In a bright room at the Windermere Jetty Museum, with a huge window looking out onto the lake and an island surrounded by sailing boats, a dozen or so grown-ups sit in a circle taking turns to read a chapter from a children’s story.
Fans of the writer Arthur Ransome have gathered for a marathon reading of Swallowdale, among them a doctor, a drama teacher, a BBC broadcaster, and a couple of teenagers.
It’s such an old-fashioned concept, reading aloud to a small, and constantly changing, audience, just for the love of reading. But the devotees who turned up were prepared to travel a long way just to read one chapter.
The book is the sequel to the perennially-popular Swallows and Amazons, both set in the Lake District on the shores of a lake that might be Windermere or Coniston. They were written almost 100 years ago and, though they belong to another world where middle class children had a nanny and were allowed to sail on their own without life jackets and camp on an island in the lake, the stories have never gone out of fashion. The island (Peel, on Coniston) is now owned by the National Trust and displays ‘No Camping’ signs. But generations of enthusiasts turn up, by sail, paddleboard, kayak or even by swimming, on a pilgrimage to see the location that inspired Ransome.
And these are the same enthusiasts, of all ages, who came to the Jetty, taking turns to read about children capsizing a boat, finding a hidden cave, and climbing a mountain. Oh, and indulging in a bit of black magic to try and rid the world of an irritating relative.
Ransome is still loved today because he was a master storyteller. “His books have an enduring appeal,” says organiser Chris Routledge. “They have never gone out of favour or out of fashion, and they are especially loved here where they were set.”
It’s Routledge’s fifth such event, in a series which began on the shores of Coniston back in 2017 for a reading of Swallows and Amazons. Among the elderly sailors dressed as pirates there were writers and artists, children and those who had never really grown up, and at least two actors – Sophie Neville who played Titty in the 1974 film version, and Hannah Jayne Thorp who was Peggy in the 2016 film.
This was followed by a reading of Pigeon Post at the Coniston Coppermines youth hostel, and an online reading of The Picts and the Martyrs during lockdown. Last year, the team took Winter Holiday, the adventure story about skating on a frozen lake, to the Jetty Museum. “It was a lovely occasion, but it was a very mild winter and there wasn’t even a covering of snow on the fell tops,” says Routledge.
Summer in the Lake District
This time, it’s high summer at the Jetty, and a two-day event because Swallowdale is a long book. Jo Jackson, a retired nurse, read a chapter on the Saturday morning but stayed all weekend to listen to the others. Adventurers Jen and Marcus Scotney dipped in and out. Jen had been leading a group of youngsters from Qatar on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition in the Lakes, while Marcus arrived fresh from a reconnoitre of the 100-mile race he’s doing next month.
Broadcaster Caz Graham, who presents BBC’s Farming Today, shared a chapter with her 19-year-old daughter, Lucy. Fourteen-year-old James Vyner-Brooks shared a chapter with his mum, Samantha, who found a photo on her phone of him six years ago at the Swallows and Amazons reading at Coniston. Chapter 15 was in the capable hands of Penny Bradshaw, associate professor of English Literature at the University of Cumbria and programme lead for the MA in Literature, Romanticism and the English Lake District (Swallows and Amazons is on the syllabus).
Poet Kerry Derbyshire, who is about to take up a post for the summer as Poet in Residence at William Wordsworth’s home, Rydal Mount, has a special connection to the stories. Fifty years ago she had a minor role in the film version of Swallows and Amazons, playing the nanny who held the baby of the family as the Walker children set sail for their island adventure, waved off by their mother, the actor Virginia McKenna.
“I guess my love of Ransome comes from having a similar childhood to his stories, being brought up at Skelwith Bridge (near Ambleside) before it was so busy, and it was safe to set off for a day of adventures,” she says. “And of course all the places are so familiar. It brings back many memories of butter churning in farmsteads, charcoal burners, the freedom and imagination, running wild on lakes, rivers and woodland – and surviving. Reading Arthur Ransome brings back those long happy childhood days.”
Dr Lindsay Easton travelled the furthest, to read just one chapter – more than 300 miles from northern Scotland. He once came close to appearing on Mastermind to answer questions about Arthur Ransome, and loves being among like-minded aficionados. He came to the stories thanks to his mother who grew up in the Morningside area of Edinburgh, “so the very definition of bourgeois”. He says: “She never had a cook, nor a nurse, though, and her family’s first car was when she was in her late 20s, and I suspect the times she was on a sailing dinghy could be counted on the toes of one foot. So why she loved AR, I don’t know.
“But she did love his books and it was she who introduced me to him, Swallowdale when I was eight, hoping, I think, that I’d enjoy it as much as she had. I did, and eventually read the whole canon. I suspect she hoped AR would encourage and improve my reading. I have no doubt that he did.”
He didn’t read all the books in sequence. “I used to get one for my birthday and another for Christmas and they came in a slightly unusual order. My family has always been interested in birds so the Norfolk ones struck a chord with me, and I suppose Great Northern? (set in Scotland) is my favourite. It took me a very long time finally to see a Great Northern Diver but by then, unfortunately, mum didn’t fully understand my excitement nor why I saw it almost as a circle closed.”
He continues: “To read them now, or rather, to dip into them, transports me to being a small boy, reading by the lights on the landing. I still remember many things about how I felt at the time, and the smell of the paper – I don’t think Kindle would do it – adds to the enjoyment. I don’t know much about sailing, although that didn’t seem to matter at the time. I suspect that one would need to be perhaps slightly older nowadays, to have a better perspective and frame of reference than I had. Cooks and nurses didn’t feature in my life, either, but I was perhaps closer to it, chronologically, and it didn’t seem to matter.”
The pleasure of reading
Meanwhile, Routledge, who set up a website for these events called ifnotduffers.org, is a man of many parts – a writer, historian, expert on crime fiction and brewing and building sheds, as well as being an award-winning conceptual and documentary landscape photographer. He is currently working on a project which is part-funded by Arts Council England, Portraits of the Forest, making portraits of people and the trees they work with to explore forest environments and think about our relationship with them.
He began his career studying American literature and holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Nottingham, and a PhD from the University of Newcastle. For this he wrote a thesis about modernity and the work of crime writer, Raymond Chandler. His photographic practice is informed by his research on cultural change, and the relationship between reality and perception in culture. More recently, he collaborated with the poet Rebecca Goss. Their book Carousel won the Michael Marks Award for Illustration in 2019, and he began exhibiting his work, notably at The Portico in Manchester.
But it was in Liverpool, where he organised a marathon reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick at the Maritime Museum, that the seed was sown for the events in the Lake District (where Routledge works with the descendants of William Wordsworth at Rydal Mount producing unusual publicity shots and running cyanotype workshops in the poet’s home.)
“It’s just reading for the love of it,” he says. “There’s no agenda, no fundraising, no fanfare, just a quiet way to spend a weekend in a lovely location with the absolute pleasure of reading aloud.”
By Eileen Jones
Images courtesy of Eileen Jones