Much has been written of the legacy left by Arthur Ransome, who inspired so many go camping, fell-walking or sail the seven seas with his “Swallows and Amazons” stories, writes Sophie Neville…
I hope that he would be amused to learn it has been the arrow, fletched with green parrot feathers, that has flown through the pages of my life.
Archery became a popular sport for ladies in Victorian England. The influence was not lost on Arthur Ransome – who wrote in his autobiography that his Great-Aunt Susan was a keen toxophilite who attended bow meetings at Belle Isle, the long island on Windermere. Another great-aunt was shot in the bonnet by an arrow when the Boxer Rising reached Peking while she was serving as a missionary.
I gather that it was his sister Joyce who owned a green parrot whose feathers made good pipe cleaners. Did they ever get used for flighting arrows? Arthur doesn’t seem to have taken up a bow beyond, perhaps, playing Red Indians as a child with his friend Ric Eddison. Does anyone know otherwise?
Titty Walker may not have known that the real Queen Bess was a proficient archer, but Roger certainly expected savages to be armed with poison-tipped arrows as he took dispatches across the Peak at Darien.
Did Nancy and Peggy Blackett ever don Red Indian head-dresses? Since they are described as wearing red caps when the Swallows first encounter them, I assume that this idea was instigated by Helen Edmundson’s musical and reinforced by the 2016 film. Although far from nautical, this is akin to certain antics in “Secret Water” and certainly adds visual drama to the confrontation.
I learnt how to shoot in 1973 when the Amazons were being taught how to pull a bow made of Lakeland hazel for the original movie of “Swallows and Amazons”. As children, we all wanted a go. I still have a practice bow and a couple of arrows whittled on location by Bob Hedges, our property master, and I remember one hitting the campfire. ‘Don’t touch the point – it might be poisonous!’
Please note that the shot of the arrows zooming over our heads looks so dangerous on screen that it was cut from the television version of the feature film. This was no snazzy visual effect. The arrows were genuine, however they were strung on taut nylon fishing line rigged over our heads to ensure we would not get hit. They were fired by the prop men and not the Amazons.
As female Amazon warriors were redoubtable archers, it is easy to imagine that Captain Nancy bent a sapling to her will and had Peggy making arrows. It is reasonable to assume that they used longbows on Wild Cat Island, but in “Swallowdale” it is a crossbow that graces Ransome’s illustration. How Nancy got her hands on one is unknown, but it must have been simpler to use in a boat with discretion and accuracy. Did Ransome ever try this out?
What happened to the bows and arrows after “Swallowdale”? Archery is something that you usually grow into, rather than out of. By the age of fifteen, I’d gained the part of an archery champion in an adventure movie called “The Copter Kids”. This necessitated target practice with a modern re-curve bow and ended with me shooting from a helicopter.
I now belong to a number of archery societies and, like Great-Aunt Susan, set out with my tabs and tassel, quiver and longbow. Luckily the skill, much like an appreciation of Arthur Ransome’s writing, is something that tends to improve with age. I met my husband at one bow meeting, have held three Ladies’ Championship titles, and managed to reach a distance of 145 yards when we celebrated the 600th Anniversary of Agincourt.
I have never fired a crossbow. Since they are potentially lethal weapons, Nancy could have been detained for firing hers even if the tip was not deemed poisonous.
Originally published by Sophie Neville in October 2018.