Sunday, 16 March 2008

Welcome Great Northern!

New Ransome research wins Turner Elephant Prize

It's not every day that a new piece of Arthur Ransome original research wings its way across the Internet, so we are doubly delighted to be able to reproduce Duncan Hall's first article on his brand new AR blog Great Northern. It always a pleasure to welcome the arrival of a new AR e-resource, such as Great Northern, but the article Swallow locations: the case for a geographical approach, breaks completely new ground in its analysis of Lake Windermere based prototypes for Swallow and Amazons based locations. After due consideration the Executive Committee of If Not Duffers... have decided to award Dr Hall the the second James Turner Elephant Prize, for original and audacious research which leads to a reappraisal of the origins of the S & A locations and personalities. The first Turner Elephant was awarded to Iain Hobbs for his ground breaking research paper, Beckfoot Found. Below we reproduce the full text of Swallow locations: the case for a geographical approach.

Swallows locations: the case for a geographical approach

Dr Duncan Hall

It is now generally accepted by Ransome enthusiasts that 'the lake in the north' is a composite lake, taking features of Windermere, Coniston and, quite possibly, Derwent Water as well. The photograph above shows some of the more obvious Windermere features: Belle Isle as 'Long Island', Bowness as Rio, the other 'islands off Rio', etc. As a child I took these obvious starting points and started making a search for other locations based on careful comparison of OS maps and Ransome's maps. It led me to find some locations that others have concluded through different methods, but also led to some other, more unusual, suggestions.

My early conclusion that Ramp Holme was Wild Cat Island seemed so obvious, when arriving at the decision through the comparison of maps, that it surprised me when, later, 'Captain Flint's Trunk' and other books did not consider the possibility. An OS Lake District guide did suggest Ramp Holme and Peel Island (on Coniston) as the two originals; others (including Ransome himself) pointed to Blake Holme (at the southern end of Windermere). Some of Ransome's maps suggest that the island is towards the southern end of the lake (as both Peel Island and Blake Holme are) but, in Swallows and Amazons, the Antarctic is a great unexplored area, and the steamers could just be made out in the far distance at the bottom of the lake. The photograph on the left looks surprisingly similar to Ransome's sketch of 'Wild Cat Island from the South' (included in the author-illustrated editions of Swallowdale) and the buoys in the foreground mark where 'the rocks go out so far'.

I once sailed to Ramp Holme, landed there and explored it. It has a beautiful landing place, close to a perfect camp. Behind the camp the ground rises to the pine (which can just be seen peeking above the other trees in the picture above) - but there the similarities end. It is not rocky or high enough, and there is no secret harbour. Those features are so clearly those of Peel Island, and Peel Island was so obviously an important part of Ransome's childhood and adulthood, that no argument could be made to suggest that the whole of Wild Cat Island can be found on Ramp Holme.

Nobody looking at the secret harbour on Peel Island could be left in any doubt that it was the one Ransome had in mind.

Obviously once you accept some composites, it has the potential to undermine the 'geographical accuracy' approach. But not necessarily: it may indeed explain why, not only do hills and island appear to have moved around to make Ransome's world, they also appear to have changed form: like the island they are not one place but several, and that can be as true for houses, views and people as it can for islands. And perhaps, if 'a part' of the island is where it seems to be on the map, perhaps 'parts' of the other places are too.

Take Stephen Spurrier's original map of the lake, and compare with a contemporary Ordnance Survey map:

The two maps are remarkably similar. Clearly Rio and and Long Island are very recognisable. The geographical logic of the Ramp Holme location is also fairly inescapable. Is there a house in the right place for Holly Howe? Yes. There's the old Rectory. It's not Holly Howe. Certainly not on its own. We know about Bank Ground Farm and can compare photographs of it with the illustrations. It is not just its familiarity from the film; it is Holly Howe; it's where the Altounyans stayed the summer before Swallows was written. But you can see this 'other Holly Howe' - the Old Rectory - on this old photograph (taken from Ferry Nab - a most un-Darien-like Darien) and it is not a huge stretch to see it as Holly Howe as well.

The field isn't steep enough, but it has much more of a bay than Bank Ground Farm. There is a perfect stone boathouse and jetty. From the rocky Cockshott Point, along a short path from the house, there is a tantilising view of Ramp Holme down the lake.

Also looking at the maps, my childhood suggested Beckfoot - Belle Grange - seems to be in around the right place. There are so many suggested Beckfoots, and I have no knowledge of a Ransome connection to the house. But it is certainly worth considering. I shall return to Belle Grange for a future article. I shall leave this one here for now - but there is more to follow! Please comment widely!


Dave Thewlis said...

It seems to me that the underlying question isn't whether AR's sites can always be found as real places (which we now know they cannot). Rather it is whether they are constructs of purely existing elements, or whether AR "went up on his lines" such that there is no real world correspondence to the places.

I incline to the former view, not least because it allow for infinite discussion going forward...

Dr. Duncan Hall said...

Thanks for reproducing the article! I'm going to go exploring a few of the locations during this week (the beauty of college holidays!) so will be taking lots of photos and blogging any discoveries!

PS: I remember either reading or seeing something about Dick Kelsall fishing with AR and seeing a particular view of Ramp Holme (I'm guessing one rather like the photograph in this post) and commenting on the similarity to the 'Wild Cat Island from the South' picture, and AR confirming that this was no coincidence. Have I imagined this? Or does anybody know where I read/saw it?