Captain Flint’s houseboat explained

Sophie Neville on Captain Flint's houseboat


Weblogger, author and TV producer Sophie Neville unpicks the real story behind the legend of Captain Flint’s houseboat.

‘When people see the SY Gondola on Coniston today, in all her re-built glory, she seems rather plush to have been cast by Arthur Ransome as Captain Flint’s houseboat. The main reason for assuming that she was used as the model for the illustrations is because Arthur Ransome grabbed a post card of the Gondola and drew on it to give the first illustrators of Swallows and Amazons some idea of his vision. However Ransome’s biographer Roger Wardale tells me it was a former steamer on Windermere that he had in mind: the SL Esperance.’

Read more here.

SY Gondola and the grandeur of Coniston

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The third largest lake in the Lake District, Coniston Water is a gem, with its slate-grey water surrounded by lush green gardens and meadows, and dark green trees, all overlooked by the glowering mass of the mighty hill known as the Old Man of Coniston.

It makes a wonderful backdrop for the outstanding Steam Yacht Gondola, which is operated on the lake by the National Trust.

SY Gondola is a screw-propelled passenger steamer originally launched in 1859, and built to carry passengers from the Furness Railway and from the Coniston Railway, and was in commercial service until 1936. She was designed by naval architect Douglas Hebson and constructed by Jones, Quiggin & Co. of Liverpool.

SY Gondola became a houseboat in 1946 and then became derelict. However, in 1979 she was rebuilt and is today still in service running tours of the lake. Read about how to visit her here, and about her history here.

She’s a distinctive looking craft, apparently her looks were was strongly influenced by a Venetion boat type known as a burchiello.

The big buff-coloured house belonged to the hugely influential art critic and thinker John Ruskin.

I can’t help thinking how nice it would be to own and be able to use the smart green and white rowing boat in the trees close to the water’s edge.

Ransome’s Amazon on show at Coniston

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Amazon was one of two boats purchased in 1928 by Dr EHR Altounyan, so that his children could learn to sail with the help of family friend Arthur Ransome, by then an established author and journalist, and cruising and small boat sailing enthusiast.

She later was the model for the boat Amazon featured in some of the Ransome’s popular children’s novels, beginning with  Swallows and Amazons, which he wrote in 1929.

The Altounyan family children featured in the fictional stories under their own names, and one, Roger Altounyan, later invented the cromoglycate inhaler used to treat asthma – an achievement for which us asthmatics will be forever grateful.

In real life the sailing dinghy was named Mavis, and was renamed Amazon in 1990 by Aruthur Ransome Society president Mrs Brigit Sanders, who appeared in the books as the character ‘the Ship’s Baby’.

Amazon still belongs to the Altounyan family, but is on long-term loan to the Ruskin Museum at Coniston and is on show.

Amazon is not varnished as described in Ransome’s famous books, but was probably painted from the beginning – it’s said that she probably looks today very much as she did when Ransome knew her.

Ransome himself remains a complex and intriguing character – as his Wikipedia entry shows.