Saturday, May 9, 2015

Secret Water by Arthur Ransome







Secret Water
By Arthur Ransome
First Published - 1939

Warning - this is a LOOOONG post!!!

A long long time ago, in a country far far away, I once read several books from a series of children's books. This series was known as the Swallows and Amazons series. That was also the title of the very first book. Now at the time I was reading these books, I'm fairly sure I only read about 4 or 5 of them. Certainly I did not read all of them. Apparently there are 12 in the series.

This year, it occurred to me to perhaps read one or two of the books that I have never read.

Going by the blurbs, I was sure that Secret Water was one that I have never read. 

Basically the entire series is about a family of 5 children and 2 parents, the father being an Officer in the Royal Navy (UK) and the 4 older children consequently growing up mad about sailing and all water activities. The youngest daughter was just a baby and really only shows up in one story of the entire series.


I have always been fascinated by the sea and stories of adventures on the high seas, and this series of books, Swallows and Amazons, may well have introduced me to the High Seas and created my fascination. 

All I know is that for most of my life that I remember (and I remember very little before my 8th birthday)  I have loved many many other books, TV series and movies set on or under the sea. Some examples include the Horatio Hornblower books, Seaquest DSV, Clive Cussler's Books (Dirk Pitt and Kurt Austin)  and Hunt for Red October.


But I digress.

 Let's get back to the Story of Secret Water.

The whole series of books centres around one family - RN Captain Walker and his wife Mary, and their 5 children - John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Bridget the Baby. The 4 older children call themselves the Swallows. Then there are 2 other girls who plan on being pirates and call themselves the Amazons. Their names are Nancy and Peggy Blackett. Titty is a girl and the name comes from some story about "Titty Mouse" according to the Wikipedia page.

Last Summer (the previous book) the kids had somehow ended up in a boat and drifted out into the North Sea on the tide. They ended up in the Netherlands. (This Book is entitled We Didn't Mean to go to Sea) As a "reward" the parents have the idea of finding a place the children have never been too, that has lots of water and islands and where one that can explore and map. They will learn how to use a compass, mapping skills and survival skills as well.

The family is staying in a place called Shotley, just out of Ipswich, and since I knew that Ipswich was a real place, maybe Shotley was as well. Sure enough it showed up on the Google Earth map.

Inside the front and back covers of this book, are maps of the harbour that the children will be exploring. So I spent several hours investigating Google Earth trying to find a place along the English coastline, near Ipswich that matched the map. Sure enough, I found it.




This is the Hamford Water National Nature Reserve, It lies on the North Sea a short distance south of Harwich and the Stour river and is located in Essex county. For the record, Hamford Water is not an estuary as it does not have a major river running into it. Instead it is classified as a coastal embayment that has been formed due to a natural dip in the underlying geology of the area. SOURCE

Anyway, in the story the plan was for the children and their parents to make a holiday of their time in this harbour, sailing around and mapping the place for themselves. Then the father is abruptly recalled to duty in London (Bloody Rude Navy for cutting short an officers family vacation - so not fair!!), and he decides that he can leave the kids "Marooned" on one of the islands where they can camp, and allow them to map the place on their own. They all know how to sail, they have all been camping and they have their own dinghy to sail around in.

Age wise, these children seem to run from ages 13 down to perhaps age 4 to 6, for Bridget. These children do not act like any child I have ever known. They kind of act rather grown up!!!

So the Captain sails the kids into the harbour, drops them off on the largest island with food, tents, along with mapping and camping equipment. He makes arrangements with the managers of the farm on the island to provide milk, and clean water for the children. Then he and his wife sail off again. They will back in a week to pick the kids up.


The place is literally nothing but mud flats and small islands. The tides are high and low and if you are stuck somewhere at low tide - in a boat - you literally cannot move until the next high tide comes in, to float you off.

The Google Earth Image of this area was clearly taken at low tide and is dated 2006. There are a number of boats clearly sitting on the mud.  I dont know how much of this map might be out of date. Nor I have seen any map images of this reserve at high tide. 

Arthur Ransome had a tendency to take some real places and alter them slightly, For this story, he generally keeps most things the same. He certainly kept the road!!!!  There is one additional creek added that is NOT on the real map.

