Ellen Tillinghast’s account gives a remarkably vivid portrait of Arthur and Evgenia in their latter years. Ellen was the first ‘US Representative’ of the Arthur Ransome Society: and this account of ‘Tea with the Ransomes’ is sent to all new members of TARSUS. I am grateful to Dave Thewlis for permission to use it. Sadly, Ellen passed away on 13th November 1997, two days before her 77th birthday.
TEA WITH MR. & MRS. ARTHUR RANSOME
December 2, 1956
During the '56-'57 year my husband was a Fulbright Exchange Teacher. With our three daughters, Peggy and Nancy, twins aged 10, and Elizabeth, almost 9, we spent most of the year in London. Having corresponded as a child with Mr. Ransome in the 30's and then as an adult from the late 40's, I received in November, 1956, the invitation to tea that he had promised us whenever we should come to England. My husband, not a Ransome fan, fortuitously had an invitation to Oxford on the same day. The children, enthusiasts like myself, were delighted to be included.
The accounts below are, first, the letter I typed that evening to my parents, slightly edited (Jan. 92), and, second, the memories our girls wrote and gave me for Christmas, kindly urged to do so by their father.
As told by Ellen C. Tillinghast
The joy of joys and wonder of wonders has happened... we have met Arthur Ransome!!! It happened to the girls and me at about 4:15 this afternoon.
Right by the Thames, a step from the Putney Bridge Underground Station, is a large block of flats called Hurlingham Court. We walked through to the back, the side by the river, and took a lift to the 4th and top floor. #40 door was around the corner, and we rang the bell. The door was opened by Mrs. Ransome, who greeted us and led us over the threshhold into a small square entryway, a stairway leading up on the right, two doors straight ahead (the one on the right shut and labeled in effect "Kitchen, Keep out" because Mrs. Ransome doesn't want guests thinking they must help), and door to the dining room at the left. In the whirl of removing coats and laying them down on a chest, we suddenly saw, in that other door straight ahead, Mr. Ransome himself, a large, tall, bright-eyed old man with white mustache and white hair round a bald spot, and ruddy face. He stood there happily while there was a deluge of Tillinghasts about him.
Mrs. Ransome asked if anyone wanted to go upstairs, and the girls, ready for anything, said Oh yes! and dashed up ahead, with, and after her. I was left to follow Mr. Ransome into the living room, a rectangular room with halfway-to-the ceiling bookcases everywhere except for a fireplace (gas heater) and for the far wall that was mostly glass and included a door onto the balcony overlooking the river. Through his steel-rimmed spectacles he looked at me and said, "You know, it's a mistake, coming to see an author." Later, repeating that, he implied that it would be a shock for the girls to find him "a 100 years old".
While the girls were still inspecting the upstairs, he showed me an old colored print of two figures, one a tall man in parson's garb of the last century, the other a knee-high child with thick short curls and wearing a plain dress with tiny puffed sleeves--"My grandmother," he said, who had died before he could know her. On the mantel over the heater he showed me a model about 6 inches long, every detail seen to, even a miniscule tin can for bailing, of one of his story's boats. A young boy had made it. There was also a miniscule model inside a box scarcely larger than a match box that a Canadian boy had made and sent him. Later he showed an even smaller one, kept in cotton wool inside a matchbox, that another child had made and sent him. Other pictures on the wall were enlarged photographs of "Racundra" in Baltic waters and of other ships he'd owned and sailed with his wife. She returned with the children, and we all went onto the balcony to see the deep red patch of sky on our right, what was left of the sunset, and the Putney Bridge, many small boats moored directly below us, and the wavering lines of reflected lights from the streetlamps on the opposite shore.
Then Mrs. Ransome called us into the dining room for tea. I had a brief glimpse of long rows of his books, English and American editions, plus ones in French and Czechoslovakian and other languages. He said they (he and wife) had never liked the illustrations done in the 1st editions of his first two books, before he made new editions with his own drawings. On one wall was an original drawing for the American Piqeon Post done by E.H. Shepard's daughter, Mary. The dining room was also lined with books, black and white photo enlargements, and smaller windows.
The large table was groaning with a dark fruit cake, a three-tiered Madeira cake with thick creamy frosting (rum butter!), a plateful of assorted biscuits, a jammed plate of thin squares of buttered bread, a pot of honey, a dish of strawberry jam, and a tray with tea service on it. Mr. Ransome said the children needn't start with bread and butter, a dreadful custom which filled you up before you got to the more important things, like cake. So he cut into the fruit cake and served thick hunks. I had b&b and honey, homemade from friends. Mrs. Ransome said she'd like to keep bees but that Mr. Ransome is afraid of them. "My wife has never been stung by a wasp," he said. I mentioned that being stung was something that hadn't happened in any of his stories, but surely it would have been Roger's fate if it had, to which he heartily agreed.
