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Book of the Week

Another extract from a Medlar book for you to enjoy during the shutdown.

This one is from Keith Harwood's fascinating and entertaining book
Fish & Fishers of the Lake District.

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Arthur Ransome

Author, Angler & Journalist

When Arthur Ransome was a young child, his father, Cyril, dropped him into Coniston Water to see if, like some animals, he could swim naturally. He couldn’t, but fortunately his father saved him and he lived to tell the tale. You might think that the young Ransome, after this early submersion in the cold waters of Coniston, would be put off water for life. This was not the case. In fact, Ransome loved to be by the water, especially the waters of his beloved Lake District, and throughout his life, he had a passion for angling and sailing.
MArthur Mitchell Ransome was born on 18th January, 1884 in Leeds. His father, Cyril, was Professor of History at Yorkshire College, later to become the University of Leeds. His mother, Edith, who enjoyed painting in watercolour, spent her honeymoon painting by the banks of the Eamont, while her newly-wed husband fished. Both his father and his grandfather, Thomas Ransome, were keen anglers whose favourite river was the Bela. Ransome himself, in his autobiography, tells us that his grandfather was an ingenious fisherman who saw the advantage of using shorter, quicker-striking rods over the long whippy rods, which were then in vogue. However, he added a whalebone tip to his rod to add some elasticity and to prevent the horsehair cast from snapping on the strike.
MRansome was the eldest of four children and his father, who had definite ideas about education, was keen that his son should grow up to be fluent in languages. As a result, Ransome was placed in the care of a French nurse, Victorine, who was to tutor him in the rudiments of her language and, almost as soon as he could speak, his father began to teach him Latin. Unfortunately, the Latin language was lost on the young Ransome and he claims to have forgotten what he had learnt almost at once. Cyril Ransome had learnt how to shoot and fish from his father and he hoped, in turn, to pass these skills on to his son. However, the young Arthur claimed that he was a disappointment to his father. When accompanying his father on trout fishing expeditions to the Wharfe, Arthur was not content to watch and learn from his father, instead he preferred to wander down the river and paddle in the stream. As for shooting, after witnessing a wounded hare screaming, he was put off the sport for life.
MAlthough the Ransome family lived in Leeds for most of the year, the long summer vacations were spent at High Nibthwaite Farm, the home of the Swainson family, on Coniston Water. It was here that Ransome’s father spent his days fishing and was no longer a professor who fished, but a fisherman who wrote history books in his spare time. Preparations for the summer’s fishing began long before the end of term. There would be ‘an orgy of fly-tying’. His father tied the delicate Yorkshire wet flies that T.E. Pritt featured in his famous book and he tied them both for his friends and for himself. They were lightly hackled and dressed on short lengths of fine gut or horsehair. His father was one of the first to introduce the methods of Halford to the North and to fish with the dry fly. However, he gave up tying dry flies after a year or so because he apparently had no time to spare for them, preferring, himself, a wet-fly for trout fishing. For weeks before they left for Coniston Water the wooden candle-sticks in his father’s study were festooned with his new-made casts, the rods were in readiness, his landing-net mended, and the children’s perch-floats and shotted casts inspected.
MAt Nibthwaite, the Ransome children lived an idyllic life and were allowed to roam free. However, as soon as they arrived at Coniston, Arthur would perform his own little ritual - dipping his hand into the water and greeting his beloved lake. It was a ritual he was to perform throughout his life every time he visited Coniston. The Swainsons had a boat on the lake, with oars that worked on pins instead of rowlocks (very useful when fishing) and it was here that Ransome learned to be at home on the water. Days were spent befriending the farm animals, local gamekeepers, charcoal-burners and various fishermen. Haymaking, picking mushrooms and blackberries, turning the butter-churn, tickling trout and walking with their father were some of the other activities enjoyed by the Ransome children. It was fishing for perch in Coniston with his own rod that convinced Ransome there was more to angling than simply watching his father catch trout.
MSometimes, when his father was fishing the lake for trout he would row the whole family up to Peel Island and leave them there while he carried on fishing. The children would spend the day playing savages while their mother sat sketching and painting. Some of their adventures on Peel Island were later to find their way into his Swallows and Amazons series of books. Towards evening, their father would return for them with trout in the bottom of the boat for Mrs Swainson to cook for next day’s breakfast.
MOne of the duties of the Ransome children at Nibthwaite was to watch for the first signs of rising fish on the river Crake, where it issues from the lake. On seeing a number of rising fish they would rush into the farmhouse, where their father was hard at work writing history books. He would immediately leave his papers, take his rod, which was always set up in readiness in the porch, and hurry across the fields to the river. Cyril Ransome often caught sea trout in the Crake and his son vividly recalled hearing the sudden scream of his reel when he had hooked a large fish in the pool below the bobbin-mill. Cyril also enjoyed spinning for pike on Allan Tarn and on Coniston using artificial baits, which he made himself and which were painted realistically by his wife. In his autobiography, Arthur Ransome recalled an occasion when his father hooked a large pike on Coniston. It was a pike of about twenty pounds, hooked just off the point by Brown How whilst Arthur rowed the boat for him. It went off at a great pace, taking the boat with it, so his father was unable to make sure it was properly hooked. Despite being told to ‘back-water’ by his agitated father, Arthur went the wrong way, rowing after the pike as fast as he could. He well recalled the exasperated cries of his father as he did so. However, despite Arthur’s ‘inefficiency’, his father did succeed in catching the pike, ‘and a very good one it was’.
MAt the age of nine and after attending a day-school in Leeds, Arthur Ransome was sent to a boarding school in the Lake District, the Old College at Windermere, to prepare for entrance to one of the great public schools. His father’s decision to send him there was partly down to the fact that the school’s headmaster was Arthur Raikes (1858-1929), a fellow angler on the Bela and a fine carver of fish models. During the summer holidays Raikes would take the sons of rich parents on fishing trips to Norway, which resulted in his book, Some Norway Tales (1918). Alas, Arthur Ransome never accompanied him on these expeditions. In fact, despite the headmaster being a keen angler, Ransome was extremely unhappy at the Old College. He was not very good at games and, as a result, was not very popular with his fellow students. It was only after he left Windermere that it was discovered he was so short-sighted as to be almost blind to detail unless very near. The only high point in his time at the Old College came in February 1895, when for week after week, Windermere was frozen from end to end and the boys spent whole days on the ice. He even recalled seeing perch frozen in the ice, preserved as if in glass beneath his feet.
MOn the evening of 24th June, 1897, the headmaster’s wife came into Ransome’s dormitory and told him that he would never see his father again. He had died. It was his love of fishing that contributed to his untimely death (he was forty-six). One night, after fishing for sea trout on the Crake and laden with a heavy basket of fish, he was climbing out of a pool when he caught his foot under an old grindstone and fell forward over it. He thought that he had only sprained his ankle and carried on fishing. On the walk back to Nibthwaite he was in agony and the next day his foot was badly swollen. The foot never grew better and eventually his doctors found that he had damaged a bone and a form of tuberculosis had attacked the place. First, his foot was cut off, then his leg at the knee, and finally it was cut off at the thigh. He was never the same again.
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