In the footsteps of Swallows and Amazons

CAREFREE summer holidays, messing about in boats, sailing on the lake, putting up a tent and cooking your meals on a camp fire. This might have been your childhood, or one that you just dream about, but our wonderful local author Arthur Ransome has taken generations of readers back there in his stories about the Swallows and the Amazons. His books have never gone out of print, in more than 90 years. The novels have enthralled generations of children and influenced hobbies and careers. Many ask “is it real?”.

We live here, right near the shore of the lake, in the very town that the characters in the stories called Rio. And we want to share  with our visitors the wonderful world of Arthur Ransome. So when you come to stay with us, we have some treats in store for you.

Still from the 1974 film version of Swallows and Amazons
Still from the 1974 film version of Swallows and Amazons

There will be a Freedom of the Lake pass to spend all day on the Windermere Lake Cruises, heading down to the south of the lake, or north to Waterhead where you can disembark and look for the site of the North Pole (from Winter Holiday). You thought it was just a story, but a real plaque marks the spot! And at our favourite Jetty Museum you can see a boat that belonged to Arthur Ransome, and which looks very like something straight out of the story books.

You can head off to Coniston and call for a brew at the Swallows and Amazons cafe at Bank Ground Farm (which was the model for Holly Howe in the stories). You can follow the little road on the east side of the lake, and maybe stop off to explore the hillside where the “Dogs’ Home” was converted by Dick and Dorothea in The Picts and the Martyrs.

Further down the lakeshore you can pull in and look across to Wild Cat Island (natives, and map makers, call it Peel Island) and then you can follow the road all the way down and back up on the western side to Coniston where the really adventurous might want to climb The Old Man (known in the books as Kanchenjunga).

Peel Island, or Wild Cat Island, on Coniston
Peel Island, or Wild Cat Island, on Coniston

The original Swallows and Amazons and four later books in the series; Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post, and The Picts and the Martyrs; are set in and around an un-named lake here in the Lake District. Most of the unfinished Coots in the North would also have been set on the lake had Ransome completed it before his death. The lake and the surrounding fells are based on an amalgam of Windermere and Coniston, places where Ransome spent much of his childhood and later life. Many places in the books can be identified with real locations in the area, though Ransome has modified the real location in producing his fictional settings. Generally, the geography of the lake resembles Windermere (though Wild Cat Island has a number of important elements from Peel Island on Coniston Water, notably the secret harbour) while the fells and hills surrounding it more resemble the area around Coniston. And Rio is obviously our very own Bowness.

The first time we organised a special Swallows and Amazons weekend our tour guide was Paul Flint (yes, he’s got a boat, so he really is Captain Flint) who is a trustee of the Arthur Ransome Trust. They have produced an app which is going to be available for all our guests. It’s free to download, and was created by this charity which promotes awareness of Arthur Ransome’s life and writing. It takes visitors to places in the Swallows and Amazons books and real locations in the author’s life: where he lived, fished and found inspiration for his writing. It is crammed full of information including accurate maps, pictures from the books; audio clips from his stories, and much more.

Modern-day explorers can find places that Ransome knew and discover how he re-imagined them in his fictional world. There are two ways.

  • Use Explore to discover locations in the real Lake District, the area around Coniston Water and Windermere that Ransome knew throughout his life.
  • Go to Story Map to find his ‘Lake in the North’, with links to real-world places.

A poster where you can scan the code and download the app is here in our foyer.

Rio is obviously our very own Bowness and a short break based at Burn How is the perfect base to discover the literary heritage of this beautiful corner of England.