Below is the blank map that the Captain drew. If you compare that to the Image above, you can see they are pretty close. Remember, the author did make some small changes.


 He marked three things on it - the farm on the main island where they were to get milk and water. the line at the entrance to this harbour beyond which they were absolutely FORBIDDEN to pass, and the place where he planned to drop them off. It would be the children's job to fill in the blanks - literally.

I LOVE maps. And the fact that I was able to locate the REAL place made this story so much more real for me. I was very involved with the story. For each new discovery the children made, I plotted them on my own copy of the map. LOL And yes, I will add both the children's completed map as well as my own, further down.

Back to the Story - again!!  LOL

After the children have set up their camp, they began exploring. Firstly they have to explore their own island. One of the first things they discovered was some very large and strangely shaped footprints in the mud. They follow these footprints until they abruptly disappear. So the first day on the island is spent mapping the island. They even used a Compass and there is a lot of compass directions mentioned.

On day 2 they spot a boy out on the mud in a small boat picking up fishing lines from the mud. So far he has caught just 2 small fish. He comes tot he island to talk tot he children, and by the end of the day The Walkers and this boy, whose name was Don, (which was promptly turned into the Nickname of Mastodon by Titty!!) are firm friends. Don mentions some other friends of his, which he calls the Eels.What is it with groups of children who insist on calling their group by some weird name?

 Later that afternoon the Amazons arrived to join the Walker children. Nancy is the leader and somewhat loud. She and tends to kind of take over things, often without meaning too. Her sister Peggy is fairly quiet,.

Don begins telling the Explorers (Walkers and Blacketts) all the secrets of the Eels. Their secret passwords, the secret of those large footprints, and he even shows them the boat where he is staying. He had even mentioned the blooding ceremony - where each child pricks their finger, allows a few drops of blood to be collected in a bowl and then some of the mixed blood is smeared on each child's cut skin - so that the Explorers would then be considered as Eels, and Don of the Eels would now be an explorer.


Bridget being the youngest had not wanted to prick her finger, but she provided the necessary few drops of blood after falling over and scraping her hand. Instead of Susan being allowed to put iodine on it and bandage it up,  Roger grabbed Bridget and began running to bring her back to camp to do the blooding while Bridget was still bleeding. Susan (the mother figure) was most upset. Nancy (being the most warlike person) was most pleased with Roger for his quick thinking.



The following day when the children meet with Don again, he is upset and not happy. He had received a note from the other eels. They had heard about 2 female savages being landed on their island and were demanding that Don do what he could to get rid of them.

What Don and the Eels called savages (strangers) and missonaries (family and friends), the Walker and Beckett kids called Natives. These words all indicate the colonial attitudes of the 1930's when the book was first written. 


At first there was state of war between the Explorers (Walkers and Blacketts) and the Eels. But once the Eels were made to understand that Don had blooded the explorers then all was right and the job of map making really took off.  Now with 11 children (4 Eels, 5 Walkers and 2 Blacketts) and 6 boats, the blank map could really be filled in.

One further adventure I must mention. The Walkers had gone to the Native settlement (the Town just south of the Red Sea) to get the rudder fixed (from one of their boats) and buy more food and supplies.

Titty and Roger and were charged with taking Bridget and the food back to camp while Susan and John made sure that the rudder got fixed in time before the high tide.

On the way back, Tittie, Bridget and Rogers detoured off the road  and explored a new creek. so they did not see Susan and John pass them on the way back to camp. By the time Tittie and Roger, and Bridget got back to the Red Sea, the tide was rising pretty fast. They tried to walk along the road across the mud flats, but didnt make it. The rising tide curt them off and they ended up having to sit up on the pilings that marked the road at high tide. There they sat until Don spotted them and came to rescue them in his boat.

When they got back to camp, John and Susan, naturally, were furious.  There had been a note left at the camp site by the managers of the farm and they had just 12 hours to pack up and be ready to ship out when Captain Walker would be collecting them all in the morning. John was upset because not all of the harbour had been mapped yet.

