Jane Eyre and Swallowdale are done, I’m already reading more with the Dymocks Reading Challenge (for the complete list of what I’m working through, please read over to here) than I have done in ages. Although re-reading Swallowdale, I realised I should have read Peter Duck before it (as I thought I ought to, but got persuaded I’d misremembered by Wikipedia, who listed them by published date). Peter Duck is the story the Swallows and Amazons made up in a wherry when they were altogether over the winter holidays. More on that when I’ve read it; which I’m not looking forward to, but more on that when I’ve read it 😉
Jane Eyre was read to me by Thandiwe Newton, it’s available on Audible as one of their bonus titles. Reader, I have a confession. By the time Jane got to Morton to become a teacher, I was a bit over her company. So I skipped ahead (about four hours), and missed how, very handily, the one door she knocked on when destitute and hungry, turned out to be her long lost cousin’s house. #YeahRight
I’m not going to do a full on review, as I think more than enough has been written (and analysed to the point of people not enjoying it) about the book already. Anyhoo, the reunion with Rochester was quite sweet and at least I can say I’ve now (mostly) read it. I’ve still got it on my kindle, so may get round to closing the loop. But Wide Sargasso Sea is halfway read and I’m enjoying that much more.
The premise of Swallowdale is fairly simple, the crew of the Swallow are back in the Lake District again for their summer holidays. They’ve got school books with them with holiday tasks they need to complete (French verbs are mentioned more than once), but they want to forget towns, school, the train ride up and get sailing. I’m deliberately doing a deeper dive into Swallowdale, because it’s often overlooked in the series – I know this because I had to fight like crazy to get all 12 on the shelf in the bookshop I worked in in the early 2000s.
However, the first day they’re able to sail to Wild Cat Island, they notice Captain Flint’s houseboat is all shut up, and he’s covered his cannon (Reader, relax it’s only a little one that was used to start boat races). On the island, they put up their tents and build a big fire in the campsite. A note with the firewood left by the Amazons tells them to put lots of grass on the fire to make it smoke so they’ll be able to see, even from the head of the lake, that the crew of the Swallow have arrived. This is what the Lake District country looks like for those who’ve not seen it before.
While the Swallows are settling in and getting supplies organised from the ‘natives’ other farmers in the region. They hear that the Amazons’ Great Aunt is also visiting, and that Captain Flint is staying at Beckfoot with Mrs Blackett, so Nancy and Peggy are not going to be able to camp on the island with them. The next day, the Swallows decide to sail for Horseshoe Cove, which is the last place they were altogether on the lake the year before. A picnic is packed, the Swallows head off and during the day the Amazons sail into the bay to meet them.
Nancy and Peggy explain that the Great Aunt (G.A.) is visiting; so not only can’t camp, they can’t sail as much as they want to either. They also have “…been sitting up and saying please and thank you till we didn’t want to come to meals at all.”
That quote from Nancy was always one of my favourites from the entire series of books. She’s a strong, independent character, often recognised as the author’s favourite. Unusually, particularly for books written nearly 100 years ago, there are four girls, two boys as the lead characters. In Arthur Ransome’s other books, girls continue to figure highly throughout them too. Adults are summarily dispensed with, unless they are needed for moving part of the story on. The six children consider themselves explorers and sailors, hence the term ‘native’ for describing adults they come across. It fits in with their world view, how they spend their time and how they use their imagination to explain adults encroaching. Because the books are written from the children’s point of view, this does explain their endurance, as you feel you’re exploring and sailing with them.
The first time they all together again in Horseshoe Cove, the older four, Nancy and Peggy (Amazon Pirates), John and Susan, (Captain and Mate from Swallow) are happy to sit by the fire and catch-up. The younger two Swallows (Titty and Roger) are restless, so head off inland, but are told to stay beside the beck (river) so they can find their way back to shore. Titty and Roger keep climbing up through a forest, following the water flowing down to the lake; until they come into a valley, where they discover a cave. Full of excitement, they head back to the bay to get torches, but find out they were gone far too long. The Amazons are going to be late for tea with the G.A. and are in a hurry to leave. But despite already being late, Nancy and Peggy want to go back to the island to see the Swallows new tents and to collect the feathers moulted from the ship’s parrot for their arrows. [Writing this précis is hilarious, it sounds crazy already, but just you wait.] They all sail off to the island together, Titty and Roger talking about the valley, the six of them agree to meet back at Horseshoe Cove tomorrow morning to investigate the valley further.
Basically, the G.A. is introduced to the book to keep the Swallows on their own. Yes, they are camping on Wild Cat Island, but not knowing when the Amazons are able to meet with them, the plans are going to be at best tentative.
The next morning, the wind is strong and gusty. John has already seen the white sail of the Amazon flying through the islands on the lake, and he knows that he’s already lost the race to get there. He’s also worked out the route he wants to take in his head, but because Susan always tidies up before she leaves the camp, they’re later leaving than John wants and he’s cross with his crew. He’s then full of keeping the plan he’s over thought in his head, and ‘hangs on’ with his sail.
