by Iain Hobbs
Studying the map
If you follow the hints laid out by Arthur Ransome in Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale, and study a map of Windermere, you arrive at a place on the North-West shore that matches the description of Beckfoot in all except the layout of the house. The geography of the area is detailed later in The Picts and Martyrs. In SA, the people who live in the house are called Blackett and they own a houseboat. They also have a boathouse just to the left of the main house as you look at it from the lake. On the river, just to the east of the house, in the mouth of a beck, they have a 1motor launch. (In SA the two boathouses are combined, but AR establishes them as separate ones by the time SD is written.)
In real life, from 1911 to 1935, Pull Wood House was owned by Sir Kenneth Irwin Crossley. He did not live there, but used it as a summer residence for himself and his family. Also, from 1922 to 1928, Sir Kenneth 2owned the houseboat Esperance upon which AR based the one used by Captain Flint. The houseboat in the book had an upper railed decking on the cabin roof and steps from the for’ard deck to reach it. The photograph in Roger Wardale’s book taken by the Scott family of Esperance shows this very decking. The picture has to be examined in magnification to see it, but it is there. There is also a good photograph of Esperance taken by AR in the Brotherton Collection, Leeds University Library. The similarity is unmistakeable to the WH illustration ‘The Houseboat is frozen in’. Their actual ownership of 3Pull Wood House (later to become a boarding school and renamed Huyton Hill), is supported by information from the present and previous owners, details of which are now in the TARS archive. The existence of a motor launch was confirmed by the staff of Huyton Hill. They pointed out the location of a former ‘Steamer House’ on the shore of the Pull Beck, exactly where AR illustrates it in SD. This remained up to the Second World War when it was demolished to make space for a bungalow called ‘The Noggins’ and a Nissen hut.
The house and grounds can be seen from Waterhead Pier at Ambleside. It is directly across the lake. Just by the landing stage is the Waterhead Hotel. This was a favourite dining place of Arthur Ransome and he would have been very familiar with the view. Until a few years ago, when trees and bushes were allowed to grow at the edge of the lake, it was even possible to see the lawn from the steamer pier. The staff of Huyton Hill confirmed that the grounds of the house contained a pigeon loft and also stables. The stables were on the far side of the grounds and were linked to the house by an electric bell to summon the Groom or Chauffeur.
The surrounding geography of Beckfoot/Pull Wood House/Huyton Hill is given in surprising and accurate detail within the pages of PM. You can follow the 4route taken by the Amazons from the back gate of Beckfoot over to the Dogs Home. The Beckfoot back gate is the exact location of the rear entrance to Huyton Hill. North of the grounds of Huyton Hill is the valley of the Pull Beck, a large former stream valley populated by reeds and sheep. The map shows the remains of a long lake (now a swamp) and the meanders of a large stream, highlighted by reed beds on the bends. This area is known as Pull Beck Swamp and the Beck is the Pull Beck. Most of the time there is hardly a foot of water in the lake and the beck is un-navigable. In times of heavy flood, just as happened in August 2005, the lake returns to its former glory, and AR’s Octopus Lagoon lives again. The lake has the same relationship to Huyton Hill as Octopus Lagoon has to Beckfoot; in fact they are identical even to the shape of the lake and that of the estate layout. The drawing in PM of Nancy clearing the weeds to make a birth for Scarab were based on this lake and surrounding area. The picture of the D’s looking down on the Beckfoot lawn from ‘The Lookout Post’ shows the Steamer House in the distance exactly where the real one was. The time when SD was being written is practically the same period as when Pull Wood House was being sold to the building firm of Pattinsons. AR has the builders in at Beckfoot redecorating. Something similar would have been happening at Pull Wood House.
Pamela and Ruth
Sir Kenneth’s two daughters were born in 1913 and 1909. The younger sister, Pamela Catherine Field Crossley, was born on 30th December, 1913 at the Crossleys’ new family seat of Combermere Abbey. The elder sister by three years was Ruth Irwin Crossley. She was born on 17th September, 1909. Remember how Peggy Blackett introduces her sister at the parley in SA? “Her real name isn’t Nancy… her name is Ruth.” Each summer Sir Kenneth brought his two daughters from Altrincham to Pull Wood House so that they could use his sailing dinghy during the school holidays. At the same time their father could check up on the state of the house.
