Thursday 22 March 2018

The Lake District: Swallows, Amazons & Fake Cake

Short breaks in the UK

The rugged beauty of the Lake District is captured in the movie adaptation of Arthur Ransome children’s classic, Swallows and Amazons
The rugged beauty of the Lake District is captured in the movie adaptation of Arthur Ransome children’s classic, Swallows and Amazons

Anne Marie Scanlon

Once you go outside the big cities in Britain you find a country full of towns and villages that look exactly the way Americans generally picture England - town squares that predate the Normans, hedgerows, stone walls, town halls, tea shops and churches - places where you wouldn't be at all surprised to catch a glimpse of Miss Marple, or Chief Inspector Barnaby.

Keswick (pronounced Kessick, something I'm glad I knew before I got there) in the Lake District is one of these picturesque towns. The Lake District is renowned for its rugged beauty which has inspired generations of writers including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome and John Cunliffe (more about him later). With it's spectacular landscape of peaks, fells, lakes and tarns, the Lakes offer just about every variety of outdoors activity you can imagine. Not only that but the local men all sound like Ned Stark, from Game of Thrones, which is fitting, as this is the North!

Within an hour of arriving in Keswick, my nine-year-old son was so taken with the town he wanted to move there permanently. We were staying in The Royal Oak, a cosy inn, which is right in the heart of the town and only a ten-minute walk from Derwentwater (one of the principal lakes).

Keswick is jam-packed with pubs, restaurants, outdoor goods shops, fudge shops, ice cream parlours and dogs! This is a dog-lovers' paradise, most of the local bars and restaurants including The Royal Oak welcome canine companions.

One of the first things I did was sample the famous 'Kendal Mint Cake'. I have to warn you that it's not cake as in gateaux (as I had imagined) but more like cake as in soap. This world famous delicacy almost defies description - the best I can do is tell you to imagine a solid block of highly sweetened toothpaste. I can see the appeal if you are stuck on the side of a mountain and very hungry but in other circumstances I think I'd rather eat actual toothpaste.

Thankfully my son and I weren't in the Lakes to climb mountains and risk having to eat Kendal Mint Cake for a second time. Instead we were attending the premier of Swallows and Amazons, the new film version of Arthur Ransome's much beloved children's book.

The movie has a cast of six extremely talented children who play the Swallows, (the Walker family of Susan, Jack, Roger and Tatty (Titty in the book) and sisters Nancy and Peggy who are the Amazons of the title. The story is a classic adventure, set in the 1930s, with the Walker children sailing to the 'undiscovered island' (Peel Island, Lake Coniston in real life) to camp out and enjoy themselves free of adult supervision. The Amazons, local girls, have christened the island 'Wild Cat Island' and initially resent the incomers.

The premiere took place, fittingly, in The Theatre by the Lake, just steps away from the jetties on Derwentwater where one of the crucial scenes takes place in the movie. It's a lovely summer family film that my son and I both enjoyed.

After hobnobbing on the Red Carpet with all of the kids, plus actresses Kelly Macdonald and Jessica Hynes the following day the pair of us hung up our finery, put on our stout shoes and set off on the 'Swallows and Amazons; trail. We were ferried from Keswick to Coniston by Peter from Mountain Goat, a local man who knows his history and takes great pride in his locale. En route we passed Dove Cottage, once home to William Wordsworth.

At Lake Coniston we were met by Nigel and Adam from Joint Adventures who were thankfully prepared for eejits - even though it was the tail end of July, it was wet and cold and neither of us had a jacket. My son also accepted the offer of a wetsuit.

There were eight of us in total, three adults, three children and the two instructors. Despite the fact that my son had never laid eyes on the other two children, a brother and sister, the three of them bonded instantly, consumed by excitement of going to the real-life Wild Cat Island. On canoes!

Once we landed the three kids were off, whooping and exploring. We were given canvasses and told to erect tents like the children in the book. (At the instigation of the kids we had an Adults Vs Children competition to see who could get their tent up first. The adults won. I'm just saying.)

Apart from exploring the island and creating a temporary camp we were all given a chance to try to light a small piece of cotton wool - similar to the way the children light a fire in the original book. Some of us managed it and others gave up but my child, displaying a rare stubborn streak, refused to move until he ignited the cotton. I doubt that since early man first picked up a flint that the art of lighting kindling has attracted such a crowd. Or such a cheer.

After paddling back, our intrepid driver took us to his home town of Kendal (yes, where they make the mint so-called cake) and The Museum of Lakeland Life which has a dedicated Arthur Ransome exhibition. Now, I like a museum, but my son, being a nine-year-old boy isn't all that gone on them. Until the final exhibit that is - a real life apothecary shop which was relocated to the museum when it shut. The child was very taken with the various drawers that had contained poisons!

En route back to the train station Peter made an unscheduled stop at a house that looked strangely familiar. You may not have heard of John Cunliffe but no doubt you are familiar with Postman Pat. This house used to be the post office and John Cunliffe lived a few doors up. Suddenly I started seeing Kendal in a whole new light, as we drove up and down hills and narrow streets I had a funny feeling of déjà vu - I'd seen some of this before, only in stop-motion form. Even the child, who at nine is too grown up for the famous postie joined in the theme music sing song. "Early in the morning, just as day is dawning, Pat feels he's a really happy man." I know the feeling.

Getting there

To plan your Swallows and Amazons adventure in Cumbria visit  

For more inspiration on how to have a Great Swallows and Amazons summer, check out

Joint Adventures offers a guided Wild Cat Adventure Kayaking tour from £33 per person for a half day trip.

The Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry has a dedicated Arthur Ransome exhibition. Adult entry £5 (for a 12 month pass). Children under 16 free.

Stay: Royal Oak Keswick

Travel: Mountain Goat Tours

Swallows and amazons goes on general release on August 19.

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