From Holly Howe to Wild Cat Island, Eileen Jones lives out a childhood fantasy

From a launch on the waters of Coniston, a group of passengers point starboard at the range of hills topped by the Old Man. "What's that peak known as?" asks the captain, Gordon Hall. "Kanchenchunga," shout several voices. "And how was it known by an earlier generation?" One small boy raises his hand confidently: "The Matterhorn." Hall smiles with approval.

This is not a prototype fantasy quiz show but an interactive session aboard Hall's launch Ransome on which, for two afternoons a week throughout the summer, he and his crew carry enthusiastic passengers on a Swallows and Amazons cruise. Readers of the perennially popular Arthur Ransome are given a tour of the settings used in the classic children's stories.

Here, near the head of the lake, is Holly Howe where the Walker family ­ the Swallows ­ made their holiday base and from where "Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest member of the family" made his run to the water's edge with important news. It is, in fact, a guest house called Bank Ground farm, but proprietor Lucy Batty happily straddles the worlds of fact and fantasy as she shows her pilgrim guests the way to the jetty, and points out the window seat where Virginia McKenna sat in the film version.

At the southern end of the lake, Captain Hall steers towards tiny Piel Island, known to generations of readers as Wild Cat Island. He has been reading and re-reading the books of Arthur Ransome since he was a child. He went to school at Pin Mill, and lived at Horning, two of Ransome's locations for his Norfolk Broads stories. His parents took him to the Lakes on holiday, and now, as a Lake District boatman, he's living out a childhood fantasy.

A chartered surveyor by profession, he was working for the National Trust as a land agent, based in the Lakes after a stint in North Wales. "They wanted me to move to London. I thought, I've done London ­ been there. I realised it was time to get out." He and his wife Margaret moved to the Lakes. (When their children were growing up they had no television: "So we had to read Swallows and Amazons books every evening," says Hall.)

In the early Nineties they bought two timber launches. Ruskin had spent most of her working life on the Dee estuary, being used for minesweeping duties during the war and later air/sea rescue. The Halls brought her to Coniston and renamed her to start their business in 1992. Ransome had worked as a Portsmouth harbour launch, and did further service on the Thames before starting a new life in retirement on Coniston in 1994. "They are traditional wooden boats. Perhaps if they were constructed of a different material we could sit by a cosy fire all winter," says Hall. "As it is, they have to be taken out of the water and stripped down for repairs."

Cruises are only a small part of the business as Hall operates a public service ferry timetable for walkers and other holidaymakers, calling at landing stages on each shore ­ notably John Ruskin's former home at Brantwood. There are also special cruises which highlight the history of the water speed record attempts by Malcolm and Donald Campbell, which ended with Donald's fatal accident in Bluebird K7 in 1966. "The Campbell cruises are rather different, less interactive. We are mostly talking at people rather than with them, explaining what happened and where," says Hall, who was angered by the recent raising of the Bluebird, and subsequently the lifting of his body, from the lake bed. "I do accept that once the dive team had given publicity to their re-locating Bluebird then it had to be raised as otherwise it would have been vandalised by souvenir hunters."

But the Swallows and Amazons trips are the most popular, attracting passengers who have an astonishingly intimate knowledge of the books. "I find it amazing on the Swallows cruises that nine out of ten people on board know the names of three pigeons [Homer, Sappho and Sophocles, in Pigeon Post] in a fairly obscure children's book written 70 years ago," says Hall.

The business has grown, and he employs boat maintenance staff and fellow retired pirates who share his enthusiasms, all living out boyhood dreams ­ among them an ex-lecturer of psychology and a former school head of science. Harry Potter, eat your heart out.

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