I can vividly remember the first time I read Swallows and Amazons. I must have been about nine and I’d been dragged along to a wedding. To stop me expiring from boredom during the speeches, dancing and so on, my mother handed me a paperback. I sat in a corner out of the way and was quickly lost in a world that was at once familiar and utterly new.
I recognised that the setting was the Lake District, which I already knew, but through Swallows and Amazons I saw it in new ways. I had never sailed, or camped on an island, or hunted for pirate treasure. The landscape I knew was transformed because the children in the story did all these things, and it was transformed further through their imagination, which made the lake into an ocean, oak-woods into jungle, Coniston Old Man into a Himalayan giant.
I realised only later that the landscape I knew had been transformed in yet another way. The landscape of the stories is not simply a copy of the real landscape with the names changed. Instead, it is the real landscape chopped up and reassembled. Real places, or elements of real places, are shuffled. Most obviously, in the landscape of the stories, there is a single lake, not two. In scale it is nearer to Windermere than to the smaller Coniston Water, but many features along its shoreline derive from Coniston, while most of the surrounding landscape resembles Coniston rather than Windermere.
Swallows and Amazons enthralled me at the age of nine, and it and its successors have delighted me ever since. Altogether Arthur Ransome published twelve novels for children. Of these, five are set in what Ransome always calls ‘the lake country’: Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post and The Picts and The Martyrs. For final confirmation that this really is the Lake District, real local place-names frequently occur in the stories, if only in an incidental way. For instance, at one point, the real hills Skiddaw and Ill Bell are named, but they are seen from the fictionalised ‘Kanchenjunga’.
More precisely, the area from which Ransome derived the fictional landscape is in the south of the Lake District. As I’ve suggested, it includes the two lakes of Windermere and Coniston Water, with the land between and around them. The only significant town in the stories is ‘Rio’, which is based on Bowness-on-Windermere. Apart from the high Coniston Fells, most of the country is relatively modest in altitude.
The stories themselves never stray beyond these boundaries. This is a landscape that Arthur Ransome knew intimately. A regular visitor to the area throughout his life, he lived here for extended periods, wrote four of the five lake country books here, and did at least some work on the fifth.
Ransome’s deep understanding and love for this part of the world shines through in the stories. From broad brush-strokes to fine detail, it is closely observed and crisply described. A Sunday Times reviewer wrote that Ransome created characters who are accepted as friends by children everywhere. They are vivid and vital, ready to spring to life in the reader’s imagination. Much the same can be said of the landscape in which they move.
The key word is ‘imagination’. The magic of writing, and the magic of reading, are that both live in the imagination. Writing is a creative act, but so is reading. Ransome’s characters are children who read, and listen to stories, and their own imaginations create and re-create the landscapes around them.
The landscape - perhaps we should say landscapes - of the stories exist on several planes. There is the real landscape, which we can experience directly through our senses. There is the fictional landscape, where the children sail, walk and camp. A third plane appears again and again in the stories, as the fictional landscape is further transmuted by the children’s imagination into the the South Seas, the Himalayas, or the Arctic. And maybe there’s a fourth plane, too: the landscape that each reader creates in his or her own mind, drawing on the other three.
The interweaving of these elements is key to Ransome’s enduring appeal; few authors, whether writing for adults or children, have ever matched it. And for us, today, it means that we can go to real places, dip our hands in the water, scramble up the rocks, and yet be transported in our imagination to Wild Cat Island, the Amazon River, or the slopes of Kanchenjunga.
In creating the landscape of the stories, Ransome reshuffled the pack pretty thoroughly. What’s true of the great lake is also true on smaller scales. For example, Wild Cat Island is based partly on Peel Island on Coniston, and partly on Blake Holme on Windermere. Its secret harbour is lifted directly Peel Island; in other respects Wild Cat is closer to Blake Holme, but it is not an exact copy.
Previous authors have done a great deal of detective work, and today we have a shrewd idea where most of the real-world locations are. One that remains particularly controversial is Swallowdale; there are several candidates and each has its supporters.
It’s probably a mistake to look for exact models for every location in the books. It may be better to think of the real-world locations as sources of inspiration, rather than templates that Ransome copied exactly. Anyone who has ever tried to write fiction knows that characters tend to take on a life of their own as the story develops. Surely the same is true of places.
I believe that, while tracking down the ‘real’ Swallowdale or Golden Gulch may be a fascinating exercise, it’s better not to take it too seriously or too literally. In compiling this book I’ve tried to remember that Ransome’s books are, above all, masterful exercises in imagination.
While many of the locations that Ransome knew have changed very little, time has not been so kind to others. After all, he wrote Swallows and Amazons almost 70 years ago and even then, in some ways, he was harking back to his own childhood more than thirty years earlier. The books are period pieces, recalling a time when there were few cars on the roads and many homes did not have telephones (something that’s quite crucial in one of the stories). It’s also a time when four children, none older than twelve, can be allowed to go off on their own and camp on an island, with only the sketchiest of adult supervision.
Though much has changed, what’s heartening is how much has remained essentially the same; Arthur Ransome would still recognise many of these places. This owes much to the Lake District’s status as a National Park, which it has enjoyed since 1951. It owes a lot, too, to the love and care of the people who live and work here.
But still, what matters is the landscape of the imagination. In looking for this, I’ve sometimes preferred to think laterally rather than literally and to look for locations that feel right; places where the 21st century does not intrude too forcibly; places where your imagination can have free rein.