Mrs. Ransome was also a very friendly person, younger than he. She is Russian -- maybe they met while he was there a few years from 1917 on. She still had a trace of accent. We could be completely ourselves with both of them. He had on dark trousers, dark socks, black slippers, a grey sweater over a white shirt, a bit of blue and white patterned tie showing, and an old salt and pepper tweed jacket over all. He is a large man, quite a large middle, but not too noticeable because of his height, a little taller than I. He doesn't give the least impression of being stooped. His face seems large, with no neck showing, and you notice its ruddiness and his bright and twinkling eyes behind the steel-rimmed spectacles. He sat at one end of the table, she at the other, Nancy on her left, I by Nancy and at his right, Peggy at his left, and Elizabeth by her at Mrs. Ransome's right.
We all made a very good tea, as the saying goes. I said we didn't have tea as a meal at home, rather it's a brief interval in the living room during which you struggle to balance your cup. All agreed one has to sit up to table for proper enjoyment of the meal. The rum butter frosting made him say that the Lakes farm people make it. The best time is when you've been hunting on foot--not on horses because the hill country is too rough--and you find yourself 15 or 20 miles from home and are frozen. You can stop in at an outlying farm. You're given a mug of hot rum with a large lump of butter rapidly disappearing in a melting swirl, the best thing in the world. Then you're put to sleep "under a mattress", which means a feather bed, and it's impossible to catch a cold. I asked him if old Mr. and Mrs. Swainson, a marvellous farm couple in his books, were real, but he said, "That's the one kind question I don't answer, the 'Are they real?' ones." Later he said he didn't mind telling me that Wild Cat Island is a combination of two islands, one of which is on Coniston Water. The other one on Windermere doesn't have the good harbor, which he appropriated from the C.W. island. Cormorant Island is really there. He admitted he took the actual geography and "gave it a stir," but that everything really exists somewhere: Horseshoe Cove, Swallowdale, the passages through Kanchenjunga, and K. itself, which is Coniston Old Man and which he moved 8 miles out of its way for his purposes.
At tea I asked him if he cared to say whether the idea for the first book had come to him suddenly or over a long period of time, and he said he'd been thinking it over ever since he was young and that he'd had a tremendous amount of fun writing them, the writing having been done in many places, including Egypt. At some point I mentioned liking Mrs. Dixon, and Elizabeth said she wasn't like Mr. Dixon (a strong, silent farmer), at which we laughed. He said his father had been a professor and that "we were born wherever he happened to profess at the time, which was Leeds for me, but that every summer we packed up and went to the Lakes." He described their annual packing of an enormous basketware trunk. They loaded it and pressed down and loaded and pressed down and loaded yet more. And then came the attempts to close the lid. They'd all sit on it, prepared to pull the enveloping strap tight at the right moment, but the right moment never came until they called in the mountainous Yorkshire cook. She sat on it and THEN they could quickly yank at the strap, and all would be well. Family and equipment took up a whole compartment in the train. Before his time, there was a tall French nurse from Normandy, Vittorine. Years after she'd left, she suddenly reappeared with six tall brothers, and Mr. Ransome's father took over a whole little lakeside inn for them. When these giants were seen en masse at the local church by the villagers, these remarked it was lucky Boney hadn't tried to send over any of those. I told about getting to Maine for the first time of a summer, when the steamer used to run. I told how Grandfather chose the site of their house because of a white birch. Since he could see it from wherever on the bay he happened to be sailing, he knew the house, placed by the birch, would have a wide view. Mr. Ransome went to a shelf and pulled out a book saying, "This will be familiar to you." It was McMullen's Down Channel, which Grandfather had owned, and whose copy I now have. In '47 I offered it in a letter to Mr. Ransome because he'd mentioned the book favorably somewhere, but he wrote back to say he owned it, even the same edition, and that's what he showed me today. He's written a preface to a new edition, which has recently come out, and likewise a preface for Captain Slocum's classic tale of sailing alone around the world. Peggy asked if Slocum were the man who'd put tacks on deck to keep off the Magellan Straits savages. (Yes).
