Arthur Ransomes Coniston Water, CumbriaThe writer Arthur Ransome travelled to China and Russia - he knew (and spied on) Lenin and Trotsky personally - but the inspiration for the Swallows and Amazons books that the world knows him by was much closer to home - Coniston Water and its surrounding area.
Ransome visited Coniston during childhood holidays, his family staying at Nibthwaite at the southern tip of the long lake. Ransome talked of a ritual, dipping his hand in the lake at the very start of every holiday there. Perhaps drawn back by his happy childhood memories Ransome and his second wife Eugenia in 1948 bought the imposing Lowick Hall in the valley of the River Crake that runs from the south end of Coniston down to Greenodd on Morecambe Bay, though it proved a money pit and they left in 1950. The couple's final home was in Haverthwaite, a holiday cottage they fell for and bought for a permanent stay, and they are buried a few miles to the north, in Rusland.
The future writer spent a short period at prep school in Windermere , and though his time there was not the happiest of his life, it introduced him to further beauties of the Lakes, and he stored up memories used later in his writings - Bowness is thought to be the model for Rio in the books, and the island of Silver Holme in Windermere is used as a setting too, metamorphosing into Cormorant Island.
But it was Coniston Water and its banks that gave Ransome, and us, Swallows and Amazons. Even today, when the Lake District can seem overcrowded elsewhere, Coniston seems to offer quiet respite. It is a place for cosy adventures, the vast expanse of water swallowing the noise of the world, the hills surrounding it like walls to defend against that world's intervention.
In 1903 Ransome returned to Coniston as a young man, and was taken up by WG Collingwood, the writer of one of Ransome's favourite childhood books, Thorstein of the Mere. The Collingwood family lived at Lanehead, a large white house at the north end of the lake. Collingwood's children taught Ransome how to sail, and then in the 1920s when one of them, Dora, returned with her Syrian husband Ernest Altouynan and their five children, Ransome returned the favour and taught the youngsters to sail. The children in Swallows and Amazons seem to be an amalgam of the Altouynans, the Collingwoods, and Georgina and Pauline Rawdon-Smith who lived at Tent Lodge just north of Lanehead.
Coniston, never named by Ransome in his book other than as "that great lake in the North," remains a wonderful place for waterborne adventure: the key site of course is Peel Island, called Wild Cat island in Swallows and Amazons: here there is the secret harbour just as in the books, to be approached carefully, avoiding the submerged rocks either side of the route in. Do bear in mind the serious message behind the wonderfully worded telegram in the book - "Better drowned than duffers. If duffers won't drown". More sedate but very relevant adventures can be had aboard the National Trust owned Gondola , the steam-yacht that was one inspiration for Captain Flint's houseboat, the other being Esperance, now housed at the Windermere Steamboat Museum . The more daring can rent boats at Coniston Pier if they fancy reliving the Blackett and Walker escapades. Opposite the pier is Bank Ground Farm, known as Holly Howe in the novel. Halfway between Bank Ground and Peel Island, on the eastern shore of Coniston, can be seen (just) the bungalow that Ransome and Eugenia lived in between 1940 and 1945, The Heald.
And while you are enjoying the water, or at least its banks, don't forget to take in the hills too - the Old Man of Coniston to the west of the lake, Kanchenjunga in Swallowdale, the 1931 follow-up to Swallows and Amazons which appeared the year before.
It takes little to enjoy Coniston, but reading Swallows and Amazons beforehand, particularly for children, pays dividends, opening up their imaginations to the possibilities of the great outdoors and the joys of the water. As Captain John says: "Now Mister Mate, let's go and explore."
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