Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin… It’s storytime in the Lake District this month – several dozen fans of the writer Arthur Ransome will gather at the Windermere Jetty Museum for a marathon reading of the children’s tale Swallowdale.
This is the sequel to the perennially-popular Swallows and Amazons, both set here on the shores of Coniston. They were written almost a hundred years ago, and though they belong to another world where middle-class children had a nanny and were allowed to sail on their own without life-jackets and camp on an island in the lake, the stories have never gone out of fashion.
The island (Peel, on Coniston) is now owned by the National Trust and bears ‘No Camping’ signs but generations of enthusiasts turn up, by sail, paddleboard, kayak or even by swimming, on a pilgrimage to see the location that inspired Ransome.
And these are the same enthusiasts, of all ages, who will be at the Jetty taking turns to read a chapter each over the midsummer weekend; Ransome is still loved today because he was a master storyteller. “His books have an enduring appeal. They have never gone out of favour or out of fashion, and they are especially loved here where they were set,” says the organiser, Chris Routledge.
It’s his fifth such event, in a series which began on the shores of Coniston back in 2017 for a reading of Swallows and Amazons.
Alongside elderly sailors dressed as pirates there were writers and broadcasters, children and those who had never really grown up, and at least two actors, Sophie Neville who played Titty in the 1974 film version, and Hannah Jayne Thorp who was Peggy in the 2016 film.
There were members of the Arthur Ransome Trust, which exists to help people discover, explore and enjoy the writer’s life and works; and also members of the Arthur Ransome Society, who organise adventure activities inspired by the books. Some of them are even quite young!
This was followed by Pigeon Post read at the Coniston Coppermines youth hostel, and an online reading of The Picts and the Martyrs during lockdown.
Last year the team took Winter Holiday, the adventure about skating on a frozen lake, to the Jetty Museum. “It was a lovely occasion, but it was a very mild winter and there wasn’t even a covering of snow on the fell-tops,” says Chris.
He’s a man of many parts, a writer, historian, expert on crime fiction and brewing and building sheds, as well as being an award winning conceptual and documentary landscape photographer; he’s currently working on a project that’s partially funded by Arts Council England, Portraits of the Forest, making portraits of people and the trees they work with to explore forest environments and think about our relationship with them.
“I’m interested in the historical and cultural importance of our trees, woodlands and forests. But it’s impossible to separate their ecological value from the ecological and climate crisis we’re living through, and doing too little about, which is a feature of our culture. So I’m also exploring what woodlands, and nature more generally, mean to us, and how they make us feel. And experimenting with printing the portraits using a combination of cyanotype and tannins from the woods themselves.” – Chris Routledge
He began his career studying American literature and holds an MA in American studies from the University of Nottingham, and a PhD from the University of Newcastle. For this he wrote a thesis about modernity and the work of crime writer Raymond Chandler. His photographic practice is informed by his research on cultural change, and the relationship between reality and perception in culture. More recently he collaborated with the poet Rebecca Goss – their book, Carousel, won the Michael Marks Award for Illustration in 2019 – and he began exhibiting his work, notably at the Portico Gallery in Manchester.
But it was in Liverpool, where he organised a marathon reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick at the Maritime Museum, that the seed was sown for the events in the Lake District (where Routledge works with the descendants of William Wordsworth at Rydal Mount producing unusual publicity shots and running cyanotype workshops in the poet’s home.)
Among those already signed up to read Swallowdale include Dr Penny Bradshaw, assistant professor of English literature at the University of Cumbria, with whom Chris has made short films about Dorothy Wordsworth; broadcaster Caz Graham who presents Farming Today on Radio 4; and a leading insurance expert who will be travelling all the way from Cornwall to read a chapter.
“It’s just reading for the love of it,” says Chris. “There’s no agenda, no fundraising, no fanfare, just a way to spend a weekend in a lovely location with the absolute pleasure of reading aloud.”
If you want to join in, the reading will take place on 24-25 June and you can sign up here.