In about 1908, Arthur Ransome, future author of the Swallows and Amazons novels, was wont to stay at Low Yewdale Farm in the valley above Coniston, sometimes camping out in a bell tent by the Yewdale Beck or further up by Raven Crag. He was a fledgling author at this point, with just a few small contributions to the world of literature. His involvement in reporting the Russian Revolution – he married Trotsky’s secretary – and his grand series of novels were yet to come.

Tarn Hows Cottage

He spent some time in that tent learning Romany, from George Borrow’s classic book Romano Lavo-Lil and the writings of John Leland, for this was the period of the great Borrovian revival. Ransome even befriended some Romany folk – a pal was Arthur Stanborough, who was a bit out of favour for marrying outside the blood. Ransome also befriended other folk of the road – tinkers and showmen, and heard tales of the Romany wintering place up at Millom.

A glimpse of Coniston

As an admirer of the writings of both Ransome and Borrow, it wasn’t hard to picture Ransome in his tent or strolling up by the beck to Lower Yewdale on similar fine days to the ones we enjoyed yesterday. And even in the changed Lake District of this rather unpleasant century, it isn’t hard to picture the world Ransome portrayed so vividly in his books.

Gazebo at Monk Coniston

I learned my first words of Romani in Gypsy camps in the Black Country of the English Midlands sixty years ago, and – like Ransome – I learned more in the pages of Romano Lavo-Lil. (If you want to make a study of Romanes, it’s still well worth reading Borrow, but I’d particularly recommend James Hayward’s more recent Gypsy Jib.)

Monk Coniston

All that is by the by, for we went out to walk from Coniston to Monk Coniston, up through the woods of Hill Fell to Tarn Hows and then back down the Cumbria Way through Tarn Hows Wood mostly in search of bluebells.

The Marshalls and their friend Tennyson

We started from the Coniston Sports and Social Club (£4 to park all day), walking round the head of the Lake to Monk Coniston. The grounds are in the hands of the National Trust and there’s a path through, though I’m always baffled as to why the National Trust can’t dedicate much of its land under CRoW (the Countryside and Rights of Way Act). Surely that would be in line with the intentions of its founders?

The Dog’s Home

There was a house here called Waterhead from the 1600s, but the Monk Coniston of today (the house isn’t open) was very much the construction of the Leeds Flax Mill owner James Garth Marshall – a reforming politician who favoured extending the franchise, votes for women, education for the poor, allotments etc. All the more baffling, then, that the National Trust should misleadingly try and portray him as a typical ‘trouble at mill’ landowner on one of their information boards! Marshall had a keen interest in geology and was a pal of John Stuart Mill, Alfred Tennyson and John Ruskin.

The view towards Coniston Old Man, Wetherlam and the Yewdale Fells is quite superb as you climb up through the park. There was a dash of colour from the rhododendrons along the way.

By the Yewdale Beck

A good track leads up through the woods to Tarn Hows. Once three separate tarns, but transformed into one great tarn by Marshall. A place designed so he could walk up his visitors and have something to show them. I’m never quite convinced by Tarn Hows. It always has an artificial look to me and perhaps it might have been nicer if Marshall left the place alone. But then most people adore it, and it regularly features in those irritating Ten Best Landscapes lists that lazy journalists hack together to feed the pages of the broadsheets on days when news is in short supply.

I think the lane down towards Tarn Hows Wood offers one of the best views in the Lake District, and surely the very best view of Wetherlam. We passed a young lady strolling up the lane, her horse trotting behind her. A sight that both Borrow and Ransome must often have seen.

As we descended Tarn Hows Wood, the bluebells got better and better as we walked lower. Every year I long to see the bluebells and there’s a sadness as they go over. Each year you cross your fingers and hope you’ll last another twelve months to see them again.

Monk Coniston

By the Yewdale Beck, looking up at the Yewdale Fells, we came near to where Arthur Ransome stayed at Low Yewdale. I mentally spoke a few words of Romani as we went past.

Following the Cumbria Way, we came to the Dog’s Home (not the same one that Ransome writes about in his book The Picts and the Martyrs – that’s further down the eastern bank of Coniston, near the Heald, where Ransome lived later in life.) The one here was a place were the foxhounds were kept. It was here that the misleading comments about James Gath Marshall were posted.

A Walk Through the Woods

Another field path brought us back to Coniston. A lovely walk, one of the best rounds for views in the Lake District. I’m fond of Coniston, not least because the Coniston Fells were the first I ever walked, so many years ago in ancient sunlight.

11 thoughts on “Monk Coniston, Tarn Hows, Bluebells and Arthur Ransome

  1. An idyllic walk, John, and I’m glad you could still enjoy the bluebells. I feel exactly the same about them as you, and I went to our favourite woodland to see them today. Sadly, they’re going over now, which seems a little early, but then they seemed to flower early too.

    My daughter is currently reading Ransom’s ‘We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea’, and is really enjoying it, so it’s nice to read a bit more about him. And what a forward-thinking man James Garth Marshall was, but shame on the National Trust for not doing him justice. My mum used to work as a tour guide at Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire (ancestral home of George Washington), and she had a colleague who had worked at the National Trust for many years. This lady used to refer to them as the ‘National Front’ – apparently that was a much more accurate name for them!

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    1. The late Rodney Legg who was on their council used to suggest that the NT stood for No Trespassing! We left the NT because they wanted to sell the lovely woodland of Bonds Meadow in Bovey Tracey for luxury housing development. We joined the Scottish NT instead – so we can still use the English car parks and go free into the properties without paying a sub. They also seem to have sacked a lot of workers on the ground, but preserved all their executives. Shame really. Ransome is a grand read and was a fascinating man.

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      1. I remember the Bovey Tracey campaign, and I signed the petition. The NT should be ashamed of themselves. What a great idea to join the Scottish NT. I might do that too, as we left a few years ago for the same reasons, but there are quite a few NT properties in North Wales that we’d like to frequent when we get there. Seems like my mum’s colleague gave the NT the right nickname then!

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  2. Foxhounds are a very sore point with me just now – the last few times I’ve been walking in the Northern Fells (back o’ Skidda ones), there have been packs of loose hounds roaming the fells with wild abandon. From my fell viewpoints, I’ve been able to see miles in all directions and there was definitely no-one with them each time. I think they park on the road beyond Overwater and just let them out to run loose everywhere. Got to be illegal surely?

    I’ve just come back from Scotland where I did the train journey back from Kintail to Beauly by getting the train from Kyle of Lochalsh – that is a truly superb journey and just about everywhere en-route was covered in bluebells and broom – beautiful!

    I’d have love to have made friends with travellers or Romanies (or even tramps) but they tend not to speak to lone women at all!

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    1. Yes, interesting how everyone always mentions the public’s dogs but foxhounds are completely ignored, however much stock they scatter. Envy you Scotland.

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      1. Yes – they say their hunting foxes or whatever for the farmers but the packs really upset livestock so I’m not really sure it helps the farmers. The farmer down from me has the local foxes shot if they’re bothering his stock – while I think wildlife should be left alone to be wildlife, I’d far rather farmers took that approach to their ‘control’. Hunting is just a ‘fun day out’ for thugs!

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