A Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter and the Lakes she loved
Updated: Aug 8, 2018
Discover the lakes, fells and villages that inspired one of Britain's best-loved children's authors and turned her into a shrewd businessman and conservationist
Lake Windermere in the winter (photo: Ali Wood)
Tucked deep into the folds of a Lakeland hamlet is a 17th century farmhouse that inspired some of the world’s best-loved children’s stories.
Hill Top, once the home of Beatrix Potter, saw visitor numbers rocket after the release of Hollywood biopic Miss Potter. Now, over a decade later, the National Trust property is preparing for a new breed of Beatrix fans – the little and loud ones – following the release of Sony’s live-action animation Peter Rabbit.
‘The film is anarchic, and definitely a product of today,” says Liz Hunter-MacFarlane of the National Trust. “Peter Rabbit wears a denim jacket and talks about things being ‘awesome’. It’s not supposed to be an interpretation of the books, but if it brings people back to rediscover the originals, that’s fantastic.”
Sony’s wise-cracking bunny might be a departure from the mischievous rabbit penned in 1902, but the Cumbrian fells, lakes and sleepy slate villages that inspired Beatrix Potter have hardly changed at all.
Arriving at Hill Top on a bitter February morning, snowflakes cling to the dormant wisteria, and a frost has gathered on the rhubarb. In the spring the garden will be a riot of lilac and yellow, but today it’s the house, with its low ceilings and crackling log fire, that beckons.
Hill Top was Beatrix’s sanctuary; a place where she could grieve the death of her fiancée and escape the confines of her London life. She bought the farm with the royalties from The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and used it as a setting for five more adventures
Hilltop in winter – before the wisteria's out. The crackling log fire beckons (photo: Ali Wood)
Stepping inside Hill Top feels oddly familiar – like visiting the home of an eccentric great aunt. As your eyes adjust to the darkness heirlooms emerge from dimly lit corners, instantly recognisable from the books. There’s the stove where Tom Kitten hides, and a dresser which Anna Maria scurries past – a rat in a pinny carrying a wodge of stolen dough. Crouch down and you’ll spot a mousehole and an oak table leg gnawed by tiny teeth.
In the first two years of living at Hill Top, Beatrix counted 96 rats. She often quarrelled with her neighbour, whom she immortalised as Farmer Potatoes, and took literary revenge on by sending the rats to live in his barn.
Upstairs there’s a dolls house full of items from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, and the landing is where Samuel Whiskers is seen pushing a rolling pin. Everything is just how Beatrix Potter left it; it’s as though she’s just popped out.
“It was an old, old house, full of cupboards and passages,” writes Beatrix in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers. “Some of the walls were four feet thick, and there used to be queer noises inside them.”
In 1913 Beatrix married local solicitor William Heelis, and set up home in Castle Cottage across the road. She still worked from Hill Top, but liked to be known by her married name. A clue to her later life lies in the trophies and photos of her prize-winning Herdwick sheep.
“It’s almost as if Beatrix Potter and Mrs Heelis are two different people,” says visitor experience manager Ioan Waight. “You’ve got a practical lady very deeply involved in farming and land management, yet she has such a strong imagination – the way that she engages with this house and populates it with interesting little characters.”
With her husband William, Beatrix once again found happiness and would often walk up to Moss Eccles Tarn, a small lake, where she’d go boating and plant waterlilies, which you can still see today.
Hill Top and the village of Near Sawrey provided the backdrop for Beatrix’s stories. Anvil Cottage appears in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, and Meadowcroft, the old village shop, is where Ginger and Pickles takes place. The Puddle-Ducks waddle past Buckle Yeat, and the Tower Bank Arms, now a pub, appears in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.
In fact, scenes from the village became so recognisable that Beatrix wrote “they [the villagers] are all quite jealous of each other’s houses and cats getting into a book!”
One of Beatrix’s old haunts didn’t make it into the books: Wray Castle, a Victorian folly built in 1840 by retired surgeon James Dawson. He had it built for his wife, but she took one look at the neo-Gothic house – with its imposing turrets, portcullis and entrance hall – and refused to live there.
Wray Castle, the holiday home where Beatrix's story begins...(photo: Ali Wood)
Fortunately for the literary world, Wray Castle was let out as a holiday home, and it was during a stay here that 16-year-old Beatrix Potter discovered the Lakes. She struck up a friendship with the vicar, Hardwicke Rawnsley, who went on to be a founding member of the National Trust. Rawnsley’s ideas would influence Beatrix throughout her life, and she used her wealth to buy land earmarked for development.
“Beatrix recognised that the only way to protect the Lake District was to own it,” explains Liz Hunter-MacFarlane. “They didn’t have the protection laws we have today.”
On her death in 1943, Beatrix Potter bequeathed 4,000 acres, including farms, cottages and flocks of sheep to the National Trust.
This lesser known side to Beatrix is explored in a new exhibition “The Right Sort of Woman” at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead. The 17th century building – previously her husband’s law office – contains original sketches, letters and keepsakes highlighting Beatrix’s role in the community. A shrewd businesswoman, she designed and patented the Peter Rabbit doll in 1903 – the world’s first ever licensed character, and by the 1940s had approved a Wedgwood and Royal Doulton range of pottery.
“Though Beatrix wasn’t really a supporter of the suffrage movement, she did a lot to empower women, especially in rural communities,’ says Liz. “She supported midwifery services and helped set up the first district nurse association.”
Beatrix became absorbed in her simple rural life to the extent that by the 1920s she would spend whole days farming. Of her books, she wrote “I am utterly tired of doing them, and my eyes are wearing out.”
Since 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit has been reprinted 300 times, and sold over 40 million copies worldwide. It’s hard to reconcile the author Beatrix Potter with all these other personalities: naturalist (she produced over 500 natural history drawings), conservationist, farmer and social reforme
Yet once you see the landscape that inspired her, it becomes clear that drawing, showcasing and ultimately saving the Lake District was her greatest achievement of all.
Where to stay
Peaceful Storrs Hall on the banks of Windermere (Photo: Ali Wood)
Beatrix Potter, Walter Scott and William Wordsworth are just a few of the guests to have partied at Storrs Hall, a Grade II listed mansion on the shores of Lake Windermere. During the Golden Age of regattas, paddle steamers and lavish moonlit parties, Storrs Hall greeted American tourists carried from Windermere station in charabancs.
These days the ambience is a little more relaxed – think afternoon tea in the drawing room by a roaring log fire. Gilded mirrors, oil paintings and imperious stag heads all add to its rural charm, whilst the Rosette-winning menu, Nespresso machines and TVs in the bathroom take decadence well into the 21st century.
There are 30 rooms in the mansion house and a new one-bedroom converted Boathouse with steam room, hot tub, fire pit and alfresco dining. Rooms start from £140 per night on a bed and breakfast basis. Rates at The Boathouse start from £480 per night for two guests.
To book a Beatrix Potter tour of the Lake District, visit Mountain Goat Tours