The Ruskin Museum, Coniston, Cumbria

The Ruskin Museum

Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901

Tel: 01539 441164

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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’].