There’s a view from the southern end of Coniston Water that only the waterborne are privy to. If one heads north from the foot of the lake, a natural viewfinder is formed – on the left, a jutting promontory and, on the right, the edge of Peel Island frame a panorama of distant mountains. In the foreground, the Old Man of Coniston towers over the lake’s northwestern end, with his sister fells Swirl How and Wetherlam lined up behind. And on the far horizon, hazy and hulking, lie the ridges of the Fairfield Horseshoe and Dollywaggon Pike on the Helvellyn range, a reminder that this long, sparkling lake surrounded by sloping fields and ancient woods is just one little corner of a mountain landscape to which superlatives don’t do justice.
That’s not how it appeared to the Walker children, though. When Arthur Ransome’s heroes and heroines first pushed off the mainland in their sailing boat, the Swallow, they weren’t looking at the view. They only had eyes for their island, spied from the shore of ‘the lake’, which was to them a self-contained universe full of wildernesses to conquer and natives to outwit. Their lake was a fictional one, but the vivid evocation of an unspoiled shoreline dotted with stone boatsheds, wooden jetties and welcoming farmhouses was no fantasy. Ransome (1884-1967), who published Swallows and Amazons in 1930, had spent many childhood holidays on Coniston Water, and explained later that the book had almost written itself out of his memories. “We adored the place,” wrote the author, who was born in Leeds. ‘“Going away from it, we were half drowned in tears.”
Thanks in part to Ransome’s stories, generations of visitors to Lakeland have shared this sentiment. The former journalist, foreign correspondent and probable spy ranks alongside Wordsworth and Wainwright as one of the creators of the romantic idyll of ‘the Lakes’. But while Wordsworth and Wainwright glory in the sublime scale and exhilarating emptiness of the mountains, Ransome’s books celebrate the childlike glee of exploring the water: rowing boats, catching fish, swimming off the rocks. For me, the thrill of reading Ransome is to imagine myself, and my children, enjoying these simple pleasures (even though I’d draw the line at Mrs Walker’s willingness to let Roger, a seven-year-old who couldn’t swim, sail around an ice-cold lake without a buoyancy aid).
Take to the water
The popular rebuilt Victorian steam yacht Gondola puffs past Brantwood House and Grizedale ©DaveWillis
Our Swallows and Amazons adventure begins at the Coniston Boating Centre on the lake shore near Coniston, a dark and slatey village at the foot of the Old Man. We were hoping to hire a boat and row to Wild Cat Island (aka Peel Island).
But it turns out that Peel Island is a long way from Coniston: five miles south, give or take. Which, depending on the wind conditions and your choice of vessel – fibreglass rowing boat, kayak or Canadian canoe (you can only hire a sailing dinghy
if you’re a competent sailor) – can require two hours’ paddling each way.
We opted instead to row across the head of the lake, leaving behind the queues waiting for the next pleasure cruise beside the busy Bluebird Café (named after Donald Campbell, who died here while attempting to break his own water speed record in Bluebird). Coniston Water is narrow, just over 800m across at its widest point, and within 10 minutes or so we’d shipped our oars and were bobbing around on the water, lulled by the rhythmic lapping beneath the boat. The tranquillity of this new perspective on Lakeland was mesmerising. We live near the Lakes, and we’ve walked round many of them, but this was the first time my boys had sat in the middle looking out, the first time they’d leaned over the side of a boat to touch the ‘stars’ cast by the summer sun on the rippled surface.
Much of the lake shore is privately owned, so if you want to pull your boat onto a pebbly beach and jump out for a Ransome-esque picnic of marmalade sandwiches and ginger beer, pick up a map at the boating centre for guidance. Inaccessibility has its advantages, though: unlike some of Lakeland’s busier shorelines, Coniston Water is relatively undeveloped, and the bright-green pastures climbing up towards cream-painted farmhouses look much as they would have when Ransome first came here. On the north-eastern bank, directly opposite Coniston, is Bank Ground Farm, the 15th-century farmhouse that was the model for Holly Howe, the Walkers’ holiday home (you’ll recognise it from the 1974 film). This is where the Altounyan family, after whom most of the Swallows were named, were holidaying in the summer of 1928 when Ransome taught them to sail.
