Latvia? It's a bit like the Broads

The world's great writers and their adventures in literature. This week: Arthur Ransome
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The Independent Travel

Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) was a keen sailor, as anyone who has read his 'Swallows and Amazons' stories will know. This extract is from 'Racundra's Third Cruise', a hitherto unpublished account of a journey through Latvia in 1924. Ransome was accompanied by his wife, Evgenia Shelepina, formerly Trotsky's secretary, whom Ransome had met while covering the Russian Revolution for 'The Manchester Guardian'. Evgenia was not as keen a sailor as her husband as is apparent from her remarks at the close of this extract.

After a wearing night of high wind and violent thunderstorms, we lay at anchor and I worked all morning. After an admirable midday dinner of pike and perch, I went up the mizzenmast to look out over the reeds and the surrounding country. About a mile and a half away over the marshland were several buildings, and the Cook [Evgenia] put me ashore with the milk can and the camera.

I found that what had looked like dry land was grass, ankle deep in water. The many haystacks were built on legs to keep them above the level of the marshes and the only road the edge of a ditch with barbed wire entanglements in it left from the war. I waded along the edge of this ditch, which was dryer than the surrounding fields, and after half an hour's walking came to the beginnings of a road made of branches laid in the mud.

By the beginnings of my road were ruins of the old wiring entanglements, a potato patch, a scrap of cornfield, a ruined farm and a new wooden house being built.

Hollyhocks were growing along what had obviously been a wartime trench; untidy buildings, partly refurbished ruins, which were being lived in pending the finishing of the new house, had a background of low dunes with the broken trunks of trees, lopped and pruned by shellfire.

In one of the barns, I found an old man who told me that he had no milk. But he took me to his wife and daughter in a small hut, and they told me that their neighbours probably had some.

I clambered over the ruins to the next building, and found a barn door with two old men leaning against the doorposts. I told them what I wanted. They called for a girl to bring some milk, and then began to talk of other things. "Yes, the old front line passed through this very place."

When they came back after the war they had found nothing but a flat place where their farm had been and the ruined foundations of the outbuildings. Did I think there would be another war? No. "In our lifetimes, while people remember, it can never happen again. No one would allow it." The girl brought the can, really full of milk, more than the two measures for which I asked and for which they charged me far less than I had paid in Riga.

I waded back over the marshland. The country stretched flat and green with shining patches of water. Far away I could see Racundra's two masts among the reeds and, keeping my eye on these, I waded home.

The Cook says that there is no point in living in Racundra, that only children are glad to live in a ship, that there is nothing to see, nothing to write about, and that she's sick of wind and rain and living in a small cabin; that I grow worse with age, and that proper authors live at home and write books out of their heads.

'Racundra's Third Cruise', edited and compiled by Brian Hammett, is published by Fernhurst Books, price £14.95.

Follow in the footsteps

Ransome's Riga

Ransome sailed from Riga to Mitau (now Jelgrava) soon after marrying Evgenia. It seems he originally intended to publish his account of the voyage to follow up on his first really successful book, Racundra's First Voyage, but it is not clear why it did not go ahead. The medieval city of Riga is the most cosmopolitan of all Baltic capitals. Here you will find historic buildings and narrow streets in the labyrinthine old town. Norvista (020-7409 7334; www.norvista.co.uk) offers three nights in Riga for £338 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights via Helsinki and b&b.

Swallows and Amazons

Ransome eventually sold Racundra and bought a cottage at Low Ludderburn in the Lake District. He began writing his famous children's stories, many of which were based on his own childhood in Coniston and Windermere.

The Windermere Steamboat Museum (015394 45565; www.steamboat. co.uk) is the home of Esperance, the oldest boat on Lloyd's Yacht Register. She became best known as Captain Flint's houseboat in the Swallows and Amazons books.

On the Broads

Ransome later moved to East Anglia, where he hoped the sea air would improve his health. During this period he wrote We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea and Secret Water and sailed on the Norfolk Broads, the inspiration for Coot Club and The Big Six. The Arthur Ransome Norfolk Trail is designed as a two-part tour by car of places of interest from Coot Club and The Big Six. For an itinerary, visit www.whiteswan.u-net.com/ Stalham/cootclubtour.

The Nancy Blackett

Since 1990 the Arthur Ransome Society (www.arthur-ransome. org/ar) has promoted interest in the author and his books. In 1997, it formed the Nancy Blackett Trust (01252 328187; www.nancyblackett. org) to buy and restore Ransome's yacht, the Nancy Blackett, which he used in We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea.

Charlie Furniss

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