This past weekend I finished three Arthur Ransome books, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. These three books are some of my favourites in the series, closely followed by Secret Water, (but we’re not there yet). This is the first of three posts, it was way too long for one blog, about Winter Holiday.
I know I’m slightly out of order. If there are any other Arthur Ransome pedants who find this, I decided to skip Coot Club, and to read that back-to-back with The Big Six, to enjoy the Norfolk Broads in one hit.
Winter Holiday introduces us to a sister and brother, known as the ‘Ds’. Dorothea and Dick Callum have been sent to stay at Dixon’s Farm for the last bit of their holidays before going back to school, as their parents have gone to Egypt to ‘dig up remains’. The Walkers (crew of the Swallow) are at Holly Howe before being despatched to their schools for the new term. Mother, ‘left just yesterday’ as their Father’s ship is stationed relatively close-by at Malta. Mother has taken the youngest child, Bridget to meet him as, “Father’s never really seen Bridget since she was a person.”
The Swallows and Amazons (SAs) see the Ds as they row to Wild Cat Island on the D’s first morning at Dixon’s Farm. The Ds are, in turn, by the lake watching the six of them in the Beckfoot rowing boat. The SAs are practicing Morse code and Semaphore, they’ve taken up signalling with a view to an ‘Arctic Expedition’. But it’s not cold enough yet for the lake to freeze, and the holidays are nearly over.
That night the Ds head up to an old barn for an observatory, so Dick can look at stars. Dick loves geometry, takes daily readings on the barometer at home (he’s frustrated that he didn’t bring his pocket one with him), and is learning about astronomy from a new book, he chose the old barn for his observatory for its ‘horizons’. He’s often is so deep in thought, he can’t hear his sister when she talks to him, “Well, you ought to hang out a notice when you’re not there.”
Dorothea is calm and clear headed, but also full of stories. A bit like Titty, although Dot is full of romance and wonder; whereas Titty is a product of her Australian mother, Naval Officer father’s more stoic upbringing. We never meet the D’s parents in any of the five books they’re in, although they write to the children and seem quite happy when they get swept up and along for adventure with the SAs and also the Coot Club children. The Ds are the fulcrum point, bridging the Norfolk Broads and Lakes children and books together.
Dick is affectionately known as ‘Professor’ in the books. He is often deep in thought, and sees things the other children miss; for example, in Winter Holiday he notices that a car has driven past with snow chains on, but hasn’t come back along the road. The other children don’t make fun of him polishing his glasses when he’s got something to say, but is too shy to interrupt; or when he writes down birds he’s seen in the ever-present notebook that is in his pocket. [Typing that made me realise that none of the children are made fun of. Although there are pointed jibes from sibling to sibling, it’s never malicious, as an example, John saying to Roger “I don’t believe you’re ever full.” You feel like you’re watching family dynamics and vernacular, it’s a running joke that Roger is always hungry.]
While watching the stars from the barn, the Ds are able to see Holly Howe farm windows. With lanterns and torches, the children signal to each other. The crew of the Swallow answer in Morse code. The Ds (not knowing Morse) decide that of course they can’t communicate – Morse, Mortian, Martians. In the morning, the ‘Martians’, now including the Amazons, all march over to meet the Ds. On the way, Nancy and Peggy run across a tarn that has a thin layer of ice over it, but it’s not bearing yet, so they go into the cold water up to their ankles.
When they all meet at the barn, the Martians are disappointed the Ds aren’t in trouble, as they thought they were signalling they were in distress. Introductions are made, the Ds are asked to join them for the day by the SAs. They all head down the hill to Dixon’s Farm to get the D’s rations for the day. Mrs Dixon laughs and tells them they’ve “Not made too long a time of it” in meeting the Swallows and Amazons, and packs the Ds off with a picnic.
The Ds are told about the Arctic Expedition and shown the ‘igloo’, which is a stone hut they’re covering in snow, and told about the planned trip to the Arctic to the North Pole, which is at the head of the lake they’re on. Although the end of the holidays is just around the corner, they’re all hopeful to get some skating on the tarn, even if they won’t be able skate on the lake. Nancy and Peggy dry out shoes and stockings by the fire in the igloo.
Over the next couple of days, the Ds are taught both types of signalling, Morse and Semaphore. The SAs decide it would be rather beastly to leave them out of things, even if they’re not sure about Dot’s pigtails. Then the ice freezes the tarn. At their first skating practice, the SAs see that both the Ds have been ice skating on an indoor rink near their father’s university all winter and skate well. This clinches the friendship, Nancy says she’ll keep teaching them signalling if they can teach everyone how to skate. During a skating and signalling practice, Captain Nancy writes down the ABCs of semaphore for Dick in his notebook. She also tells him when the expedition is due to start, she’ll run a flag up the pole at Beckfoot, so they know when to leave to head north on the lake. This he also makes a note of on a page in his notebook.
