Swallows and Amazons on Coniston Water
Coniston is Swallows and Amazons country. The magic of Coniston enraptured Arthur Ransome from the cradle to the grave, so it is hardly surprising that the imaginary geography, topography and character of his fictional ‘great lake in the north’, where the Swallows and Amazons adventured, should be so deeply rooted in Coniston.
‘All the places in the books are to be found, but not arranged quite as the ordnance maps’, Ransome assured his readers.
Nevertheless, Coniston Old Man features as one generation’s Matterhorn, and the next’s Kanchenjunga; and Peel Island’s secret harbour is borrowed for Wild Cat Island. Pigeon Post is set on the Coniston fells, and the story draws heavily on the local slate quarries and coppermines.
The sailing dinghy Mavis, the inspiration of the fictional Amazon, complete with centreboard, is on display in The Ruskin Museum, [ on loan from The Family of the late Dr Roger Altounyan, one of the family of children to whom, in return for a splendid pair of Turkish slippers, the author Arthur Ransome dedicated the first edition of Swallows and Amazons in 1930] .
Mavis was one of the two sailing dinghies bought by Dr Ernest Altounyan and his friend Arthur Ransome from Walney Island , in April 1928, so that the young Tacqui, Susie, Mavis [nick-named ‘Titty’] and Roger Altounyan might learn to sail on Coniston Water that summer, when they were staying at Bank Ground Farm , near their grandparents, Mr and Mrs W. G. Collingwood, at Lane Head. Their grandmother was in poor health, and died whilst the family was home on leave from Aleppo.
The children’s adventures vividly reminded Arthur Ransome of his own youth, when the young Robin and Ursula Collingwood had taught him to sail on the same lake, in a dinghy called Swallow, in 1904. Ransome was under great pressure to accept the job of Foreign Correspondent at The Manchester Guardian, which would have guaranteed a good income, but he was suffering something of a mid-life crisis because his ambition was to be a writer, not a journalist. Watching the children’s exploits and remembering his own, combined with his love of Coniston and coalesced into the semi-autobiographical Swallows and Amazons.
The name of that fondly remembered Swallow was bestowed on one of the new boats in 1928; the other was named Mavis, [also a bird : French and Victorian for ‘song thrush’].