Earlu the next morning, Tittie, Roger, Nancy and Peggy all crept out of camp to go and explore that last part that was still blank on the map. They could not map the entire Arctic sea, but they did explore the North west and North east Passages and confirm that what they had previously called the Blackberry Coast, was in fact an island with the Arctic sea behind it.

The children were racing back to camp when they met the Captains ship also sailing in, and all 3 boats arrived at the pier at the same time. In the meantime, John, Susan, Bridget and Don had all packed up the camp so that  they were ready to load and board in a matter of minutes.

John was of course rather cross at the others for skiving off to go and do boat races, until Tittie showed him the map that they had now completely filled in. There were NO further blank spaces left. John was very pleased about this. But he never really apologised. 







And here is MY map of the harbour. I had a lot of fun doing this!!





I loved this entire story. Especially with all the map making!!! The yellow lines from the Red Sea to the Native Settlement mark the road. It really does exist and is called "Island Road" naturally!!!!

I did get somewhat frustrated with Susan for being so stuffy and constantly smothering young Bridget. Despite that young lady's constant proclamations of being old enough!!!!

But this was the 1930's and not the 21st century so I guess Susan can be excused.

The conflict with the Eels before things were all fixed up was interesting as well.

I also was not impressed with John's attitude towards Tittie, Roger, Nancy and Peggy on the last morning. He thinks they are out having fun and skiving off their duties of camp cleanup - well they were having fun!!!!



1 comment:

  1. Interesting article, I too have been obsessed with the book and the area, though like you have yet to visit it, though would love to do so. My interest dates back from the 1970s, so it was Ordnance Survey, rather than Google maps that had to be my guide. There is quite a bit more on the net these days though, including several good photographs. Remembering that coastlines can change in nearly 80 years and that Ransome often tended to slightly fictionalise his landscapes, as far as I can see the current day equivalents of the features described in the book are as follows:

    Secret Water - Hamford Water, sometimes known as West Water locally or Walton backwaters in its upper reaches.
    Amazon Creek - Walton Channel; much the busiest waterway in the area, with new marinas developed since the book was published, notably at Titchmarsh. Sinbad Creek is clearly fictional however.
    Swallow Island - Horsey Island, and very much as described in Ransome’s book. The dyke is still intact and encloses permanent pasture, additional drainage with pumps is still required. The farm offers holiday accommodation for those who are interested. The landing stage used by the Swallows for their camp is run down but still viable.
    Bridget Island - Honey Island
    Cape Horn (area) - Hedge End Island; there is a very old dyke surrounding part of this area but essentially this is an area of raised salt marsh, deeply indented with a maze of channels and inlets - ‘the Straits of Magellan’.
    The Red Sea - The Wade, the non-raised causeway is still there and will take vehicles at low tide.
    Mastodon Island - Skippers Island; now a nature reserve. The dyke mapped by the Swallows is (?now) broken in a couple of places so there is salt marsh instead of pasture inside its ring; however the island contains the highest parts of the whole archipelago, especially in the South. Unusually they are heavy with woodland and scrub. The heronry still exists.
    Goblin Creek - Kirby Channel, popular with moorings, as one of the few places navigable at low tide close to the mainland.

    Mango Islands - un named salt marshes still largely as described.
    Peewiit Island - Pewit Island; largely as described in the book, no good landing areas and mostly raised and very muddy salt marsh. Still popular with lapwings. The North-east passage is narrow but navigable away from low water.
    Tern Island - this little island appears to be fictional; in any case there would be no terns as their breeding season would have long finished by late August when the book is set.
    Blackberry Island - this is problematic; not sure if this is a ‘used to be’ or a ‘never was’ but one thing is clear: there is no current island answering its description in the book. There is a patchy dyke of sorts, and you could probably draw up a boat in places, particularly on its north-east (Oakley Channel) face but there is no actual island behind it but only mud and saltings covered at high tide. There is a ‘Bramble Island’ (ironically in fact a promontory on the mainland) and the suspicion has to be that this feature, central for its later stages, is fictional. One or other of the islets in the area could pose for Shelduck Island.
    Flint Island - Stone Point, largely as described in the book, but you can no longer camp there as the area is a protected nesting area for rare birds,notably ringed plovers and little terns.

    All the best - hope you also get a chance to visit this fascinating area.
    Tim Lintott

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