As anyone who has read my inky fingered scibblings both here and elsewhere will know, I have long been a fan of the children's author Arthur Ransome . He is best known for his Swallows and Amazons series of children's books, but he was also a folklorist, commentator on the Russian Revolution, and ligitant of Oscar Wilde's one-time lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
But, like most people I first discovered (and fell in love with) the prose of Swallows and Amazons and its successors. I first read the books in Hong Kong during the second half of the 1960s, and - together with my young compadres - used to relive the adventures of the young protagonists in the books, without paying much attention to the fact that they had been set half a globe away, and some forty years in the past!
It was only when I read a remarkable analysis of the stories by author Christine Hardyment, entitled Nancy Blackett and Captain Flint's trunk, that I discovered - not altogether to my surprise - that Ransome had been somewhat of an armchair cryptozoologist. Amongst fragments written down as the suggestions for a future S&A adventure, included one when they were to travel to Kenya, and have an adventure involving the notorious Nandi Bear.
But what is Downes getting at? I hear you mutter in my mind's ear. This is all very interesting, but is there any point to it?
Well, yes. Ummm sort of.
On the thursday of the Weird Weekend I received a telephone call from a jolly nice chap at the Westmoreland Gazette who tld me that his august publication had just printed the following story:
"A HOLIDAYMAKER has spoken of his horror at seeing a Loch Ness-type monster' emerge from the depths of Windermere, report Paul Duncan and Peter Otway. University lecturer Steve Burnip and his wife, Eileen, were shocked at seeing the serpent-like creature surface from the waters as they stood at a well-known viewpoint. "I was absolutely flabbergasted, I just stood there and couldn't believe what I was looking at," said Mr Burnip, who has been holidaying in the area for 13 years with his family. He claimed the creature was about 15-20ft long with a little head and two small humps following in its wake. "It was like a giant eel." Mr Burnip, who is 51 and from Hebden Bridge, was looking out from Watbarrow point that looks across the lake to Waterhead. Ian Winfield, a fish ecologist for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Lancaster University, believes Mr Burnip could have seen a catfish, as they have been introduced to a lot of lakes for angling. "The Wels catfish comes from mainland Europe and can grow to about 500cm and weigh up to 306kg and there have been numerous records of catfish washing up dead in Cumbrian lakes," said Mr Whitfield. "
Hmmmmmmm, I thought.
The newspaper contacted us because a simple google search for o-o-p wels catfish in the UK comes up with the CFZ. Mostly because of our adventures four years back at Martin Mere but also because of an article I wrote after an old age pensioner's jack russell had been eaten by an errant wels in a boating lake in Germany. I entitled the story "Ding Dong Bells, Doggy's in the Wels", which amused me and infuriated my editor.
However, since then - for better or for worse - me and the boys have been considered experts in out-of-place wels catfish ever since. The fact that this animal (if indeed it is an animal) beas aboiut as much resemblance to a wels catfish as I do to an olympic athlete, has not very much to do with it!
Anyway. Over the past few weeks we have interviewed the witness, and Richard F (who did the main interview) is particularly impressed with the veracity of his story. Most recently, we have placed an appeal in the newspaper which first ran the story, asking for more witnesses and further information. We have had a couple of interesting `phone calls so far, and will keep you in the loop as to what is happening. There may well be a CFZ trip oop t'north in the offing, and when it happens you guys will be the first to know.
But what the £$%^%^&&&* has all this to do with Arthur Ransome? You might well ask!
The main canon of the Swallows & Amazons stories are set on an un-named lake in the Lake District, that according to Christine Hardyment (and others) is a composite place comprised of various bits of Coniston Water and Lake Windermere itself. As Wikipedia succinctly put it:
"Generally, the geography of the lake resembles Windermere (though Wild Cat Island has a number of important elements from Peel Island on Coniston Water) while the fells and hills surrounding it more resemble the area around Coniston"..
But there is more revelance to the current quest than this. More relevance even that one of the original dinghys from the story can still be found in the local museum at Lake Windermere.
When I was a boy I used to spice up my Ransomesque adventures with my pals into Swallows & Amazonish hunts for mystery animals. Eventually me, my mate William Topley (where the hell are you dude? I have had no contact wityh you since 1970), and a handful of others became a close knit gang whose main raison d'etre was avoiding doing what society told us to (in those days - going to school), and hunting for mystery animals.
Four decades later I am doing exactly the same thing. Maybe the children's book featured in today's blog should have been Peter Pan!