For me, some of my favourite books are those that remind me of a time or place. And so it was that when I went on holiday to the Lake District I decided I wanted to reread books in the Swallows and Amazons series – specifically the original book and it’s sequel Swallowdale. I first read this series starting at the age of about eight and they have stuck with me ever since for their depiction of childhood adventure
The books follow the adventures of children in the early 1900s. In these novels we follow the Walker children – John, Susan, Titty, and Roger holidaying in the Lake District – and their adventures with new friend and rivals the Blacketts – Nancy and Peggy. These adventures centre on the lake and their boats Swallow (for the Walkers) and Amazon (for the Blacketts).
In the first book the Walkers are on holiday and get permission to camp on an island in the lake provided they come and collect milk from the local farm every day and stay in contact with their mother (their father is stationed overseas in the navy). The island – which they name Wild Cat Island – was first “discovered” by the Amazons resulting in a friendly rivalry between the two settled by an expedition to steal each other’s boats. They also declare war on the Blackett’s uncle Jim because he accused John of damaging his houseboat and hadn’t been a good uncle due to being busy writing a book.
The sequel Swallowdale is set the following year and again features the Walker children returning to the lake. This time due to a boat accident they are “stranded” on shore and allowed to camp in a hidden valley in the fells (Swallowdale) where again they maintain their friendship with the Blacketts and explore the hills and fells with incidents like getting lost in fog, injuring ankles, and when Swallow is repaired another boat race.
I think part of the reason I love these books is that they evoke a time when it was possible for children to be able to explore without fear. In the first book Roger is only 7 years old, and the oldest is less than 14, and yet they can go and camp and sail independently and stay away from home for weeks at a time. As a child that was alien to me but was something I would have loved to be able to do.
There is also an incredibly strong sense of place in these books. I never visited the Lake District when young but later books are set in the Norfolk Broads and I recognised everywhere in them (and also got to steer little motor boats when I was about 9 with my father so I felt like I belonged in the books!). Having now become a regular visitor to the Lakes I can see so many places that feel familiar in these earlier books too. Whilst the geography is deliberately made up it’s clear that the lake is Windermere, but Wild Cat Island is on Coniston Water (and very identifiable still to a visitor) and the “mountain” in Swallowdale is the Old Man of Coniston. This grounding in reality has meant generations of children can follow in the footsteps of Swallows and Amazons and have their own adventure too.
I will also finish by saying that for the era there’s not too much content you feel the need to gloss over for a modern reader. Terminology and phrasing may be dated but the female characters are solidly written. Nancy is regarded as the better sailor by John and he also acknowledges she’s stronger than him, Peggy and Susan may make camps but it’s clear that’s because it’s their role as ships mates not because they’re girls, and Titty is the smart and brave one who can set out alone. There are 12 books in the series in total and most are still worth a read now.