All during this time we were eating away, and whenever the girls looked my way to see if they might have more, he urged them to take something. I said that on this day they might have all they wanted. Every now and then we quoted favorite funny bits from his books that we all liked, and eventually he exclaimed that we must know his books by heart. Two or three times more he commented on our knowledge. I said how I used to think I was most like Titty, but now was more like, and could sympathize with, Susan "since having these three", with a wave toward the girls. One of them asked how many books he's written. To their surprise he admitted that he couldn't really remember, though he certainly knew about his favorite dozen. I said I wished he'd made it a baker's dozen, though agreed with him that you have to stop at the right time. "It's not sad that there are no more books," he said. "There are always more children for whom the old books become new again." I said Yes, but it was still hard on an old hand like myself. At some point he said that his books have had very poor sales in USA, not at all like in England or France, and that some of them are out of print in USA.
Elizabeth and I went to wash off stickiness, while Peggy announced she wanted "to stay right here with Mr. Ransome." When I came back to the dining room, only Mrs. Ransome was there. She pointed out the wall photographs and identified them. One was of the last ship they'd sailed (some years ago the m.d. advised no more rigorous sailing). On a cross Channel trip from Cherbourg to Southampton they'd failed to hear the last weather report. As a result they fought a fierce storm and finally arrived deadbeat up the river from Southampton. A Customs launch came out to their mooring; the men looked at the wine and few things they had to declare, and then one of the kindly officials told them to turn right in and get some sleep.
Just as I asked if there were any photos of the Lakes, Mr. Ransome came in and said he had the girls happily settled with books. While I stood between them, we looked at a small album dated from 1925 to 1938. The few that were of the Lakes showed two different whitewashed cottages, Lakeland views, her flower gardens, him stepping into the house with a great pike he'd caught hanging down his back, pictures of the "Swallow" sailing, pictures of people skating in Bowness Bay, with Beckfoot promontory showing in the distance. After I'd spotted it, he again remarked on my knowledge. When a photo of a houseboat turned up, he said this was like Captain Flint's, and we roared, thinking of the time he came back to find the mess in his cabin. He says that's his favorite part in all the books. He pointed out an upstairs window to a room in which he'd done much of the writing. The view from one window was of some thick old yews, and from another you looked out onto the fells.
While Mrs. Ransome went to find another album mainly of the Broads, he and I returned to the living room. Nancy and Peggy were sprawled on the floor in contorted positions, reading fairy tales, and Elizabeth was in a deep armchair, involved with his last book (our copy, which we'd brought because there's an error in one of the illustrations and because the girls wanted to show him where he'd written, almost 10 years ago, "To the Tillinghast twins in 1957").
Other objects in the living room were two large desks, one in each corner near the balcony windows. They were buried under books and papers. Upon one of our returns from the little balcony, a draught blew several sheets onto the floor, and we could pick them up in any order and put them back with the rest. One a wall was an Audubon picture, large and framed and perhaps original because it had belonged to an ancestor, of an Arctic Tern. He pronounced Audubon as though it were French, and asked how we say it. In a long glass case, on one of the bookcases, was a perch, very alive looking against green reeds and over sand with bits of broken shell in it. By a desk, on top of more books on more bookcases, was a photograph of Masefield, whom he's known and loved for years. He was afraid Masefield wouldn't live much longer. In the middle of the mantel was a small pencil sketch, done for him by a friend who sympathized with his having to live in London instead of the country. It shows him "keeping his hand in" at fishing. On a stone quay, his back to the viewer, is Mr. Ransome in fishing clothes, tugging mightily at what he's caught, a Thames tug in the middle distance, its bow lifted out of the water by the fisherman's prowess. Three urchins are gaping at him, and St. Paul's and other London buildings are suggested at the picture's sides. At some point, when a photo of their Lakeland home revealed several kittens at the window, I asked if he preferred cats to dogs. He said yes, they're more hygienic than dogs, and it's so cruel to a dog to keep one in the city. On one of the desks were some old binoculars, through which he let the girls look at the night scene from the balcony. He'd used them during his sails. The girls have since informed me that upstairs Mrs. Ransome showed them a photo of Mr. Ransome, aged 8, fat and round-faced with a snub nose and "most awfully cute".
Mrs. Ransome returned with the photo album. She and I sat together at one side of the fireplace, he seated just across from us, and often he got up to look at the picture we happed to like or that I asked questions about. This album was of the Broads, mainly of an expedition with friends, including children under and up to age 14. They'd sailed in a party of 6 boats. Each boat had been identified with a Jolly Roger so that they could check on each other's whereabouts and not mistake a stranger's boat for one of theirs. "If I saw a sail over the fields," (the countryside is very flat, and the rivers wind about so that often you look across the grass and see sails that appear to be moving through the field itself) "and saw it heading the wrong way, I could check if it were one of ours before hailing it," he said. They also used several nautical letter code flags, the most frequent one hauled aloft being the G. That stood for Grub and meant people were eating! I suggested that Mr. Ransome must be Roger at heart, and he smiled. There were many views of the boats lined up along the bank, or tied to a village quay while people shopped ashore. The riverside shops are very accommodating. When at the end of your journey you find you still have supplies, you can turn them in at any grocery, even though you bought them miles away. Everybody is also most helpful and ready to lend a hand or give sailing or geographical directions to boaters. We chuckled over a mishap that happened to a five year old boy, the one time he did not have on his lifejacket. While the boats were moored at a quay, he had a foot on each of two boats and was licking at an ice cream, when he fell into the water and went right under. It was very hard to pull him up because of all the water in his seaboots. The first thing he said was to ask for his ice cream. Some rum, given neat, was not a welcome substitute.
