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Winter Holiday is the fourth novel of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series of children's books. It was published in 1933 and set in 12 January - 11 February 1931. In this story, the third set of major characters in the series, the DsDick Callum and Dorothea Callum — are introduced. The series' usual emphasis on boats and sailing is largely absent, as the story is set in the winter. Instead, the children's activities focus on ice skating, signalling with semaphore and Morse code and sledging.


For his inspiration, Ransome draws on his schoolday memories of the Great Frost of 1895 when Windermere froze completely (Life, page 19). Mrs Dixon recalls when she was a young girl .... in '95 with coaches with four horses and horns blowing (which crossed) the lake from side to side (WH15), and that There was three or four of them (ice yachts) rushing about on the lake in ’95, and racing for a silver cup ..... and herself had skated from one end to the other (WH16).

In 1929, there was another severe winter with Windermere freezing over for several weeks, this was just before Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons. Another major influence is Fridtjof Nansen's books about his Arctic expedition from 1893–1896 in the Fram and on sledges.


  • the Ds: Dorothea, Dick Callum
  • Swallows: John, Susan, Titty, Roger Walker
  • Amazons: Nancy [Ruth], Peggy Blackett
  • Captain Flint [Jim Turner]
  • minor characters (those in parentheses are "offstage"):
    • Mr & Mrs Dixon,
    • the Dixons' farmhand, Silas and dog Roy,
    • Mrs Molly Blackett,
    • (the postman),
    • the Beckfoot cook, M Braithwaite,
    • Sammy Lewthwaite the policeman,
    • the doctor,
    • Mr & Mrs Jackson,
    • (Fanny) the girl (domestic) who helps Mrs Jackson,
    • Jacksons' dog Ringman,
    • (Bill Bowness...went too far on ice & fell in),
    • ten little girls in green coats and two young women skating
    • the smith,
    • the coffee-stall man who sells the Ds two hot pies,
    • (the people who own North Pole),
    • (Mrs Lewthwaite, Sammy's mother)
    • (old Bob, porter at station at the foot of the lake
    • (Mr Jenkyns; when he was staying at the Callums, Dick dropped his sulphuretted hydrogen apparatus into the spare bedroom; WH21)
  • Absent characters

Boats etc[]

The houseboat (Fram), Beckfoot rowboat, Beckfoot sledges (both big & small), Dixons' sledge

Plot summary[]

Brother and sister Dick and Dorothea Callum meet the Swallows and Amazons during a winter holiday with their mother's former nanny who is a farmer's wife beside the Lake. Whilst observing the stars in a disused barn, Dick and Dorothea start signalling to a group of children they had previously seen rowing on the lake. The next day they meet the other children and shortly become firm friends when the Swallows and Amazons discover that the Ds are excellent skaters. They become part of the group and join in the North Polar Expedition. The holiday is extended when the Amazon's leader Nancy Blackett catches mumps and the group is quarantined and cannot return to their boarding schools. Initially, while waiting for snow to fall, they embark on a series of adventures ranging from rebuilding an igloo to building an ice sled.

There is a heavy snowfall followed by a prolonged period of freezing weather and, unusually, the lake freezes over, providing an excellent opportunity for an expedition to the North Pole across the ice. They train by pulling the sled across High Greenland and skating on the lake. They also use Captain Flint's houseboat which has been frozen into the ice. Eventually Nancy recovers enough for the expedition to begin. However, plans go awry when the Ds set out earlier than expected due to a misunderstanding over a signal flag. When a blizzard blows up and the Ds are missing, rescue parties are organized and the North Pole is well and truly discovered.


Dates in 1931, names are chapter titles. Events in the narrative are described in (parentheses) Events occurring outside the narrative are described in [square brackets].

