Mrs P and I frequently visit Suffolk. We love the gentle, wooded countryside and the remote, stony beaches. After a few days in the charming little market town of Framlingham, home of popular songster, Ed Sheeran, we travelled South to Ipswich and the Orwell estuary. We were meeting friends for Lunch at the Butt and Oyster in Pin Mill, which is fast becoming my favourite pub. After the usual struggle to find somewhere to park, we gathered face masks and hand gel and wandered down the hill to find our table and meet our young friends. Emma often helps me out on the research side of things and so the couple frequently feature in these blogs. Today, we found them in excited mood, having just bought their first home together.
The menu seemed a little more adventurous than our last visit, when we chose between fish and chips and seafood platters. This time, choosing took us slightly longer: Mrs. P and I opted for a Lamb Kofte; our freinds had poke bowls and it was all delicious. No such worries over the drinks, it’s Ghost Ship every time in an Adnams pub. I would have loved to have lingered there for the afternoon, talking over a couple of pints and watching the boats on the estuary, as Arthur Ransome used to do.
I had to leave, however, as I had agreed to meet Peter Willis, President of the Nancy Blackett Trust. The Nancy Blackett was Arthur Ransome’s favourite boat; she has been restored and is looked after by a charitable trust and she resides at Woolverstone Marina, just one mile up the estuary from Pin Mill. I met Peter outside the Marina and we walked through the boats to the Nancy’s berth, past the huge, sleek bright white fibreglass and polished aluminium yachts. “Its easy to find” Peter told me “it’s the only wooden mast in the Marina.”
As we walked we chatted about Ransome’s life: I was particularly interested in his time as a journalist in Russia during the revolution. Peter was able to fill me in on the details. Ransome had been sent to cover the growing social and political unrest unfolding in that country. He became close to the inner circle of the revolution and not only met Lenin and Trotsky but fell in love with Trotsky’s secretary, Evgenia Shelepina.
This is where it becomes a real life adventure story: Ransome had to do deals with governments, sneak across borders, and negotiate with revolutionary leaders in order to smuggle his beloved back to Britain. During their escape, with civil war raging through the country, they had smuggle themselves through rural villages, where they were treated with suspicion, and stopped at military checkpoints. They had to trade their belongings to get through without being betrayed to the local authorities , even playing a game of chess with a White Army officer, who would have shot them on sight if he had known of their connections to the Communist party. Ransome, sensibly, played to lose. All of these shenanigans brought him to the attention of the Foreign Office and there has been a great deal of debate over where his loyalties lay ever since.
Arthur and Evgenia eventually returned to Britain, settling first in the Lake District, where his writing career began and, in 1935, moving to Pin Mill, on the Orwell estuary. He bought a boat, then called the Electron, that would be capable of navigating the estuary and the nearby coast, naming it after the adventurous heroine of his novels. Nancy is the leader of the Amazons in Swallows and Amazons and. unusually for a female character, she is far from submissive. Early 20th Century children’s fiction is full of girls playing second fiddle to the boys, who make the decisions and take on the mantle of leadership, while the girls ensure that everyone is fed and in bed by a reasonable hour. Even the rebellious George in the Famous Five novels, is made to conform to her gender role by Anne, who insists she help with the washing-up. Nancy is the leader of her crew; independent and fiercely self-reliant.
The boat is lovely: white painted and varnished wood, single masted with a cabin and a stern cockpit. Inside, the smell transported me back to childhood and learning to sail, albeit in damp, open dinghies, nothing as elegant as the Nancy. In the cabin the space was tiny but well-equipped: bunks either side and a small kitchen area. Ransome describes the interior in ‘We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea’:
They looked down into the cabin of the little ship, at blue mattresses on bunks on either side, at a little table with a chart tied down to it with string, at a roll of blankets in one of the bunks, at a foghorn in another, and at a heap of dirty plates and cups and spoons in a little white sink opposite the tiny galley, where a saucepan of water was simmering on one of the two burners of a little cooking stove.”
Ransome enjoyed six happy years sailing Nancy, which he later came to regard as the best boat he had ever owned. One of his favourite destinations was the Walton Backwaters, just a few miles down the coast; the labyrinth of creeks and inlets that appears in his book Secret Water.
In 1988, Nancy was found rotting away in Scarborough harbour and was purchased for restoration. She was eventually put up for sale. The Arthur Ransome Society was given the option to buy but, not having the money, had to forgo the opportunity of owning this historic vessel. As luck would have it, in 1996, she came up for sale again and members of the society started an appeal to raise £25,000. This became the Nancy Blackett Trust, who now care for the boat and keep her seaworthy.
Peter and I left the little boat and wandered back through the marina to the clubhouse, where we had a pint and chatted some more about Ransome, books and sailing. The Nancy Blackett is available for members of the trust to visit or sail. If you would like any further information about the Nancy Blackett or the trust, you can contact them via their website