Saving the coots, one dinghy at a time

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Mitchell Ransome. He was an English author and journalist, who is best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books.

Ransome is still popular in England, especially among those who live in or travel to the Lake District or the Norfolk Broads, where the books are set. He’s less known in the US, which is a pity. The books relate holiday adventures of children, including sailing, fishing, and camping, and offer adventures for both young and old.

We lived with our kids inside of those books during our 1996-97 sabbatical year, as we traveled in China, Australia, and Europe. While in England, we visited many of the places described in the book. Little did I know at the outset that we would be living the adventures themselves.

We had an inauspicious arrival in England in March, 1997. We were tired from a year of international travel, living in strange places, eating new foods, and each living out of a ten kilo bag of clothes and toiletries. As we left Heathrow airport we encountered a huge downpour and to top it off, it was late afternoon and getting dark.

Coot Club, the fifth book in the series, was published in 1934. BBC produced a film based on Coot Club in 1984. In the book, Dick and Dorothea Callum visit the Norfolk Broads over Easter holidays, hoping to learn to sail.

Being devoted Swallows and Amazons readers, and as it was almost Easter season, we had to journey to the Broads ourselves. En route, I had this conversation with eleven-year-old Emily:

Emily: We’ll be staying in a houseboat there, right?
Me: Emily, I wish we could, but it’s after five already. We have no reservation anywhere, much less a houseboat.
E: But in Coot Club, they were in the Norfolk Broads and they stayed in a houseboat.
M: That was in the novel, but we’re not. You can’t just find a houseboat any old time,
E: I know we will.
M: It’s off season. I have no idea whether there are any houseboats, much less how to find one. I’m afraid we’ll be sleeping in the car.
E: I know we will.
M: [gives up]

Just as I was beginning to look for an unflooded spot to park the car for the unpleasant night ahead, we rounded a turn and saw a house lit up. There was a sign out front:

HOUSEBOAT FOR RENT

E: See?
M: OK, there are houseboats, but I still don’t know. Is it really available? Can you rent it for a couple of nights? Please don’t get any unrealistic expectations. I don’t want you (or ten-year-old Stephen, her silent ally in this parent-child struggle) to be disappointed.

Nevertheless. I went up to the door:

M: Do you really have a houseboat for rent?
Owner: Yes.
M: Is it available now for a short rental?
O: Yes, I hadn’t planned to open the boats up so early in the season, but decided just today to get one of them ready.

So, we ended up in a dry houseboat that night, just as the Callum children do when they stay on the Teasel. There was even a dinghy attached, just as in Coot Club. More conversation ensued:

E: Tomorrow we can go out to protect the baby coots from the Hullabaloos, just as they did in Coot Club.
M: I’ll ask whether we can use the dinghy, but I don’t even know what a coot is.
E: I know we will.
M: Even if there are coots, I don’t know that any of them have babies now.
E: I know they will.
M: And there may not be any Hullabaloos either.
E: There will be and we need to protect the coots from them.
M: [gives up]

The next morning we went out in the dinghy, as I remember, just Emily, Stephen, and me. We followed along one of the canals so common in the Broads. Around a bend, we saw a water bird’s nest. Inside were baby coots. Just then, a large motorboat filled with Hullabaloos came into view, heading perilously towards the coots’ nest. We quickly maneuvered the dinghy so that it stood between the motorboat and the nest, protecting it from the Hullabaloos, just as the children did in Coot Club.

We came to know the boats of Coot Club: the Hullabaloo’s motorboat, the Teasel, the dinghy, and esepcially, the childrens’s pirate boat, the Death and Glory. The Death and Glory is described as “an old black ship’s boat, with a stumpy little mast and a black flag at the masthead.” It’s rowed with oars or propelled by a “grey, ragged, patched old lugsail, far too small for the boat.”

As we related our adventure to the houseboat owner, he reminded us about that boat, too. He asked, would we like to see it?

E&S: Yes!
M: But that’s not possible.

Then he told us that when the BBC produced the Coot Club film, they used the Death and Glory boat. He now had that very boat on his property, just 100 yards from where we had been staying.

Yes, we went to see it, yes it was wonderful, and yes, I learned something about arguing with my children about literature and life.

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