Arthur Ransome Connections

An Interview with Philippa Ryan

Roger Wardale

Philippa Ryan was the daughter of Ursula Collingwood, the youngest of the Collingwood family who befriended Arthur Ransome as a young man. Roger interviewed her in the course of research for a book.

In the mid 1990s I visited Philippa Ryan at her home in Staveley, near Windermere. and in turn I was 'interviewed' by her friendly black pug dog, the latest in a long line of pugs, going back to the one that travelled in a basket fixed to her mother's handlebars and loved swimming off the Lanehead boathouse. Philippa's mother was born Ursula Collingwood, the youngest of the Collingwood family who had befriended Arthur Ransome as a young man. Ursula had married Reggie Luard-Selby who was at times the vicar of Ambleside and Troutbeck.

Although Philippa was barely seven when the Ransomes moved to Suffolk, she had seen him fairly frequently as he was a fishing friend of her father. Later, after the Ransomes had returned north to The Heald, and also during his years as the 'Lord of the Manor of Lowick' she came to see a lot of him.

Philippa knew that I was gathering material for a book, but I formed the impression that her forthright views of those that she had known were of long-standing and not served up fresh for my benefit. Nevertheless, for various reasons very little of what she told me has appeared in print. Philippa spoke easily of Uncle Arthur, Aunt Genia, Auntie Beetle (Dora Altounyan), the 'Altounii' and the 'Collies' (the Collingwood family).

Her mother, unlike her elder sisters Barbara and Dora, was sent away to boarding school where she was thoroughly miserable. Not allowed to pursue a career in medicine, she became a midwife working amongst the squalor of London's East End. After her own unhappy experience, Ursula vowed that she would not send her children away to school and she arranged for a governess for Philippa and her brother and sister.

She felt that Arthur Ransome was deeply insecure. As a result, he seemed rather cranky and unable to unbend. Philippa recalled his fury when a ping-pong ball accidently struck him on his bald head. He was a man who lacked direction, forever running away from something, trying to escape, not mentally strong enough to accept things as they were. When Philippa was young the name of Ransome's first wife was never allowed to be mentioned and in later years she sensed that he felt guilty about his treatment of Ivy. Throughout his life Arthur Ransome was besotted with 'the Collies'.

At the Heald Ransome owned a stretch of lake shore and behaved as if he owned the lake itself. He kept a pair of binoculars handy to identify any craft he spotted on the lake. When he was home on leave Roger Altounyan and she would take out Mavis and go for a sail. Sure enough, Arthur Ransome would appear and sail after them in Cocky.

'Oh. It's you!' he would exclaim, pretending that he had not known all along.

Once they sailed together and raced back to Lanehead, Mavis won and Ransome was furious. He just could not take defeat. She remembered another outburst when her sister had written 'dirty' with her finger on his filthy car. Like others who knew him, she decided that he did not like children.

Evgenia was warm and vast! She was the definite one, but probably she felt that she needed to be. She was a friendly tactile person who would greet you with a warm hug and some titbit that she had cooked. Russia was taboo in conversation, although the story of how Evgenia was smuggled out of Russia beneath sacks of potatoes carried by horse and cart was well known.

Ernest Altounyan would have been the one to befriend Evgenia, the 'Collies' would have kept their distance. Aside from Ernest, all the 'Altounii' had barriers around them.

Taqui was a gentle person. There were lots of errors in her books, In Aleppo Once and Chimes from a Wooden Bell. They had an elegant surface but nothing beneath.

Susie was a 'goer'. 'Boy, she had a caustic tongue! She was the bossy boots'.

Susie was staying in Bordeaux with an aunt when France fell. When she was interned, she escaped and was 'free' for 18 months. When she was eventually recaptured she found the Germans very stupid and was able to 'lose' some incriminating evidence down a train toilet. They put her on bread and water in solitary, but she signalled through the grill with her knitting to the other prisoners. She had become so thin by 1944 that she was released, the Germans fearing a 'black mark' if they allowed her to die in captivity.

Susie married her French cousin Marc and arrived back in Coniston a dashing figure, very smartly dressed.

Titty had an artistic streak. She used to visit the Vicarage when she was at school in Windermere and she stayed in the holidays. Titty had remained in touch with Philippa.

Roger was the best. He was good fun.

Brigit was very arrogant and very spoilt.

Robin Collingwood and his father were gods, and Arthur Ransome did not pass muster with the gods – and he knew it!

Dorrie (her grandmother) was the best of them, but then she was not a Collingwood.

As a family they lacked warmth and there was never any kissing. Both Barbara and Dora could be very caustic. Barbara used to tease Arthur Ransome but he took her more seriously.

Philippa disliked the dark and gloomy Lanehead with its hallowed atmosphere of the gods. She thought it a creepy place, but she was much taken with the drawing room chimney that divided in two. The nicest part of the building was the conservatory.

When she and her sister were young, Arthur Ransome used to give them a new Swallows book every Christmas, but her elder sister Sara kept it for herself and Philippa did not come to know the books well until she read them to her own children.

This article is ©2014 by Roger Wardale, and is posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

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