Swallows and Amazons forever!

Presenter, Dick Strawbridge at the Hunters Yard

Presenter, Dick Strawbridge at the Hunters Yard - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

The Norfolk Broads, which became the backdrop to some of the best-loved children’s adventure stories, is celebrated in a new TV programme

With tales of Hunters Yard past and present, (from left) Ian Grapes, Tom Grapes, Marc Head and Vikki

With tales of Hunters Yard past and present, (from left) Ian Grapes, Tom Grapes, Marc Head and Vikki Walker - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

Arthur Ransome’s tales of childhood adventures on the water have inspired generations to sail and enjoy the Norfolk Broads and rivers. His stories, The Coot Club and The Big Six, tell of the thrill of learning to sail and the dangers, dramas and excitement of being out on the water. But they also tell of beautiful, wild landscapes, where communities and characters live in tune with the nature and seasons.

This is the world that is celebrated in a new television documentary filmed on and around the Norfolk Broads, the rivers and estuaries of Suffolk and in the Lake District - areas which all shaped Ransome’s much-loved stories. The Landscapes of Swallows and Amazons was filmed by the Norwich-based Tin Can Island production company for BBC4 with executive producer Fiona Ryder (former managing director of Norwich’s local TV station Mustard) and producer/director Phil Coles, and will also be screened on Mustard TV. Presenters Dick Strawbridge and physical anthropologist Alice Roberts explore the countryside, waterways and wildlife, and interview people living and working in these areas.

For Dick, filming the documentary was the opportunity to reconnect with some of his favourite childhood passions - being out on the water and off in the wilds.

The Hunters Yard in Ludham

The Hunters Yard in Ludham - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

“I was born in Burma but grew up in Northern Ireland and I had lots of freedom there. We were trusted to do things. People didn’t have the time and trouble to be with us constantly, so we would have time on our hands to explore, have adventures and to be learning about ourselves and life. Children thrive in that sort of environment, given time to themselves out in the countryside and with nature.”

Dick was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army and was awarded an MBE for distinguished service in Northern Ireland. His TV career began as a contestant in the inventive engineering series Scraphead Challenge - he later became its presenter.

It was a conversation with his son which was the catalyst to his change of career. “I had retired from the Army and was working as a problem solver with a multinational company, but by 2003 I was getting all these offers of television work coming in,” explains Dick. “I sat down with my family to discuss it and my son said, ‘Dad, you are working in industry and getting well paid, but you are always grumpy - why don’t you just give it a go and see if it makes you happy?’ I decided to take his advice and I am having a whale of a time!”

The Hunters Fleet in Ludham

The Hunters Fleet in Ludham - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

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His enthusiasm - and trademark moustache - have made him a popular TV personality in series such as It’s Not Easy Being Green, Celebrity Masterchef, and The Hungry Sailors with his son James (of The Posh Pasty Company). Dick now lives in a fairytale chateau in France with his wife Angel Adoree, founder of The Vintage Patisserie, and their young son and daughter.

“You are never quite sure what you are going to do or where you are going to go, and when a project like this one comes up you just have to grab it,” says Dick. “Going out on these old boats and into the Broads, it doesn’t take much to feel like you are living in that Swallows and Amazon world, even though the books were written all those years ago. You can sail around a corner of the Broads and it’s like you are the only person in the world. I got my first sailing boat when I was nine, a little Puffin, and I loved it and I had proper adventures in it. And here I am, 56 - I’m sure I am not meant to still be having this much fun! I can still be play at being Captain Flint in Swallows and Amazons, and go out on the water and have adventures - life is for living!” w

The Landscapes of Swallows and Amazons is due to be screened on BBC4 this July.

Inside the Hunters Yard at Ludham

Inside the Hunters Yard at Ludham - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016

Hunter’s heritage

Part of the filming of The Landscapes of Swallows and Amazons was at Hunter’s Yard in Ludham. Presenter Dick Strawbridge and the film crew set sail for St Benet’s Abbey and Hickling on one of the wooden heritage yachts that is part of the Hunter’s Fleet.

One of the yachts, Lullaby, which features in the new programme, was also used as the craft Teasel in The Coot Club and The Big Six children’s TV series for the BBC in the 1980s.

The fleet was founded by Percy Hunter and his sons, Cyril and Stanley in the 1930s. While many sailing yachts disappeared from the Broads with the advent of motor cruisers hired for boating holidays, the Hunter’s boats survived thanks to Norfolk County Council which bought them in 1968 as a training facility. But in the mid-1990s the council announced it was disposing of the yard and the craft. This prompted a campaign in our sister newspaper the Eastern Daily Press to “Save Our Sailfleet”. With a swell of public support and the determined efforts of a steering group, the Norfolk Heritage Fleet Trust was launched with a successful bid for National Lottery funding and a public appeal to raise £300,000 to save the boats and yard for the future. The trust also established a Friends Of The Hunter Fleet to continue the interest in and support for the boats and yard - there are now almost 900 members.

Like father, like son

Tom Grapes spent most of his working life at Hunter’s Yard, retiring in 1994 but returning to help out for the past 16 years. “I came here looking for a job in 1947 after the Marines and saw Stanley Hunter, who was one of the sons. He said, ‘I will give you a job so long as you join the local volunteer fire service’ - which he ran. So I ended up getting two jobs in one day.”

His son Ian is foreman at the yard, where he has worked for 35 years. “We have to do is to keep a fleet of 80-year-old boats as well as we can - which gets harder as the years go by. They are two, three and four berth, mahogany on oak and can be hired out and we also have day boats, and skippered sailings.”

Yard manager Vikki Walker has created a “mini museum” of memorabilia there telling the story of Hunter’s fleet, which is open to the public from 9am to 4.30pm every day except Sundays and Bank Holidays.

Hunter’s Yard, Horsefen Road, Ludham, NR29 5QG; 01692 678263

Ransome’s world

Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) was born in Leeds and lived much of his life in the Lake District, where he wrote his famous Swallows and Amazons series of children’s stories set around the Windermere and Coniston Water areas. Holidays in Norfolk - where his family had roots - inspired his Broads-based books The Coot Club (published 1934) and The Big Six (1940) which tell of the adventures of Dick and Dorothea Callum, and his move for a time to Suffolk and a home near the River Orwell, where he had a yacht renamed Nancy Blackett, gave him the landscape for We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Secret Water.

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