The Lake District home of Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome
PUBLISHED: 09:51 04 July 2013 | UPDATED: 18:34 14 January 2016
He was a journalist who covered the Russian revolution and worked for the British secret service. She was Evgenia, secretary to Leon Trotsky, and they met in trouble-torn St Petersburg almost a century ago. Both shared a love of sailing and they eventually married, settling in a house in a remote corner of the Lake District.
He was Arthur Ransome, of course, the author of the much-loved Swallows and Amazons books and the house was home to the writer and his wife plus their vast collection of books. Hill Top is near Haverthwaite, between Ulverston and Newby Bridge in Lancashire north of the sands.
Today, his study looks much as it did 50 years ago - a desk facing the window, the same view over the Rusland valley to the Coniston fells and, on the shelves, another vast collection of books. Among them are the stories by Arthur Ransome and every book ever published about him. For, with a touch of true serendipity, the house is now owned by a Ransome devotee.
Astrophysicist turned investment analyst Stephen Sykes and his wife Janine, an optician, moved in last year. But when Hill Top first came on the market, they didn’t make the Ransome connection. There are, after all, a great many houses bearing that name, including Beatrix Potter’s former home.
They’d had a holiday cottage in the Lakes for several years, but decided to look for something bigger so that they could move here permanently from their home in Tunbridge Wells.
Their delight in discovering that the house had belonged to a literary hero is evident still today and they sleep in what was Arthur and Evgenia’s bedroom. As we go downstairs after a tour of the house, Stephen says: ‘Just think, Arthur Ransome had his hand on this rail,’
The front looks very similar to Ransome’s day. Inside, the front hall, which was once the sitting room, has a range almost identical to that seen in old photos. But the house has been extended considerably; the Ransomes had only a very tiny kitchen, and they would surely have approved of the sun room built onto one end. When it shines, it shines all day long here; at night a totally black sky follows astonishing sunsets. Clearly AR had found his dream home. He died in 1967 and his wife in 1975, and both are buried not far away at Rusland church.
‘We were thrilled to learn that there have been only a handful of owners since it was built back in 1680,’ says Stephen. When the Ransomes bought the house, it was the first time that Hill Top had been sold on the open market. Local man Myles Saunders, who helps mow their lawn, once used to give Arthur and Evgenia a lift to the pub in the evenings.
Ransome and Evgenia were visited at Hill Top by many friends, among them the leading writers of the day. Delighted not only by the literary associations of their new home, Stephen and Janine were excited to learn that in a joint venture Harbour Pictures and BBC Films are about to start on a new production of Swallows and Amazons. Former Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens is to play James Turner, the uncle of the Amazons whom the children named ‘Captain Flint’. Stephen and Janine’s grandson Finlay is among the youngsters hoping to audition for a part.
Producer Nick Barton has promised: ‘We have gone right back to the original book. The reason I wanted to do this film was that I read all of the books when I was a child and loved them.’ Swallows and Amazons follows the lives of the Walker and Blackett children one summer in Lake District locations which are part real, part fantasy. The last film version was released in 1974, while Neil Hannon produced a musical version in 2010.
Stephen Sykes has his own story to tell. In 1989, drawing on his background as an astrophysicist (within weeks of the first moon-landing in 1969 he was handling moon rock as a student at UCL) he wrote a novel, The Last Witness, about the creation of the atom bomb. On the recommendation of Arthur C. Clarke to his publisher in Tokyo, the book was subsequently translated into Japanese, and sold more than 20,000 copies at the time of the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb.
For now, he and Janine are busy converting a barn at the end of the house into a holiday cottage, with the bedrooms named Swallows and Amazons. But Stephen hasn’t ruled out a return to novel writing. He doesn’t need to look far for inspiration.
The Ransomes at home
It was the fascination with the Ransome stories and connection with Hill Top that took Stephen and Janine to the Brotherton Library in Leeds which holds a large collection of the writer’s manuscripts. There they were allowed to scan copies of photographs relating to Hill Top, including photographs taken of Arthur and Evgenia. They included interiors showing the sitting room and range, shots in the garden, and pictures of their friends. They have not been published before, and we reproduced this one with the permission of the Arthur Ransome Literary Estate.
Properties with literary associations open to the public
Mirehouse: The Spedding family were friends with Tennyson, Wordsworth and Carlyle, among others, and this pleasant but Georgian house is full of literary memorabilia. Mirehouse, Keswick, CA12 4QE
Allen Bank: Opened to the public for the first time last year, Allan Bank was the forgotten home of William Wordsworth and family. The National Trust rescued it from the ravages of fire in 2011. Now partially restored but undecorated, revealing its many layers. Allan Bank, Grasmere, LA22 9QB.
Brantwood: Brantwood, beside Coniston water, was once the home of John Ruskin, the Victorian artist, writer, critic, conservationist, social reformer and poet. He lived here for the last 28 years of his life. This popular house reveals much about his beliefs, talents and interests. Brantwood, Coniston, LA21 8AD.