Wednesday, 13 July 2011

To the Secret Harbour

I felt a little apprehensive clicking on the "New Post" button this morning. It seems a long time since I last strung words -as opposed to notes- together for the fun of it. The last few weeks have been very busy: always the case where the summer term is concerned.

I'm a great believer in the maxim, you should work to live, rather than live to work, although this tends to go by the board this time of year. It's also true, as my grandad used to say, that if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing properly, so needs must. Fortunately, things are about to even themselves out: by lunchtime today all the exams will be over and I'll only have a handful of reports to sort out. Sadly, if recent years are anything to go by, the summer will be all but over too, to be replaced by the "rainy season".

The last period of free time ended weeks ago. It ended so suddenly I didn't even have time to blog about it. My friend Alick and I borrowed an inflatable canoe belonging to a friend of his and made for the Lake District. Our objective was to follow in the footsteps of Arthur Ransome's fictional children (and Arthur Ransome himself) and seek out Wild Cat Island, the idyllic camping-place of the Swallows and the Amazons.

Of course, Wild Cat Island only exists in fiction. it is, however substantially based on Peel Island on Coniston Water. Ransome camped there in his youth and visited it frequently. He was great friends with the Collingwood family, and a great fan of WJ Collingwood's book, Thorstein of the Mere. As Ransome says in his introduction to the book, quoting Collingwood:

Far up the lake was Peel Island. "When you see it from the fells it looks like a ship in the midst of the blue ripples; but a ship at anchor, while all the mere moves upbank or downbank, as the wind may be. . . . And to make the likeness better still, a long, narrow calf-rock lies in the water, as if it were the cock-boat at the stern: while tall trees stood for masts and sails." We had seen it so from the high fell, and as for the calf-rock, we ran our boat in alongside it when we rowed down to the island. We knew that someone had lived there, in the narrow place between rocks in the middle of it. For twenty years I treasured an old nail found there, now gone, like so much else.

Alick, with boat, in the secret harbour

                                                                           Photo: Alick Bridger
Of course, the geographical details are altered slightly in Swallows and Amazons, but when you land on Peel Island you are left in no doubt that you are stepping into the pages of a book. It's most famous feature, the secret harbour at the Southern end, is exactly as you would expect it to be. Photos, we felt, are called for, and we snapped each other. This is my photo of Alick. We both look very serious in the shots. Anyone who read and reread Ransome as a child could not help but feel slightly awestruck in that place - much as you might feel walking into a cathedral.  We pulled our canoe well up on the shore and set off to explore. The real island is not big -its fictional counterpart has been stretched a few yards- but big enough to capture the imagination. It is essentially a rocky wood. Almost everywhere on its coastline the rock slopes down steeply into the water. Apart from the secret harbour there are only one or two nooks and crannies where one could land or launch a small boat. In the centre there is a depression, surrounded by rocky hillocks, where traces of a Viking settlement have been found (none are visible  now). At the Northern end -much used in the book as a lookout point- I could not resist climbing an oak tree.

Once we'd explored the island, we ate our lunch and returned to the boat. I was slightly worried that we might return to find a crumpled plastic bag instead of a canoe. We had had the foresight to bring a pump with us, just in case. Thakfully, the boat was just as we'd left it - I had underestimated just how good a good inflatable canoe could be. I'd seen cheap versions in action in the past and had not been impressed. This one was quite a ship and we were amazed to discover just how fast we could travel in it. We set off North to the steamer quay half way up the East side of the lake, landed briefly, then set off back to Peel Island and landed again. Then we circumnavigated it... In short, we spent the afternoon, to borrow a water rat's famous phrase, messing about in a boat.

We'd parked the car and launched that morning at Low Peel Near (someone -not us- took a great photo of the place and posted it here). By the time we got back there we were feeling quite bold. The far side of the lake didn't look that far away anymore, so we set off to Brown Howe. It only took us a few minutes and, on the way back, we passed the Gondola, a steamer that carries tourists up and down the lake. Could we outrun it? We gave chase and kept up for a while, but soon wore ourselves out. The wash from the thing was a bit choppy.

Back at base, we decided to end the day with a swim. The lake was surprisingly cold (this was May), but not too cold to swim without a wetsuit. (We'd been wearing wetsuits all day, but I don't like swimming in them unless I have to - the bouyancy makes me feel like a bobbing lump of polystyrene). When we got out, we discovered an aspect to the place that features in Ransome's fiction not at all - midges! On Peel Island we'd said we'd wished we'd brought a couple of bivi bags and stayed the night there. Dressing on the shore while trying to beat off the blighters we were glad we hadn't.


The Weaver of Grass said...

What I love about your whole day (I have seen all the photographs) is that you are not smiling on a single photograph - you obviously both took the adventure very seriously. Would you believe that the word verification is translake - are there gremlins in there who read our blogs/minds, do you think?

Gwilym Williams said...

I tested your theory, Pat.

I just got the following:


I assume Peel Island is named after John Peel. Do ye ken him?

Gerry Snape said...

I've read that the dreaded highland midgies are moving rapidly south to the lakes and Snowdonia! Oh dear. ...Great post though!

Kat Mortensen said...

What a charming idea! I've never read the books, but I think it's wonderful that you attempted to relive your boyhood experiences.


tony said...

Coniston Is My Favourite Lake .You Remind Me, I Must Go Visit It Again Soon, I Haven't Been There In Ages.
I Hope You wont Need The Wetsuit All Summer!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments:

WG: It wouldn't surprise me at all if the word verification wasn't combined with some sort of search tool that chose appropriate words. Very possible - but I think Gwilym has disproved it!

GW: Thank you (see above). I think the name Peel is older than that. There is an other "Piel" Island not far away from this one, near Barrow.

GS: So have I. These weren't the Highland variety though - they are really nasty. These were plentiful, persistent and irritating.

KM: If you enjoy reading young persons literature, I'd have a go. Swallows and Amazons is a must read, being the background to the series. In my view, the best of the rest are Swallowdale (elegiac, with a powerful moment on a mountain summit) and We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea.

Tony: It's a great place, isn't it? Particularly the eastern shore. I like the wildness of it, and the way you can wander at will around so much of it.

Andrew Shields said...

I think the harbor on that island must be the one they used in the early 70s movie.

Did you hear that BBC is starting a project to film S&A and probably several of the others, too?