The sailing dinghy was kept in the boathouse to the left of the main house, as seen from the lake. The sides of the boathouse were decorated to match the decoration of the main house. It was built on the far left side of the house alongside the wooded boundary. The entrance is at the back in full view of the house as per PM. The front of the Boathouse used to be decorated with large skull and crossbones. Evgenia Ransome suggested that the skull and crossbones was put up by the Huyton Hill School pupils. However, the son of the Huyton Hill Headmaster, a former pupil, disputes this and claims it was already there. George Pattinson also denies any involvement. With those two owners excluded, that only leaves the Crossley girls. There is no record of where or when the girls were educated although it is thought that they attended boarding school. Ruth and Catherine are reported to have sunk their father’s Houseboat, much to his annoyance. (Captain Flint wasn’t very pleased when the Amazons exploded a firework on the roof of the houseboat.) The location of the sinking is in dispute. According to one source, the houseboat was moored next to Silverholme and the girls were using it as a floating tent. According to another source, the houseboat was moored fairly close to the house. The next time the houseboat would be sunk was by the Sea Scouts when the Scott family owned it. If the official ownership dates are correct then the Crossleys still owned the houseboat when SA was written. AR has the Great Aunt making the Amazons practice the piano. One of the Crossleys’ pastimes was to give musical recitals. They continued this practice when in residence at Pull Wood House, installing an organ for this purpose.
Ruth and Catherine both fell in love with RAF Pilots at the start of WW2 and both married. However, both husbands were later killed in action. The girls remarried and Ruth emigrated to North West Ireland and then to South Africa. Catherine moved to London where she remained until her death. By a twist of fate, while in South Africa, Ruth gave birth to a son and named him TIMOTHY (echoes of Pigeon Post!).
Captain Flint and Sir Kenneth
AR based the appearance of Captain Flint on himself. The character background of Captain Flint, however, is Sir Kenneth Irwin Crossley. Sir Kenneth in his spare time was a big game hunter and travelled the world on hunting expeditions. He listed the places he had been in his entry in Burke’s peerage. He competed in the University boat races when at Magdalen College Oxford, where he rowed as bow and may have won silver cups from university rowing competitions. He was an author of a book of poetry entitled Mere Verses. Captain Flint flies “The White Elephant” flag on the houseboat. A pun on the expense of purchasing it? In the books Captain Flint explored the world and brought back souvenirs from his travels. In PD it is suggested that he is a big game hunter; he even has firearms. He writes about his travels, but the money earned is just a bonus. He kept his souvenirs in the study at Beckfoot and in the cabin of the houseboat. In PM it is mentioned that he has silver cups from rowing competitions. The one book written by Captain Flint and mentioned by name is Mixed Moss. As well as Pull Wood House, the Crossleys had a well appointed town house in Altrincham, Manchester. Their doctor was a cousin of AR upon whom AR would often visit. However, according to the visitors book there is no record of AR coming up to his cousin and meeting with the Crossleys. Sir Kenneth and his father, Sir William, were partners in two companies, Crossley Motors, a car manufacturing company and Crossley Brothers an engineering Company. Sir William had provided one of the cars for his wife to use as he left her to look after the estate. She would drive around to see the estate employees. Was this the original Rattletrap? Sir Kenneth sold his late father’s Pull Wood House and grounds to local builder, and steam boat collector, George Pattinson.
The final chapter
George Pattinson in turn sold the house and rented a large section of the grounds to Huyton Hill School which on the outbreak of WW II was being evacuated from Liverpool because of the bombing. The house was renamed Huyton Hill. The school would later purchase the land that they were renting and the Pattinsons would manage the estate for them. George Pattinson wanted to start up a museum to display his collection of steamboats. The original location for the museum was going to be on the shore of Huyton Hill House but he was persuaded to relocate it close to Bowness on Windermere as it would be easier to get visitors there. The Windermere Steamboat Museum is still there. In the 1960’s the BBC filmed Swallows and Amazons in the real locations mentioned in the book and Huyton Hill was used as Beckfoot. AR objected and tried to get the filming stopped. The reason he gave was on the grounds that the actors were wearing lifejackets (a Health and Safety condition) and the children in his book did not. The late Brigit and Taqui Altounyan were questioned over whether they had ever met the real The Crossley Girls or had been to Huyton Hill. The answer from both was “No.”
1According to the Windermere Steamboat Museum (WSM) and the daughter of the gardener at Huyton Hill, the motor launch was called Daffodil and it started out as a steam launch. It was used to pick up the laundry from town, Shopping trips, and family picnics. It was berthed in the Steamer House exactly as depicted in SD.
2The ownership of Esperance by the Crossleys is supported by the Windermere Steamboat Museum who provided details of her previous owners.
3In a letter to Betty Reid in 1972, Evgenia Ransome mentioned Pull Beck and Huyton Hill in relation to Beckfoot. The letter is reproduced In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons.
4This is not the location of the woodsman’s hut known to TARS members as the DH.
Information Sources: Barrow in Furness Library, Lancaster Library, Windermere Steamboat Museum, George Pattinson Ltd, Huyton Hill House, Members of the Arthur Ransome Society past and present, Former staff members of Pull Woods House, Taqui and Brigit Altounyan, Coniston Museum, Lloyds Register of Shipping.