Just as the holidays are drawing to a close, with the lake finally showing signs of freezing, Nancy goes down with the mumps. Because the other children have been ‘fairly stewing’ inside the igloo with her, none of them can go back to school. The certificates telling the school they’ve not been in close contact with anyone sick, can’t be signed, (sound familiar?). They have to stay in quarantine, which gives them a whole month more of skating and practice for their expedition.
Nancy is filled with glee, Mrs Blackett is worried they’re all going to come down with it, Peggy is despatched to stay with the Swallows at Holly Howe. For a few days, they do the best they can without Nancy. Bur after skating and signalling practice, then ensuring the igloo is covered with snow, they run out of ideas of what to do. Eventually, they all pile over to Beckfoot to ask Nancy what they should be doing, using semaphore in the garden so they don’t get too close and get sick:
The circle over Nancy’s face says, ‘It would be unfair to draw Nancy’s pumpkin face’. I love Dick in the bottom right hand corner, looking up the alphabet in his notebook while Peggy is signalling. Roger is on the right, standing closer to the steps; John is at the back; Dorothea is writing the letters signalled by Nancy in one of her exercise books she uses for writing her novels, leaning on the sundial; with Titty far left; then lastly, Susan is in between John and Peggy. Got to love how the boys are all in shorts, in the middle of winter. I also like the nod to Captain Flint’s relationship with them all, showing his telescope in the ground floor window.
Nancy’s arms windmill letters, she’s full of ideas for hiking up the mountains, crossing ‘Alaska and Greenland’, making Wild Cat Island Spitzbergen, to keep up with their training. While signalling, she’s pulled away from the window, Mrs Blackett tells them all off, reminds them why they should be on the other side of the lake, and sends Nancy back to bed.
The next day on their first trip to ‘Greenland’ the children are taking it turns pulling a sledge as ‘dogs’, all hopping on the sledge to slide down hills. While the youngest four are exploring, Dick saves a cragfast sheep by walking along the ledge it’s got stuck on, the other three using the Alpine rope as a lifeline. I love this exchange:
“Half a minute,” he called again. “I’ve got to sit down. Let out some more rope.”
“Is anything wrong?” That was Titty’s voice.
“No. But the rock leans out, so you’ll have to let the rope out a lot and then jerk it around. Don’t start jerking just for a minute. I’ve got to get sitting down.”
“Why?” called Dorothea. “You’re not giddy?”
“No,” said Dick. “Centre of Gravity. If I try to get past standing up, my Centre of Gravity will get pushed too far out by the cliff.”
Overhead, on the top of the rock, Titty and Dorothea and Roger looked at each other.
“I suppose he’s all right?” said Titty.
“Quite,” said Dorothea, “so long as he talks like that.”Winter Holiday, p.143
Mr Dixon makes the Ds a sledge to say thank you, giving the expedition two sledges. Nancy smuggles the houseboat key out via a tobacco tin sent with the doctor. The book continues with Captain Flint’s iced-in houseboat becoming the Fram; which is soon decorated with polar bear fleeces (sheepskins) arctic fox pelts (rabbit skin) that they sew into mittens and hats as it gets colder and colder.
Captain Flint comes back from overseas when he hears about the lake freezing over, he joins with them all on the expedition and helps Nancy with North Pole preparations. On a day when the Ds have to leave early to prepare a sail for their sledge, Captain Flint tells the Swallows and Peggy that Nancy is due to be let loose tomorrow and will run up a flag at Beckfoot. Depending on what colour it is, depends on whether she’s allowed by the doctor to come to the houseboat for a conference and planning for their final push to the Pole.
The next day, a flag is run up the Beckfoot pole. As Mrs Dixon is getting ready to go to the market, the Ds are running late when they see the flag. They head off with their provisions for the day. They also take the sail for the sledge they’ve finally got ready with the help of Mr Dixon, but not had a chance to practice with. The others are only at the houseboat, but have pulled their sleds around the other side of it, to discourage other people from climbing aboard. The Ds miss the smoke from the fire that was only lit as they hurried past houseboat bay, thinking they’re behind everyone else.
From there on in, it’s a rush to the finish of the book and the North Pole, complete with a storm blowing snow and wind along the ice. The Ds hoist their sail and are blown straight down the lake like a pea in a peashooter. Despite the expedition being split, with search parties, and the Walkers and Peggy skating the length of the lake at night, they all arrive at the Pole safely, but at different times. They find a fire ready to light and provisions ready to eat. In the morning, the miscommunication is explained about the flag, it’s agreed that they had a proper expedition instead of the planned coordinated effort, and all’s well.
There’s never much more than implied danger and the odd scuffed elbow in Ransome’s books, Nancy is the ring-leader, she’s strong-willed and obstinate. But all the children are self-sufficient characters, and from Winter Holiday onwards, the characters move around each other, with each of them holding their own, bringing their own strengths forward when needed.
I’m loving re-reading the entire series of Swallows and Amazons, although I don’t recommend a twelve book series to count as one selection for the challenge! The pile of books by my bed are staring at me and is not diminishing very fast at all. I’m taking a couple of books with me when we go away this weekend, but next week I’ll read Secret Water and try to convey why I love it so.