The sail buffets around in the wind at the head of Horseshoe Cove, John sails straight onto Pike Rock and Swallow starts to sink. Everyone swims for shore, Titty holding the telescope overhead to keep it dry. When Susan and Roger are also clear, John throws the anchor towards the shore because part of another plan has formed already where he wants to try and get the boat up and off the bottom.
The six of them change into their bathers, Susan stokes the fire and they try to dry clothes and supplies for the day. John dives down time and again, moving the bows of Swallow around, cutting away the sail and ropes, removing the ballast and with the help of the anchor rope, they are able to get Swallow up off the bottom. As she’s pulled up high on land, Captain Flint arrives in his rowboat. He realises what’s happened and helps them all to first shift camp from Wild Cat Island to Horseshoe Cove, but also to patch up Swallow and get her to the boatbuilders.
After leaving Swallow with the boatbuilders, Captain Flint takes John back to Holly Howe to tell their mother, the ‘Best of All Natives’ about what’s happened. John stays in the rowing boat but sees when she jumps up out her chair that Captain Flint has told her. Bridget, ships baby, and Mother come across to the shipwrecked sailors to count them all. That Bridget has come too reassures all of them that it’s ok, they’re going to be able to stay shipwrecked and not go back to Holly Howe. Mother hears about the wreck, agrees that they can’t stay on the shoreline, but they can camp in the valley, and heads off to meet another set of natives who are able to give them milk each morning.
The Swallows spend the night in the make-shift camp set up on the shore, but after exploring, allowing Titty and Roger to show John and Susan the cave, they decide to shift camp up to the valley. The Amazons and Captain Flint help them to move camp. In the valley, they set up their tents, they build a fireplace, and damn up a pool with bigger stones for bathing and they discover the watchtower rock. This is at the head of the valley, now called Swallowdale, and gives them a 360 view of the countryside. Because it’s so big, the Amazons can see to where they live in Beckfoot at the head of the lake and tell the Swallows they’ll make a surprise attack one day. They hurry off to get back for tea, but run into a flat calm and are late again. Susan sweeps out the cave, which is cool enough to put their provisions in and has a shelf they can put a candle lantern on.
The rest of the book is mostly them exploring the countryside around them, John is shaping and planing the replacement mast for Swallow, John builds a pedestal for the parrot cage to sit on and Captain Flint teaches them to fly fish for the trout in the stream and tarns in the next valley above Swallowdale. The G.A. is barely in the book, but by withholding the Amazons from a lot of the story, her presence is felt all the way through it. Nancy and Peggy are expressly forbidden from sailing or meeting up with the Swallows as they’ve kept missing meals. During the summer, it’s not normally a problem for the free-ranging girls who are known all over the lake, but when the G.A. decides its meal time, she will sit in the dining room. Not waiting for Cook to sound the gong to say when the meal is ready, but then she won’t eat anything until the girls are at the table either. Mrs Blackett and Captain Flint, or Uncle Jim, are talking in the garden one night, Mrs Blackett starts to cry at the strain of it all, which upsets Nancy and Peggy.
This leads to one of the most ridiculous chapters, possibly in all children’s literature. I made myself read it this time, but from the first time I read the book; I can remember thinking “WTF?”, and I’d just skip the whole thing, and then again in everyone of my 100s of re-reads thereafter. I preface this by saying that Titty is an odd character. She’s full of imagination; she’s the one that thinks up explanations for adults interaction, she’s got an imaginary friend called Peter Duck (yes, we’re coming back to him next in the series), and she is full of the classical education that was the norm then, as in learning poems by rote and then holding life in comparisons to the classics. Susan is very much the mother figure; making sure everyone gets fed and watered, she’s the sensible older sister and can be ‘almost native’ around food and rules. She’s the catalyst that keeps everything going, without her sensibility, they wouldn’t be able to have as many adventures. John and Roger love boats, ships and sailing, John is also sensible, but passionate; Roger is exuberant and cheeky, both the boys want to grow up and join the Navy ‘like Daddy’, so Titty is written as the romantic foil to all three of them.
Back to the candle grease chapter. The Amazons make their surprise attack, but because they forget to take their red caps off, Roger spots them in the heather through the telescope. The Swallows quickly strike camp and hide in the cave as a joke to surprise the Amazons. When they’ve been surprised and they’re putting the tents back up, Nancy says that Swallow is nearly finished. They know they all can’t sail and explore the high-country at the same time, so they’re making plans to climb one of the mountain peaks, that they’ve named Kanchenjunga as it’s hummocky. But as the Amazons are struggling at home with the G.A. they don’t know exactly when it will happen.
