Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons (1930), had a number of boats during his lifetime and his favourite is said to have been the Nancy Blackett, which he named after one of his fictional characters.
The boat has become a familiar sight sailing on the River Orwell in recent years and she is based at Woolverstone Marina on the Shotley Peninsula. Her presence there now is thanks to Michael Rines, who spotted her as she lay rotting in Scarborough Harbour some years ago. He decided to buy and restore the boat, completely unaware of her connections with the author, and brought her back to Fox’s boatyard, just outside Ipswich.
Following the restoration, she was sold to another private owner, but eventually an appeal was launched to raise the money to buy her for £25,000 and the Nancy Blackett Trust was set up to preserve her for future generations to enjoy.
Arthur Ransome had made a success of his Lake District sailing stories, and decided to move to the east coast to be near the sea. He and his Russian wife Evgenia selected the Shotley Peninsula by sticking a pin in a map, and it turned out to suit them very well.
Their first home in the area was across the river in Levington, but it was in Pin Mill that he kept his yacht, and it was here, “down the deep green lane that ended in the river itself…this happy place where almost everybody wore seaboots, and land, in comparison with water, seemed hardly to matter at all” that he set the opening of the book that the Nancy Blackett inspired: We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (1937).
In the book, the boat becomes the Goblin, “a little white cutter with red sails” that we meet right at the beginning, coming up the river. Her skipper, Jim Brading, is planning to have “breakfast’’ (it’s evening) at the Butt and Oyster. The four children, the “Swallows” from Swallows and Amazons, who have just met him and helped moor the boat, are staying with their mother and younger sister at Alma Cottage next door.
Alma Cottage is still there, though nowadays the name is attached only to the upper part of the terrace. In Ransome’s day the whole building, made up Alma Cottage and Miss Powell’s dining room, was at the end nearest the river. There was a real Miss Powell – she had to learn to make omelettes after the book came out!
There are in fact two pubs in We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. Jim, the Goblin’s skipper, doesn’t actually make it to The Butt and Oyster (never named, but easily identified) though Ransome certainly did. He records returning from a cruise “in time for a sausage and shanty supper at the Butt.” The other pub is the Bristol Arms, Shotley, where the Goblin’s crew come ashore to buy “grog” (actually ginger pop) and to phone Mother, after their first sail down the river.
Arthur Ransome eventually moved across the river and rented Harkstead Hall to be nearer Pin Mill. He sold the Nancy Blackett and had a new, larger boat built at Harry King’s yard, before the second world war put an end to his sailing and he and Evegenia moved back up north. After the war, he came back to Harry King’s to order another boat, the Peter Duck, which is still sailing in the area.
From Pin Mill there is a delightful shoreside walk of about a mile, along the river and through some woodland, to Woolverstone and there, if she is not out and about, you might find the Nancy Blackett.
She is 28ft 6in long with a 10ft bowsprit and has been painstakingly restored to make sure she is just as Ransome would have known her, and as the Goblin is described in the book.
To find out more about the Nancy Blackett Trust, to book a sailing trip (or overnight stay) on the boat and to view the programme of events, please visit the website: www.nancyblackett.org
2017 year marks the 50th anniversary of Arthur Ransome’s death. Coincidentally, it is also the 80th year since his book We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea (1937) was published and lots of events will be taking place to commemorate these anniversaries.
Keep an eye on our website for further information on events which will include walking, cycling and geo-caching trails; exhibitions, arts events (including a literary festival); a Swallows and Amazons themed camp for children, a flotilla and the Nancy Blackett, will be on view.