  • [31 December: Estimated date of Nancy catching the mumps virus]might have been
  • [11 January: The Ds travel with Mrs Dixon to The lake]
  • 12 January: (Ds' first day at the lake; they see the Swallows and Amzons in the distance); [Mrs Walker and Bridget depart Holly Howe for Malta] Strangers • Signalling to Mars
  • 13 January: (the characters all meet) Strangers No More • The Igloo
  • 14 January: Skating and the Alphabet
  • 15 January: Snow
  • 16 January: (Nancy's mumps symptoms appear) Arctic Voyage • Lost Leader • Quarantine
  • 17 January: Doing Without Nancy
  • 18 January: Doing Without Nancy
  • 19 January: Doing Without Nancy
  • 20 January: Doing Without Nancy
  • 21 January: Cragfast Sheep • Ambulance Work
  • 22 January: To Spitzbergen By Ice
  • 23 January: To Spitzbergen By Ice
  • 24 January:
  • 25 January:
  • 26 January: Nancy Takes a Hand
  • 27 January: Days in the Fram
  • 28 January: Days in the Fram
  • 29 January: Sailing Sledge
  • 30 January: Sailing Sledge
  • 31 January: Sailing Sledge
  • 1 February: Nancy Sends a Picture • The Fram at Night
  • 2 February: The D.'s Take Charge • Captain Nancy Gets Two Bits of News • Captain Flint Comes Home
  • 3 February: [17 days after the others were last with Nancy: the day by which their symptoms would appear if infected]might have been Next Morning • The Uses of an Uncle
  • 4 February: The Uses of an Uncle
  • 5 February: The Uses of an Uncle
  • 6 February: The Uses of an Uncle
  • 7 February: The Uses of an Uncle
  • 8 February: The Uses of an Uncle
  • 9 February: The Uses of an Uncle
  • 10 February: [25 days after the other characters' last exposure to Nancy's mumps] Flag at Beckfoot • Council in the Fram • The North Pole • To the Rescue • Arctic Night
  • 11 February: And Afterwards

Cross-references and chronology[]

There are several references to earlier books in the Swallows and Amazons series, which are set in the Lake.

  • Nancy shows where the Amazons hid in the reeds, Roger gleefully asks who lost their ship, and Peggy asks who found an octopus: (WH7, refers to Swallows and Amazons).
  • The others were telling the Ds about the Kanchenjunga expedition and the trouble over the Great-aunt .... , and Peggy said That's the wood where John came and made the owl noise (WH8). Later Titty says Remember the owl John did at Beckfoot when the Amazons were escaping from the Great-aunt and Roger adds and Peggy's duck when someone dropped an oar (WH18); both referring to Swallowdale).
  • Susan remembered how Roger had sprained his ankle on the moor above Swallowdale (so thinks the sledge might be wanted for the wounded) (WH12; refers to Swallowdale).
  • The Ds heard of the night when the houseboat had been burgled and how Captain Flint had given Titty a green parrot and Roger a monkey because they had found the box that had been stolen with the book he had written.(WH13; refers to Swallows and Amazons).
  • Roger said We had a lantern and Titty hoisted it up the tree at night.... and the Amazons came down in the dark (WH13; refers to Swallows and Amazons).
  • Roger said Our tents were this side the first year .... but the next year we had four tents (WH13; refers to Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale).
  • Titty remembered being lost with Roger up on the fells in a summer fog. That had been bad enough. But to be lost in winter and in the snowstorm was much worse (WH27, refers to Swallowdale).
  • Winter Holiday happens before Coot Club as there are several references to the wintry holiday eg Last holidays we were in a houseboat frozen in the ice (CC1). And before Pigeon Post as Mrs Newby says you were here again last last winter, when the lake was frozen over (PP1).


· · —

You are standing into danger. This article or section contains conjecture.

The physical symptoms of mumps first appear about 17 days after infection, so it can be supposed that Nancy caught mumps about New year's Eve, 31 December.

Mumps patients are infectious for about 7 days before their first symptoms appear, and some patients can be infectious without showing symptoms, so Mrs Blackett was quite right to fear that Peggy, the Swallows and the Ds could have caught mumps from Nancy, and to quarantine them to prevent them spreading the virus to other natives, seals or Eskimos.

Modern advice for non-immunised people exposed to the mumps virus (for example the Swallows, Ds and Peggy) is to isolate them for 25 days[1]; this timing appears to match exactly Arthur Ransome's plot where Nancy hoists the flag at Beckfoot 25 days after she showed symptoms and the others were quarantined; however this is not in accord with the Doctor's recommendation of a 28-day quarantine: Twenty-eight days, the doctor says (WH9). Earlier, Molly Blackett had said Pretty near a month ... (WH8).

Later the doctor tells Captain Flint They're going to let Nancy loose on the world tomorrow (WH23). Earlier, when the expedition to the North Pole was being planned (including Nancy), Titty said that the first party will hoist a quarantine flag as we shall still be lepers to the very day we go back to school (WH23).