At the end of the day, the Amazons are late, again, and decide to head home by road to see if they can get a lift, three of the Swallows go with them. But Titty stays back as she decides that she wants to make the G.A. leave; she wants to give Nancy and Peggy their holidays back, she wants to free up Mrs Blackett and Captain Flint, she imagines what it would feel like if someone made the Best of All Natives cry. She stays in the camp, collates the candle grease that has melted onto the shelf in the cave, she melts it down in the frying pan, and makes a voodoo doll of the G.A. She then walks solemnly around the cave three times reciting an incantation. Not having silver pins, Titty decides to hold the doll close to the fire to melt the arms of the G.A. reasoning that if she’s achy, the G.A. will decide to leave to go to the seaside to get better. Titty drops the doll into the fire and is convinced she’s killed the Great Aunt.
I’ll leave that to settle, shall I?
Of course, nothing happens. But there’s much angst from the deep-feeling Titty, who asks everyone she comes across for news from Beckfoot. The boatbuilders get Swallow fixed, she’s now drying in the sun to not damage the paint. The mast is completed and while John is smoothing the linseed oil into the wood, the Amazons fire an arrow into the heather at Horseshoe Cove from Mrs Blackett’s launch (motor boat). Telling the Swallows to ‘Show the parrot his feathers’, knowing he will rip the arrow apart in indignation, the Amazons have hidden a note inside the arrow. They explain the G.A. is leaving soon, so if they’re going to climb Kanchenjunga before sailing again, the Swallows need to start for Beckfoot the next day. Nancy and Peggy give instructions on how to get to their house overland from Swallowdale, reversing the journey of the surprise attack they made. If they head off tomorrow morning, the Swallows can camp halfway up the mountain overnight, the Amazons can join them the day after when the G.A. has left, they all can summit the mountain together. Hurrah!
The overland trip takes place, with Titty and Roger leaving patterans of pine cones to help them find their way back again to Swallowdale all the way along the moor. They find the hidden rowing boat to get the Swallows further up the Amazon river and to the bottom of Kanchenjunga, and paddle it closer to the house, to collect Nancy and Peggy. John gives them an owl call, he spots them sneaking out the house, hoots again and they run off in the opposite direction. When John gets back to the rowing boat, the Amazons are arriving through the rushes. Captain Flint is also within earshot and tells them next time to choose a different signal as the G.A. wants to write to the British Museum about an owl hooting in the middle of the day. He promises to cover for them, but they mustn’t be late.
The Amazons hop into the boat and update the Swallows on what’s going on, how they’ve only got out by the skin of their teeth as the G.A. knew something was up, and suggested that they both went to their room to learn a poem to recite that evening. Captain Flint suggested Casabianca, which they’d already learnt at school.
“Theboystoodontheburningdeckwhenceallbuthehadfled,” rattled Peggy.
The Amazons show the Swallows where to camp overnight, introduce them to another farm for milk and head back off home. The next morning, they all climb up the mountain together. Enjoying a picnic of donuts and lemonade at the top, Roger finds a metal box in the cairn on the top of the mountain with a note in from Jim Turner, Molly Turner and Bob Blackett saying they ‘…climbed the Matterhorn. 2 August 1901’. Susan asks ‘Who is Bob Blackett?’. Nancy says ‘He was Father.’ Using the stub of Titty’s pencil, they all sign their names on the back of the paper, ’11 August 1931. We climbed Kanchenjunga’ and put the note back in the metal box.
They all head down the mountain and back to the Amazon to sail over the lake; the Amazons are camping in Swallowdale that night, they packed their boat before they left so they ready to go. John and Susan go with the Amazons, Titty and Roger want to walk back overland to follow their patterans.
Talking with the husband about Swallowdale, I showed him the map in the end papers, particularly the route Titty and Roger took overland, over the moors, on their own. Roger is 8 years old, Titty at the most 11. Off they trot, no parents, no older siblings, with only a string of pine cones to direct them. In washes a sea fog so they can’t see more than a few feet in front of them. When they find a beck, they follow it for ages, to realise they’ve gone miles out their way, into the wrong valley. Roger twists his ankle, Titty has to leave him behind (!) to get help.
When I went to the Lake District, a group of us went walking, up hill and down dale. It being a military group, you could say we were slightly better prepared than Titty and Roger, what with hi-vis jackets, food, drink, mobile phones and so on.
The thought of two children toddling off, with only some chocolate and a compass, in sand shoes, with no way of communicating gave me the heebie-jeebies last week. I know what our son is like at 10½, he’s only just graduated to talking to people unprompted in shops, let alone sallying forth on half-a-day’s hike on his own. I know the first principle of children’s books is often ‘get rid of the parents’, but OMGoodness, coming back to this book as a parent was scary.
Swallowdale is still one of my favourites in the series; look out for We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, Secret Water, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post, The Picts and The Martyrs, Coot Club and The Big Six as I progress through the challenge. I’ll cross post to here as I finish them.
In my head, the books were a safe place to retreat to, I loved escaping to their campsites in the Lake District and Norfolk Broads. I love that when I was reading them, sixty years removed from when they were written, the books still spoke to me, because they didn’t talk down to me.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this review of Swallowdale, that it will make you want to revisit one of your favourite books from your childhood.