Among the most famous writers of children’s books is the British author, Arthur Ransome. Unlike most contemporary writers of such books, he created adventure stories based on credible real-life incidents even though his youthful characters imagined events occurring that went well beyond what was believable. Of his twelve children’s books, his first, Swallows and Amazons, is undoubtedly the most famous. First published in 1930, it remains popular to this day having been reprinted numerous times and translated into several other languages. The book was also made into a highly popular children’s movie.
Ransome’s early children’s books are set in the English Lake District, especially in the area around Windermere and Coniston Water, although he modified the geographic features of these lakes to create his own fictional body of water. On it, however, he situated an island–Wild Cat Island–as the setting for the adventures of the characters in his first two books, the crews of the sailing dinghies, Swallow and Amazon, and this island closely resembles Peel Island on Coniston Water.
So popular have Ransome’s books been over almost nine decades that he is described by one literary scholar as having “changed British literature, affected a whole generation’s view of holidays” and “helped to create the national image of the Lake District.” Indeed, his influence has been such that several other authors have imitated his style. Their numbers include, at the age of nine, the author of this blog, neglecting the sage advice to write about subjects and places one knows well; at the time, he had never been in the Lake District where his manuscript was set!
Ransome’s books have spawned a whole tourist industry around Windermere and especially the village of Coniston where you can catch a ferry for a tour of the lake and pass near to his Wild Cat Island, imagining that you are sailing the lake with the Swallows and Amazons. In fact, however, the lake and island are best seen for the first time from high above, coming by bus from Windermere. If one knows exactly when to look, there is a moment when you can see Wild Cat Island as a small, alluring destination at the far end of the lake, rather the way the crew of the Swallow gazed at it through a telescope from a peak at Holly Howe farm as they anxiously awaited a telegram from their sailor father granting them permission to camp out on the island during their summer holidays. Indeed, better than taking the bus all the way into Coniston is to alight high above the lake and walk to the village along footpaths, perhaps from Tarn Hows, one of the most photographed locations in the Lake District. The views along the way are spectacular, especially as you approach the outskirts of Coniston and cast your eyes across the yellow fields to the fells beyond.
Like the author of this blog, his children and grandchildren have all enjoyed Ransome’s books as bedtime reading. But on top of that, they have been fortunate enough to have had the added pleasure of acting out the island adventures of the Swallows and Amazons on their own Wild Cat Island on Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada. In fact, unlike their fictional English counterparts they have had a wide choice of crown islands on which to camp and give free range to their vivid, childhood imaginations.
Given their own experiences, it is, however, perhaps best that they never visit Coniston Water and see the real Peel Island that Ransome used in his books, for the reality of the location today is far short of what they doubtless imagine from their childhood reading. For, beautiful as it is, the Lake District is not the unspoiled region it was when Ransome composed his books. It is inundated with tourists and lakes like Coniston are crowded with sailboats, windsurfers, rowboats,kayaks canoes, launches, and ferries.
But this is nothing compared to the disappointment these Canadian readers and adventurers would feel on passing close to Wild Cat Island by ferry, for, like the lake itself, it is crawling with human activity: bathers, divers, walkers, rowers, and paddlers. And this is an image of the island in May, not July or August.
It is true that the islands of Georgian Bay are also changing. No longer does the convention firmly hold that if another group is occupying a crown island, one should not land and expect to share it. But by and large, this old tradition still applies to smaller islands of the size of Wild Cat or Peel Island. And certainly, at any time of the year outside of mid-summer, the young have a wide selection of isolated locations where they can camp and act out their adventures in a wilderness environment, free of parental supervision and the prying eyes of passers-by.
Contemplating the appearance of Wild Cat Island today recalls to mind walking from Aix-en-Provence in the direction of Mont Sainte-Victoire, along the route Paul Cezanne used to follow on his expeditions to the countryside to paint the mountain and its environs. It is for the French a reverential walk in the footsteps of a master–one that perhaps instills the belief that “nothing matches the beauty of the French countryside and the skill of its painters.” It is, in fact, a pleasant enough walk, but it is marred by heavy traffic along the route and, unless one is prepared to walk for hours, Mont Sainte-Victoire remains but “a distant blob of white, a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, licked flat at the top.” For a Canadian, it is no match for hiking to a ridge in Killarney Provincial Park, the way members of the Group of Seven did, and looking down on the little lakes below “like emeralds shimmering on the slender fingers of a princess.” (At The Table, pp. 112-113).
No, the Lake District is undoubtedly a stunningly beautiful area, and it’s no surprise that it stimulated the imagination of Arthur Ransome and prompted him to make it the backdrop for the first of his famous children’s books. But for acting out the lives of his characters today, it is hard to beat the natural, quiet beauty of Georgian Bay, largely unsung though it may be outside of Canada.
Georgian Bay Forever!
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