  • Mrs Dixon had been Mrs Callum's nurse when she was little. She was brought up in the Lake District as she knew Captain Flint as a boy. She recalled the Great Frost of '95 when she was a little girl and she skated the length of the lake (WH16,23).
  • The Ds arrived at the Dixons' the night before the action in the book starts (that is, on 11 January). Mrs Dixon made the train journey to the Lake with them (WH1); she had travelled south to pick them up, and was given the papers for their return to school by Mrs Callum at the station (WH9).
  • The message left in the bottle on Cache Island is dated 28 January, and the additions on the (premature) trip to the Pole are dated 10 February (WH15,24,27).
  • The last day (when they all wake up after arriving at the North Pole) is described as a February dawn (WH29).
  • The timeline in this book is a bit harder to pin down. A comment by Dot in Chapter 19 that "3 weeks ago" they watched the boat being rowed to the Island (which is Day 1) overcomes the "and for many days" line in Chapter 15 (the action actually continues right on); Nancy gets out "1 week" from Day 23, which if it is strictly accurate, puts the action of the trip to the North Pole on Day 30, which we also know is 10 February. By this reckoning, the children have 2 days after the finish of the book before their quarantine ends and they return to school: Titty says We've got another ten days before going back to school (WH23); Nancy says when she arrives at the Pole: Everything's fixed now, We're all coming tomorrow .... But what a pity you did it a day too soon (WH28).
  • Originally the holidays were expected to end on Day 7, 8 or 9; i.e. 18, 19 or 20 January:
    • There's another week yet (Peggy) (WH3).
    • Only three more days (Dot) (WH6).
    • We’re all going back to school in three day’s time. Day after tomorrow is our last day (Peggy) (WH8).
  • The Ds came to the Dixons' for the last week of the winter holidays while their parents were in Egypt to dig up remains (WH3).
  • The Walkers were at Holly Howe since Christmas, and Mrs Walker and Bridget left for Malta (on Day 1 of the story; 12 January) where Daddy's ship is stationed for a time (WH3).
  • The Ds had spent every day of the holidays at an indoor skating rink near the University buildings at home (WH5).
  • Titty and Roger were skating for the first time, John and Susan had some at school the winter before(WH5).
  • The Walkers lived mostly in the south (WH5).
  • Mrs Callum's birthday is March 7th, as noted in Dick's notebook (WH5).
  • Nook Farm is up the valley from Beckfoot between the fells.
  • The Swainsons live at Low End.
  • Bob is the name of the porter and guard at the Rio railway station; he's been there for 30 years.
  • Mr Dixon's sheep mark is a red patch on the left shoulder (WH12).
  • Uncle Jim was abroad in foreign parts for the winter, but he saw in the papers about the lake freezing I thought I wouldn't miss it. It's a long time since we've had such a winter as this, and we may not have another for as long again (WH21).
  • Gibber the monkey and Polly the parrot are both at the Zoo (WH13).
  • Books found in the houseboat include: The Riddle of the Sands, Nansen's Farthest North, the First Crossing of Greenland, and Peary's North Pole (WH14).
  • The Ds don't have any uncles (WH23).
  • Dorothea has a tiny notebook to write Frost and Snow: A Romance, but so-far has only written Chapter I on the second page (WH10).
  • Roger has matches in his pocket during the relief expedition, and is proud to be properly prepared. Perhaps the "family rule" is not to light candles in the bedroom, though when John is putting up the nails for the leading lights and Roger says he can't reach the lantern John says You won't have to and Susan adds Not until you are allowed to use matches ... and by then you'll be tall enough (SA12).
  • Winter Holiday is dedicated to The Clan McEoch of Francis Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • The illustration Capsized and Dismasted in chapter 26 The North Pole occasioned discussion on Tarboard in August 2016, with full results codified in Mixed Moss 2017. The 11th impression in January 1943 had the picture the other way up so Dick’s legs were not waving in the air, but this appears to be a repetition of a publishing error in the 7th impression (1940) corrected in the 8th. It was carried through from the 11th to the 12th, and only finally corrected in the 13th in May 1944. And even then, it was upside down again in the German translation of 1948. Arthur wrote to Wren Howard of Jonathan Cape in 1933 about the picture (as quoted by Roger Wardale in AR: Master storyteller):
Hi! I counted on you to hurl forth the worst of those pictures. ... What about that niggly one of them being capsized in the snowstorm, with Dick's legs sticking up as he goes head first into the snow. My wife says that picture is a disgrace, and that I ought not even to have let you see it. I only let it go because I had nowt better, and because a small girl liked it.

Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series

Swallows and Amazons | 'Their Own Story' | Swallowdale | Peter Duck | Winter Holiday | Coot Club | Pigeon Post | We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea | The Big Six | Secret Water | Missee Lee | The Picts and the Martyrs | 'Coots in the North' | Great Northern?

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This page uses content from Guide to Swallows and Amazons series by kind permission of Bill Wright.
  1. Mumps on New Zealand Ministry of Health website]