminating, although in the time I was there, reading avidly, several other visitors wandered in and out and didn’t even open their folders.
His ‘Homing Rock’, the piece of Old Man Coniston he always carried – wrote with it on his desk – was there was bigger than I’d imagined and had a hole in the middle to keep it tied to him or his luggage somehow. Various intriguing documents were displayed, such as his passports, both in Russian and in English. There was some doubt about his affiliation when he returned to England but more serious concern when they thought his new wife Eugenia was smuggling diamonds.
Ransome happened to be staying across the road from the Winter Palace in 1917. I was taken aback by comments that suggested him naive or innocent. Ransome was deeply involved with the leadership of the Bolsheviks and I can’t believe he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. He understood strategy extremely well. He predicted the revolution and passed that information to his masters at MI5 and MI6. When it was suggested that Britain should somehow intervene he said Russian people should be left to get on with their lives. (He might have lived to rue that day!) As more information is released more books are written about him.
Ransome understood codes, he knew when to pry and when to lurk and he taught thousands of children how to do it too. They may have turned into spies, birdwatchers or sailors, campers, scientists or journalists, but Ransome knew what he was about. He was about climbing Old Man Coniston. Looking out at the misty sky and watching a chirpy bird chirruping as far and as high as he could go and then parachuting impressively down again. Living your life as high and far as you can and letting the wind fill your sails.
What’s your favourite Ransome book?