Monday 9 October 2017

Swallows and Amazons Forever

Five years ago I wrote about the experience of taking a baby to the Lake District. We go annually and some years the hills and meres are flooded with glorious light. Some years they are simply flooded. At present we tend to holiday in England, and whilst we've loved recent trips to Dorset, Norfolk and Kent, it is to the Lake District with its tempestuous weather and gloriously vibrant natural highs and lows that our spirits belong. Rightly, this summer it was inscribed as a world heritage site. There is no place like it. And it is here that we come closest to our dream of offering our little ladies the sort of authentic childhood that will allow them to feel truly free. The old-school, dam-building, boat-sailing, hill-climbing, nature-loving, camp-building natural education.

Culture-Grandad's favourite childhood book was Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, set around Coniston. I loved the '70's film as a child too and from the age of two Culturetot in particular fell completely and, perhaps unexpectedly for her age, in love with it. Likewise, with the advent of the new film, Culturebaby (now of course no longer that - a rapidly growing nearly six year old) has busily been trying to institute a Wildcat Island in her own school playground. This morning, bleary eyed, she arrived in our bedroom clutching Ransome's sequel Swallowdale. I fear I shall be bulk-buying the DVD as birthday gifts for her classmates.

Last year we hired a boat and channelled Swallow. This year we tracked down a holy grail for Ransome Fans -  Bank Ground Farm - the farmhouse where the children first plotted their adventures and from whose boathouse Swallow was first launched in the 1970s adaptation.
We also visited Blackwell near Bowness (the town featuring as Rio for the eagle eyed). Selfishly I adore this exquisite arts and crafts building and visit annually, but this year we were all delighted to discover that it was running an exhibition about Swallows and Amazons featuring props from the latest film and objects from the Ransome archive (borrowed from Blackwell’s sister museum, the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry in Kendal), a semaphore trail and themed arts and crafts activities. A friend also took part this year in a Wild Cat Island Adventure. This is definitely one for next year's list.

In addition to our specific Ransome-themed adventures we've also been taking the time to live more like the children whilst we've been in the Lakes. We've donned our wellies and explored in all weathers, bathed in rivers (ok not me but the rest of the rabble did), set out on long walks, swung on rope swings, built dams and dens and generally taken the time to stop and look at nature.

Three walks I'd particularly recommend with little ones no longer in back packs are:

1. Walk from Elterwater to Ambleside (or vice versa) and do the return trip on the bus. It is around 4.2 miles and with some short exceptions, it is predominantly flat. The girls had the additional incentive of a trip to the lovely cinema in Ambleside as a reward for their efforts. The route takes you past Elterwater, a waterfall on the River Brathay and near a Roman Fort outside of Ambleside.

2. Pick up a Windermere Cruises Walkers' Ticket and follow a part-cruise and part-walking route from Ambleside. Depending which way you choose, this begins with a ferry ride across to Wray Castle, run by the National Trust. This Victorian mock-gothic building, complete with fake arrowslits, has been set up as a playground for children (of all ages) with dressing-up and games, a Peter Rabbit imaginative play experience, castle building and a great outdoor adventure playground. The Castle also has stunning views over Windermere and a much needed tea shop for this side of the Lake.

From here you walk the 4 miles to the Ferry House. This is a pretty gentle stroll and many also follow a similar route with bicycles. You can hire bikes and trailers from Lower Wray Campsite. We did this last year and it was an enduring enjoyable memory for the girls.

3. A favourite ramble is the walking route up the Langdale Pikes. The walk is quite hard work, with sections that need to be scrambled up, but both children managed it well. Compared to some of the more lengthy walks, this one has a clear target (the tarn), which kept them motivated. This walk really has it all - a river and sections of waterfall, a good climb, stunning views all the way up, and a tarn half way up the mountain which transports you right to Middleearth (you half expect to stumble across the door to the mines of Moria round the corner). For the pre-history buffs amongst you it is also a hugely important heritage site: the Langdale Axe Factory. In the Neolithic period, the 'new stone age' (from 10,000 years ago), people were beginning to learn to farm and stone tools were needed to exploit the land or clear areas of forest. Early Cumbrians mined the hard greenstone in the remote volcanic rocks of Langdale to produce axes, and the evidence can still be found today (though despite being an archaeologist I have sadly never yet spotted an axe as I've treked the pikes). It is unclear whether these particular axes were used for work or whether they had a more ritual significance (they seem at least to have been exported out of Cumbria), but if the latter, it does make sense to me. You can clearly see as you gaze from the mountains across the panorama of the heart of the Lakes below, that this is truly an extraordinary, even other-worldy place. The climb back down always seems a little longer, but there's the promise of a cuppa or icecream at the bottom. The National Trust owns The Sticklebarn pub at the base of the pikes. It's friendly and you know your money goes towards caring for the local environment.

This year we prepared for the Lakes with a back-pack of relevant reading material. We read some Beatrix Potter and about the Stone Age before we went, and took Ransome's Swallows and Amazons with us for bedtime. However, for our walks we wanted to observe as we went and took an explorers kits, complete with binoculars, torch, insect observation pot, tape measure and set of interactive books. For the last couple of years Culturebaby has loved the Usborne spotter guides. We have a couple of vintage ones and some of their new series. We included Wild Flowers, Country Walks and an Insect Sticker Book in our pack, along with a guide to trees. Both Nosy Crow and The National Trust, and Walker Books, have each brought out their own guides to help children learn, experience and really look at nature around them. First up is the excellent accompanying book for the National Trust's initiative to get children to have a more outdoorsy natural childhood: 50 Things to Do Before You're 11 3/4. This is a brilliant idea and the accompanying book allows children to work out what sort of explorer they are (and meet associated characters that journey with them - which is always a winning formula). For each activity achieved from blackberry picking to cycling, climbing a tree to growing butterflies, the child has a space to record the date, any notes and gain a sticker. This was the most used of our guides this year as it can be easily completed on the go. Recently published to accompany this is the Go Wild in the Woods adventure guide. With great illustrations and full of facts it details how to get along in nature. The children are particularly taken with the sections on which vegetation makes good toilet paper and how to determine which animal has been in the area from their tracks and poo. They also received an Out and About Night Explorer set with torch, backpack, measuring equipment and book which covers everything from nocturnal animals and plants to spot to star charts. It's an exciting package and makes an excellent present.

Walker Books' version is similar in intent but different and complementary in execution. The books are based on the classic We're Going on A Bear Hunt, and they include a beautifully illustrated guide to what you may find in nature (this is great and covers topics as wide as the water cycle and weather to rock composition) and a project book based on each of the challenges the children in the classic book face. Little scientists are invited to measure rainfall and observe cloud formations, and there are activities for every season. One parent wondered whether the connection to the childhood classic alongside more advanced scientific content might put off a school child, but I think it would depend on the individual. Culturebaby is rather nostalgic and the theme and well known characters actually captured her interest.

I've found having little ones, rather than proving restrictive, has immersed me in nature more than I may have otherwise been. They want to splash in puddles and ride their bikes in the rain, snow is something to be sought out, autumn leaves are a joy and the first flowers of spring are anticipated and observed. They want to know the names of plants and I've had to reacquaint myself with the long forgotten names of scents. And everywhere I must slow down to the pace of miniature wellington boots. I need these guides as much as the children and the bonding activities they contain will hopefully provide for the children treasured memories like my own, of a childhood spent under the elements.

Disclaimer: We received copies of the new Walker and Nosy Crow books for review purposes. All other materials are our own, as are all opinions.

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