Woodbridge repairs Swallows and Amazons author’s boat
11:19 a.m. July 7, 2022
A boat that was built for Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome is taking on new life in Suffolk, as Catherine Larner explains.
Boarding the ‘Peter Duck’, Julia Jones can hardly contain her joy at seeing the renovations underway on her beloved family boat.
“PD”, as Julia calls the 28ft wooden ketch, is the source of many childhood memories as well as a piece of literary history, and encompasses Julia’s dual passions in life – books and boats . By making the necessary repairs, she hopes to get “PD” back into shape for the next generation.
While there’s a lot of work to be done to bring ‘Peter Duck’ back to his former glory, here on deck 12 feet above the ground in a Woodbridge shipyard, Julia is eager to point out the features whose she remembers so well the many outings on the River Deben in Suffolk.
There’s a small stove in the cockpit on which to cook sausages and boil water for tea, a shelf that has a lockable lip to keep books from falling into choppy water, and looking out to the left there is a quarter berth where young Julia used to hide if things on board got a little rough. In this child-sized cabin, she lost herself in many readings of “Swallows and Amazons”, and later learned that this was where Arthur Ransome kept his typewriter.
Peter Duck was designed and built especially for the famous children’s writer in 1946, and was named after a character from the third book in his timeless and best-selling series of sailing adventures.
But the boat was bought by Julia’s parents in 1957, when she was not quite three years old, and remained a staple of family life until her father’s sudden death in 1983. .
“Mom tried to keep the ‘PD’ after dad died,” Julia says, “but we were all at that pointless phase when we were doing our own thing with families and careers.
“There was a sad day when mum had fitted the ‘PD’ and taken her up the river to the Waldringfield anchorage. And she went downstairs, but there was no one there. She said she couldn’t stand it. Peter Duck was a family heirloom, she thought as she picked up the mooring line and went down to the cabin, we’d all be there, and we weren’t. not.
WRITERS ON THE WATER
The boat was first sold to a Suffolk bookseller and then to Greg and Ann Palmer, both writers, who sailed around Britain and took Peter Duck to Russia.
“Peter Duck is a very literary boat,” says Julia. “You can’t have Peter Duck if you’re not literary.”
Years later, a chance conversation allowed Julia to buy the boat back using money from a biography of Karl Marx written by her partner, Francis Wheen.
Julia was now a bookseller, biographer of crime writer Margery Allingham, and had followed her father in writing regularly for a monthly yachting magazine. But having her ‘PD’ back has given her the confidence to write fiction, she says, and she’s published her own series of sailing adventures for kids, called ‘Strong Winds’.
It was when Julia was looking for the logbook of ‘PD’ a few years ago that she discovered another amazing story. In an old suitcase full of papers and diaries that was in her attic, she found wartime papers and diaries revealing an unknown period of her father’s life and a little-known contribution to boaters who volunteered during WWII.
“Dad started writing in 1939,” she says of her father, George Jones. “It was around his 21st birthday, and he could see the war coming. He wasn’t belligerent or full of confidence, but within months he had volunteered for the RNVSR.
He became one of approximately 2,000 amateur sailors to join the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve. It was initially a list of “gentlemen interested in yachting or similar pursuits”, aged between 18 and 39, who would be prepared to serve as naval officers in an “emergency”.
“Everything they’ve been through,” Julia said. “They were so young. I remember dad trying to show us his papers and we just weren’t interested. We were teenagers and we thought if you weren’t in the Dambusters or escaped not Stalag Luft III, that didn’t count.
Many men who joined the RNVSR made significant contributions, however, by applying the skills and knowledge they had acquired from what had hitherto been a hobby.
“It was quite wonderful. Some were like my dad and just a Birmingham clerk, but others were lawyers, publishers, teachers, business people, and because they liked to sail on the weekends, they took a deep breath and signed up for it,” she says.
Julia realized that she had in fact met a number of these men as they were friends of the family and it made reading about their experiences very real. There were others too, who were familiar from their post-war accomplishments – ornithologist Sir Peter Scott, novelists Nicholas Monsarrat and Nevil Shute, and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy were among those who volunteered. And James Bond creator Ian Fleming worked for the Naval Intelligence Department, recruiting several members of the RNVSR as “intelligence commandos”.
Many, however, were involved in mine clearance, a few took command of destroyers or submarines, others patrolled fast gunboats, and some were involved in surveillance, intelligence, and sabotage.
“Understanding boat navigation and handling may not be the same as a 100ft minesweeper, but they had basic skills,” says Julia.
A BOOK THAT NEEDS TO BE WRITE
Although she was unable to track down their full number, Julia scoured naval records, visited cemeteries, and read novels, memoirs, and diaries written at the time to piece together a history of the war at through the lives of key figures of that era. organization. The resulting book, titled “Uncommon Courage,” was very much her lockdown project, she says.
“I felt so emotional about it. I suddenly sat up in bed one morning and said, ‘This is the book I have to write’. I know sailing and I remember some people who were in the RNVSR.
“I thought finding these papers was a gift.”
She subsequently began publishing a series of reprints of Yachtsmen Volunteers memoirs and hopes to encourage other sons and daughters of RNVSR members to share their parents’ stories.
“We think we’ve ignored it for too much of our lives. Now that we are older ourselves, we look back, think of all they have done, and feel great pride.
‘Uncommon Courage: the Yachtsmen Volunteers of World War II’ by Julia Jones is published by Adlard Coles, priced at £20.