Finding myself unexpectedly in Cumbria with a couple of hours of half-hearted daylight to kill last Sunday, I decided to take a quick spin up to Coniston Water on a literary pilgrimage.
I don’t know the Lake District particularly well. I’ve taken a handful of short holidays up there over the years, but, to be honest, I’ve always thought of the place as a bit touristy and—dare I say it?—twee. Don’t get me wrong, it is an undeniably stunning part of the world, but I always preferred the more rugged, less crowded Yorkshire Dales.
But the Lake District will always hold a special place in my heart thanks to one particular lake. Well, no, not a particular lake, but the imaginary amalgam of lakes that comprises ‘The Lake’ of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series of books.
I loved the Swallows and Amazons books as a child. I never got to read them all, because not all of the books were available in my local library, but I did read all the ones set in the Lake District, and a couple of the others. I was so jealous of the Walker, Blackett and Callum children, who were allowed to go off on adventures, climb mountains, and sail boats without any need for adult supervision. Best of all, though, was their being allowed to make camp and cook on open fires. And the best campsite of all was, as anyone who has read the books will know, ‘Wild Cat Island’.
And there the island was, exactly as I imagined it when I first read Swallows and Amazons three and a half decades ago:
I can’t begin to describe how ridiculously thrilled I was, finally to set eyes on this small, tree-covered islet. The natives would have you believe that it is named Peel Island, but there was no mistaking Ransome’s Wild Cat Island: I could even make out the rocks concealing the secret harbour, where the eponymous Swallows moored their boat.
Sadly, there was no sign of any Amazonian pirates. Doubtless they were anchored in a secret cove somewhere, planning their next attack.
Postscript, 17-Nov-2013: Ten months later, I finally got to visit Wild Cat Island.