Last year I did a Classic Children’s Book Challenge, and this would have been ideal for it. However it does sit in my personal Norfolk Books Challenge, and very good it is too. Arthur Ransome definitely spent a long time sailing the Norfolk Broads (which is where Castle Marsh is, in my mind).
The strange thing about the Swallows and Amazons series is that I think I only read the first when I was a kid – and I didn’t like it. My memory tells me it was set in the Lake District, and the children and their rivalry seemed old-fashioned and petty. Given that at that time I enjoyed Enid Blyton adventure stories, ‘old-fashioned’ is strange indeed!
Reading Coot Club was a trip of nostalgia, and I found myself wondering when it was written. I was estimating late 40s or early 50s, but I found when I got to the end it was published 1934. It is set on the Norfolk Broads, and documents the tension arising between the locals in the form of the Coot Club, Tom and his friends, who sail the rivers and lakes and protect wildlife, and the foreigners, who rent boats for holidays and tear up and down regardless of the courtesies of the rules of the road – which are there both for wildlife and other boaters.
The first time I went sailing for a week on the Norfolk Broads, it was exactly as described in this book – and this would be late 60s. Next time I went we had the luxury of a fridge on board. Ten years later (the last time I holidayed afloat) most of the old wooden sailing boats had been fitted with diesel engines so that quant poles* were consigned to history. A couple of years back my brother hired one for a week’s holiday and I joined them for a day and did the exact sail that is described in the first part of the story – and nothing has changed. Ranworth and its wildlife, Horning and its races, holidaymakers in cruisers being flummoxed by sailing boats criss-crossing in front of them, the coots and moorhens nesting at the side of the river, the boom of the bitterns… the stuck-up cruiser sailors with their yachting caps (and in the 60s, their cravats!) and the women with strangely gaudy unsuitable clothing and loud voices. Oh, it’s all still there! I’d add that the main change which could stop this adventure happening now is the ubiquity of mobile phones, but given we’re in Norfolk, and only one network works at my house, I suspect that reception is patchy over the Broads, so maybe you could still have this rollicking adventure of the local boy protecting the wildlife, arousing the ire of the foreigners, who pursue him all over the Broads, causing havoc wherever they go. Maybe today’s kids wouldn’t be able to hitch a lift on a passing wherry**, although you do still see the occasional one, but not a working one taking goods up the Yare to Norwich or down to Lowestoft.
So should it best be viewed as a historical novel for today’s kids? I suspect so. I had no trouble doing the same with Princess and the Goblin, or even Professor Branestawm. It’s a cracking story that rips along and got me thoroughly engrossed in it. I’m just not sure today’s youngsters would enjoy it unless they have a keen interest in wildlife or sailing. And that’s the only reason I didn’t give it five stars. Oh hang it – I’ll give it five stars.
*a quant pole is used for pushing the boat along the river when there’s no wind, like a punt or a gondola
** a Norfolk wherry is a traditional shallow sailing barge that used to carry goods all round the coast and up rivers, but is now only really seen when a few preserved boats have outings for pleasure.
PS Apologies to all Suffolk people – the southern Broads and River Waveney are in Suffolk and it is officially The Broads National Park.