Travel: Pirates of the Lakes
Call it divine intervention but I'm sure Saint Herbert is watching over me as I pass my first bushcraft test at one of Britain's most heavenly destinations.
Faced with having to boil water on a magical island without the aid of matches or a lighter, my prayers are answered by the former monk when the tiny pieces of bark from a silver birch tree crackle and then burst into flames with little more than a flick of flint on steel.
Saint Herbert must have performed a similar task every day when he lived as a hermit on this island in the middle of Derwent Water, Cumbria, back in 687 AD.
He would have caught fish in the crystal-clear waters, poured himself a drink and then sat back in wonder at the beauty of his surroundings, the four highest mountains in the Lake District rising out of the deep blue lake in majestic splendour.
More than 1,300 years on, it’s my turn to feast on the views, and I feel blessed to be there on such an enchanting summer’s day.
A tree-laden haven for wildlife, St Herbert’s Island features heavily in the remake of Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s tale Swallows And Amazons, which is expected to be one of the blockbuster films of the summer.
The nostalgic big-screen adaptation follows the adventures of the four Walker siblings - John, Susan, Roger and Titty (controversially renamed Tatty for political correctness) - on holiday with their mother in the Lakes while their father is at sea with the Royal Navy.
They are given permission to sail their boat Swallow for a camping trip to Wild Cat Island, when their father responds to their eager request with a telegram, saying: “Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown.” But after encountering rival sailors the Amazons (sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett), they engage in warfare.
Eventually, though, the children join forces to aid the Blacketts’ uncle James Turner (or Captain Flint) who is caught up in murky dealings with Russian spies.
In a nod to Ransome’s shady past - he was kept on file by MI5 as a suspected spy - the plot takes an altogether more sinister turn, with plenty of subterfuge and high-speed chases.
The scenes were shot at Derwent Water, Windermere and Coniston Water, plus parts of North Yorkshire and Scotland.
Along with my wife, Carole, I’m introduced to the joys of sailing and bushcraft by Graham Little, a friendly, weathered Cumbrian from the Keswick Canoe And Bushcraft Group, who has the patience of a saint.
He pushes our canoe out on to the flat, calm water and gently guides us around the lake, offering tips for technique, interspersed with observations about the bountiful wildlife.
We pass Derwent Island, once owned by the eccentric Joseph Pocklington who, in the late 1700s, used to hold a regatta once a year and challenge the townspeople of Keswick to attack the island whilst he shot at them with his cannons.
Sailing across Derwent Water brings back memories of my own childhood. Like Ransome and the fictional Walker children’s father, my dad, Graham, had a spirit of adventure that sometimes got my brother, Stephen, and I into trouble.
On one memorable holiday when I was still in short trousers, he bought a small, second-hand RIB boat and a rattling outboard motor, and took us out into a big, sweeping bay down on the south coast.
It was only when the boat started filling up with icy water that it dawned on him that perhaps he should have bought some life jackets as well.
Fortunately, we made it back to shore before the boat completely submerged, only to be met with a fearful dressing-down from my mum and grandfather, for putting my brother and I at risk.
The base for our weekend trip to the Lakes is the delightful Borrowdale Gates Hotel, a five-minute journey from the market town of Keswick.
Ransome would often make the short walk from Keswick to Friars Crag, a small headland that the renowned poet and art critic John Ruskin once said offered one of the three best views in Europe. It’s named after the monks who sailed over to St. Herbert’s Island to visit the saint and, when the sun breaks through the clouds, the scene is achingly beautiful.
Afterwards, we head south for an hour along one of the most picturesque roads in Britain to Coniston Water, the third largest lake in Cumbria at five miles long.
I’m here to savour the delights of the restored Victorian Steam Yacht Gondola, which has been picking up tourism attraction awards for its luxurious interior and knowledgeable staff.
It was the gondola that gave Ransome the idea for Captain Flint’s houseboat in Swallows And Amazons, and extracts from the novel regularly feature in a fascinating commentary, as the passenger boat makes its way around the lake.
In fact, Coniston’s Ruskin Museum has a black and white postcard of the gondola that Ransome sent to his illustrator, with changes to the outline to show how he wanted the houseboat to look.
After a cuppa at the aptly named Swallows And Amazons Tearoom, on the east side of Coniston lake, we start making our way home, but not before a stop to savour the view of Peel Island (the inspiration for Wild Cat Island).
A fifty-something New Zealand tourist and fan of Ransome’s writing is taking photographs alongside me, and reveals he’s always wanted to see the strip of land for himself “because the guy was a genius”.
As I bid my farewell, it dawns on me there is probably no greater example of the power and reach of the old rascal’s work.
Just like Peel Island, Swallows And Amazons is likely to be enjoyed for generations to come by people throughout the world.
Chris Wiltshire from the Press Association was a guest of Cumbria Tourism and Visit England. To plan your own Swallows And Amazons adventure holiday, visit www.visitengland.com/swallowsandamazons and www.golakes.co.uk
Doubles at the Borrowdale Gates Hotel (www.borrowdale-gates.com; 01768 777 204) start from £95 per night half board.
Half-day sessions with Keswick Canoe And Bushcraft (www.keswickcanoeandbushcraft.co.uk) start from £25pp.