A Ramble Round Holly Howe

Hello friends.

Today, I bring you a glimpse from my summer literary rambles. I had a few extra days after working at a conference in Oxford in July, and I decided to take a train right up to the Lake District. In hunting for a place to stay in Coniston, a village much deeper into the Lakes than I had yet rambled, I stumbled upon Bank Ground Farm, the house and setting that inspired Arthur Ransom’s delightful Holly Howe in the Swallows and Amazons series.

If you haven’t yet discovered those summery, sun-kissed books with their rich realm of childhood imagination, then I suggest make your way to the nearest library. Post haste. The series, set in the Lake District in the 1920s, follows a gang of imaginative children and their outdoor and sailing adventures on a fictionalized Lake Windermere.

I love the stories because they remind me of my own childhood, particularly of the years I spent on my grandmother’s acreage in Texas, a sprawling, cedary bit of land which offered itself as canvas to countless imagined worlds. We siblings sailed “ships” through the fields, made castles of the trees, and oceans of the stock tanks. And the same flavor of exploration and adventure colors these stories, along with the sharp, delighted sense of independence that comes when children get to cook and make-do in the great outdoors.

I felt pretty much a child again myself during those Lake District days. I pretty much walked the day long, stopping only for tea and sustenance (of which there was plenty to be had in various farmhouses and cafes!). I rambled up fields and through the halls of ancient pines and explored every footpath in my reach. I thought of Ransome walking these ways as well, thought of the children he created whose days were marked by such vast expanses of sunlight, water, and imagination.

As I walked, I thought of the gift of outdoor exploration. The way that sun and wind and open sky somehow carve out places in the soul so that I arrived at my room in the evening with a wider inner self. I thought of the gift of free time – of hours unfettered by hurry or appointments, marked only by the bright sun and the growing of my hunger. I thought of the gift of not a thing to do, the lack I guess I should say, of busyness. There is always a screen, a distraction, a thing, a job to catch my eye, but during my two free days, I put it all back and made sure there was only the open earth and my two good feet to find whatever adventure I desired.

And all the way through my time, I thought of the children to whom I would love to give a gift of time like this one. For times like this, hush like this, sunlight and free play like this, are the gifts that make souls and set up brains and freshen imaginations. Sometimes a taste of it comes in a good book, when an author takes all he has known as Ransome did, and weaves it into a world of words for a child to inhabit. Then, a book is a gift almost of a new inner kingdom, for it leaves the soul widened. In glimpsing the pictures below, I hope you’re inspired to savor Ransome’s books and taste a little of the sunlit world he wove and pictures in his writing. I hope it widens your own soul and freshens your own imagination. And spurs you to sit on the porch with a small reader and explore the grand world of Swallows and Amazons.


Right at the entrance to the windy farmhouse road.


Holly Howe (or Bank Ground Farm in the workaday world) on the dappled afternoon that I arrived. You could imagine all sorts of faces in those clouds and piled hills.


Every room in the house looked onto the lake or meadows. The land there is a presence, the lake almost a face, a personality you encounter at every foray out of doors or glimpse out the window.


Evening on Coniston Water.


A farmhouse breakfast – with the requisite cup of tea.


For initiates into the world of Ransome’s books, this is the real entrance to the secret cove.


Perhaps that’s a sailboat of the intrepid Swallows and Amazons.


I took a sail myself up the glory of Coniston Water. You never knew what cove or ship you might pass.


Coniston Water. As Hopkins would say, “glory be to God for dappled things….”

9 replies
  1. Judy
    Judy says:

    I can’t resist expressing my delight at seeing ‘Swallows and Amazons’ country especially the entrance to the secret cove.

    My children are now 17 and almost 21, but when they were younger we read through many (maybe all) of the Arthur Ransome series of books. They inspired play and adventure for years – a cave discovered near an island cabin we holidayed in once was ‘Peter Duck’s’ – of course. They practiced semaphore, added cross-country skis to a go-cart (after removing the wheels!) for sledding, and made ‘Swallows and Amazons’ flags to attach to various row boats and canoes at our friends’ summer cottage – all variations on the books. In fact, for one glorious summer holiday my two, and their friends, named themselves for the four children in the stories. All the while, my role, (as was the mother’s in the stories) was to ensure the right food supplies were provided!

    I do hope many of your readers take up your recommendation on this series of books and thank you for taking us on a little ‘wander’ – lovely.

  2. Emma
    Emma says:

    We are reading Swallows and Amazons at the moment, and went on holiday to the Lake District this autumn. We also read King of the Golden River before we went- seemed apt to read a bit of Ruskin, especially as we stayed not far from Coniston. I like the idea of literary travels!

    I would like to go back again soon, and stay closer to Grasmere or Ambleside. I’d also like to do some walking around some of Beatrix Potter’s haunts- when my daughter was little, her favourite Beatrix Potter book was Mrs Tiggy Winkle, so would like to go up Cat Bells.

    Your pictures and writing is beautiful- brought back happy memories.

    • Sarah Clarkson
      Sarah Clarkson says:

      Thanks for the lovely comment – I did greatly enjoy Beatrix Potter’s home as well on a previous trip. I too love the idea of literary travels – you might enjoy a book called “How the Heather Looks,” about a family in the 1950s who traveled to England and took their two children on a three-month ramble to find the places that inspired their favorite books. They include authors like Caldecott, Ransome, and Kenneth Grahame. Really an enjoyable book.

  3. Dawn Errington
    Dawn Errington says:

    We love these books and these places, it makes us all long to go back. Next year we are off to the Norfolk Broads to explore the land of the ‘Coots’. We are very excited. My children long for the outdoor life, suburbia makes it tricky but it is amazing to go on holiday, to be in the beauty of all God has don,e and allow our imaginations to take flight. Dawn

  4. Kimberlee Conway Ireton
    Kimberlee Conway Ireton says:

    I love Swallows and Amazons! We had a S&A party at a nearby park that overlooks the Sound. Complete with a picnic lunch, flags to indicate our loyalty (I’m a Swallow all the way!), a blanket tent strung over a clothesline tied round two tree trunks, a fire that took half an hour to light, and tea in metal mugs. Someday I will take my children to Holly Howe and we’ll do it all over again there 🙂

  5. Taylor
    Taylor says:

    Yes stupid of me. I half thugoht it was Roger. Kitty was of course naming promonteries somewhere and writing the names in in Indian ink. I’d forgotten the goose winged sails. Nice touch.Yes Garda would be good. I think I saw mayself rather more as a Day Trader dealing in the shares of churches. In which case the C of I would be a utility and the SEC would be a Bolivian tin mine

  6. Rachelle Shonwise
    Rachelle Shonwise says:

    Oh!! I grew up in these stories too, and am so excited about introducing them to my kids. I had no idea they were based on a real location, and this post made me hover internally with absolute delight!!

    Thanks for sharing!


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