After the album was shut, I said we should be going, and of course the girls were most reluctant to leave. Peggy had just started another story, and Mr. Ransome said of course she must finish it. Mrs. Ransome asked if I'd been rushing about seeing everything, and I said that I was lazy and liked to relax and just let things happen, and he exclaimed, "Good! good! It's so much better simply to let a foreign city soak its way in and become part of you." Some church bells around the corner were change ringing, the sound being uneven because of gusts of wind. Mrs. Ransome admitted they got a bit tired of the bells, but they were a thrill to the girls and me.
Finally we were somehow all in the hall getting ourselves ready. I said how we'd be happy to invite them over but please to say whether they liked being asked out, when I know how busy they are. He said that to be honest his wife really preferred not going out and that he'd consider that they had been asked and "Thank you very much; we've had a lovely time," he said in conversational tone, with a twinkle. The children threw their arms as far as they could go about his large middle and, thus encumbered, he escorted us to the elevator.
As told bv Peggy Tillinqhast
I went to Mr. Ransome's for tea. He and his wife welcomed us at the door, apparently very glad to see us. Then Mrs. Ransome took us all over the house. But the room I liked best was a room in which Mrs. Ransome kept her collection, which was china cats! Cat, kittens every-where! And so cute! Next we had tea. There was current cake, then Cadbury's chocolate biscuits, and a wonderful cake but very bitter frosting. After tea, I went out to look at the Thames. It was blazing with lights, and very pretty. Mr. Ransome was a fat man but he had a very thin face. He had on a grayish-brown vest, with a coat and trousers. He had a white moustache, and white hair. He had very kind eyes. After looking at the Thames, I read fairy tales till we had to go home.
As told by Nancy Tillinghast
On Dec. 2, Sunday, I went to Arthur Ransome's for tea. Mr. and Mrs. Ransome lived next to Putney Bridge, an underground station. They lived next to the River Thames. Just before tea Mrs. Ransome showed us all the pictures of cats on the wall. And she had lovely ornaments of cats on the mantle-piece. She had cats of all sizes. Big cats, little cats, and kittens. The things I had for tea were lovely. First I had bread-and-butter. Then I had biscuits. There was one kind that was all crunchy, which was covered with chocolate. Then I had another kind of biscuit that was yellow. It had yellow lines running to the middle. In the middle was the name of the company who made the biscuit. Then I had currant cake. Then I had another kind of cake which the frosting was rum, so I didn't like it. After tea Mr. Ransome lent me some binoculars. I went out on the balcony. I loved to look at the river with the boats. And through the binoculars I saw a train, full of lights, going across a bridge. It was beautiful, all reflecting in the water.
After that, the next thing I did was to lie before an electric fire and read fairy tales! The chapter was The Light Princess. The story was about a princess who lost her gravity when she was born. But the chapter was so long Mummy wouldn't let me finish it. And while I was there I noticed some small models of boats. There were Scarrib, Death and Glory, Swallow, and Amazon. I don't know which boat I liked better.
I decided to study Mr. Ransome before I left. He looked quite different than I thought he did. He had a rather fat red face, with a moustache that had grown white with age. His head was bald, except for a fringe of white hair around it. He had sort of a round nose, and two twinkly eyes. I couldn't see his mouth because of the moustache.
I forget what kind of a suit he had on. I think it was brown tweed.
That's all I can remember now. Good-bye. The end.
As told by Elizabeth Tillinghast
He had a moustach, and he had white hair, (very little of it,) and a blad spot in the middle. He was old and wrinkled, and very kindly. For tea we had bread and butter and long chocolate biscits and many other kinds, and cake with iceing made of wine, and currnt cake and china tea. Mrs. Ransome came from Russia. She showed us some pictures of baby kittins, and some toy cats. One of the toy cats was hollow and sweets were inside. In the house there was to great long-dead fish. Just before we went home, we looked out on the River Thames. It was beautiful. The end.
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