Ransome was then living near Windermere with his second wife, Evgenia, who had been Leon Trotsky’s secretary. (He divorced his first wife Ivy, with whom he had a daughter, in 1924). The Altounyan children were visiting their maternal grandfather, the writer and artist WG Collingwood, at nearby Lanehead (Collingwood’s daughter Dora was Ransome’s close friend). Collingwood had immortalised Peel Island long before Ransome sent his Swallows there: his Norse saga Thorstein of the Mere, one of Ransome’s favourite stories, was inspired by the same craggy isle that later became Wild Cat Island.
We got a second chance at spying the island described by the eldest Altounyan daughter as “a green tuffet, sitting in the water, the trees covering the rocks”, by stepping onto Gondola, the National Trust’s replica of a plush 1859 steam yacht that plied Coniston Water during the Lake District’s first tourist boom. Before getting close to ‘Secret Harbour’ and ‘Lookout Point’, we got a chance to relish that view of the Fairfield Horseshoe – an eyeful of classic Lakeland of which the Gondola crew never tires.
Wherever you are on Coniston Water, you can see Gondola’s tell-tale puffs. Its elegant presence must have made an impression on Ransome, too, because he used it as a model for Captain Flint’s houseboat. I was sad to see it glide away as it dropped us at Parkamoor jetty on the eastern shore, perhaps because I was about to embark on a two-and-a-half hour walk with two rather reluctant children.
I needn’t have worried. The Parkamoor Trail, which climbs up through sessile oak woodland and across stony becks to reach the ridge above the treeline, offered just the right combination of varied landscapes, lake views and puff-inducing challenge to keep us all satisfied. Enjoying a flask of tea at the top with only skylarks for company, we realised how easy it is to get away from the Lake District’s crowds, even in July, as long as you’re prepared to hike for a while.
The trail descends along the edge of Grizedale Forest towards Brantwood, former home of Victorian philosopher,
artist and social reformer John Ruskin (1819-1900). You can catch the Gondola back to Coniston from here, but do allow time to visit the intimate house and plantsman’s garden. Peering across the lake from the turret window towards the Coniston Fells, I felt grateful for Ruskin’s commitment to green spaces – his pioneering conservationism inspired the founders of the National Trust and National Parks movement.
One of Ruskin’s favourite views was the aspect from Friar’s Crag across Derwentwater towards Borrowdale. He considered it one of the finest scenes in Europe, and he was not the only one. Ransome sent his illustrator a postcard of the same view, and is believed to have had it in mind when creating his own drawing of ‘Darien’, the promontory from which the Walker children first spot their island.
An easy, popular stroll from the market town of Keswick, Friar’s Crag appeared as Darien in the 1972 film, placing Derwentwater, a three-mile-long lake in the north-west of the National Park, firmly within the border of Ransome country. Hire a boat from Nichol End or Keswick Launch to explore its accessible wooded islands and you’ll see why the makers of the upcoming Swallows and Amazons adaptation thought this the perfect place to film sailing scenes.
For me, however, the thrill and freedom felt by the Swallows when they first set sail across their lake is easiest to imagine on Ullswater. The northernmost lake in the National Park, and the second largest, it offers miles of accessible yet unspoiled shoreline surrounded by wooded beaches backed by mighty hills. There’s a sailing school at Glenridding (see box, page 23), where you can sign up for tuition. Or hire a rowing boat, stash your ships’ articles beneath the thwarts and paddle across the lake to Purse Bay. This secret suntrap enclosed by a cluster of Scots pines has a gently sloping bank where you can swim
in shallow, sun-warmed water. Now, where did I put that pemmican?
Rachael Oakden lives in the Eden Valley in Cumbria, a 10-minute drive from Ullswater. She learned to sail in Australia 16 years ago, and relished the excuse to get her feet wet again.
Images: Dave Willis