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The trail of Beatrix Potter

Kalyani Prasher | Updated on January 18, 2018
Tea at Ms Potter’s Hill Top, the 17th century cottage where Beatrix Potter lived for most of her adult life, is now a popular tourist hotspot

Potter2   -  Dayve Ward

Rabbit season The Peter Rabbit Garden in Bowness-on-Windermere Image courtesy: ©www.stevenbarber.com

rabbit   -  Steven Barber

As England celebrates 150 years since the birth of one of its most-loved authors, we go on a quest to explore the land that inspired her tales

Hill Top is a small farmhouse in the Cumbria county of northern England, home to the Lake District. Located on the only road of a tiny village called Near Sawrey, it is surrounded by a mixed garden, some wild patches, some manicured ones, and flowers blooming everywhere. Beatrix Potter bought this 17th-century cottage in 1905, from the money she made off her most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

I walked in to find the house as she left it in 1943, as if she had walked out for a stroll and would be back any moment now. Hill Top is where she worked (her actual, much bigger home, is across the field and not open to visitors), spending most of her days writing and attending to her gardens. The chair she sat on, the nibs she wrote with, the few letters she wrote to friends and family: you can see all of it as good as currently in use; the original furniture intact, cloths and cups and drawers, all transporting you immediately to the early 20th century.

It’s here that I learned that Potter was a conservationist more than an author. She wrote 24 famous tales involving animals, including the wily and handsome Mr Tod the fox (my favourite), which does give a clue as to her love for nature, but it seems to me now that she wrote merely to protect the lands of Lake District. With every book that sold well, she bought acres of farms and immediately sold most of them to the National Trust at no profit. Whatever she did not sell, she took care of all her life and left it to the Trust after her death. By buying land with the sole purpose of protecting it, Potter emerged as the leading conservationist in the area, contributing greatly to what is now known as the Lake District National Park, an area of immense natural beauty that we can enjoy, thanks to Potter and her tales of rabbits and ducks and badgers.

Evidence of the land around her house inspiring her stories is everywhere. I come out of Hill Top and find, conveniently, a pub located next to it where I decide to eat lunch. The Tower Banks Arms is a great place to grab a sandwich and beer, or pasta if you want something more substantial, but it has something more going for it: it was featured in one of the pages of The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, a drawing you can find readily in the pub; the proud staff is always ready to show it to you. I suppose it is only human to pencil in your surroundings in your stories, but for someone who has read the book far away in India, it is childishly thrilling to see the real thing: especially when you see it on the page again, sitting inside the real thing!

One of the staff members at the pub set me off on a Beatrix Potter trail. In a village next door to Near Sawrey, Hawkshead, you can see the original artworks from the tales, in the Beatrix Potter Gallery maintained by the National Trust. Hawkshead is one of the tiniest villages in the UK, with a population of 400. Taking that into consideration, its connection to the literary world is quite remarkable. Not only is it home to Potter’s gallery but also to William Wordsworth’s old school, the Hawkshead Grammar School. A huge placard announces this at the school gate, and several people stop and gawk in awe. It’s amazing to think of such famous names attached to such a tiny place. Potter’s gallery is located in another 17th-century house, its narrow corridors and staircases leading you to rooms full of her watercolours and illustrations.

Apart from the permanent collection, this year they have a special exhibition called ‘On Holiday With Beatrix Potter’, displaying how her holidays inspired her stories. There is a chest full of pebbles and butterflies that she and her brother collected, preserved carefully to this day

Among the collection is something that shocked me: the skin of her pet rabbit Benjamin. “She skinned her pet rabbit?!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. That’s not very nice, is it? It makes you question her whole love for animals. Apparently she saved his skin because she was very fond of him. All too intense for me, frankly, and something I haven’t quite wrapped my head around yet.

At least she didn’t skin her sheep. All through the travels from one place to another in the Lake District, you can see the Herdwick sheep, native to the region and distinct, thanks to their lighter skin colour on the face (almost white). Potter was once a prize-winning breeder of these sheep, reminding me of that great old man Lord Emsworth, and his Empress. To think that animal and flower competitions are still a real thing in parts of England (the England in Bloom competition is on right now, the results out later in the year) makes you wonder about the quality of life one leads, where Brexit is bigger news than who won the Annual Pig Championship. Surely, we live in a world which is the wrong way around.

Windermere is the biggest lake among the 16 lakes and waterbodies of the Lake District, and you can criss-cross it on a boat to visit several places of interest, including the Wray Castle, where Potter once stayed on an extended holiday to celebrate her 16th birthday. The importance of this trip cannot be overstated: this was Potter’s first ever visit to the Lake District. She belonged to a wealthy family and lived in London and could afford a luxurious holiday in this large house, which was let out by its owners as a holiday home for the rich and the famous (Wordsworth attended many parties here). Potter’s love for the Lake District began from Wray Castle and ended with her donating over 15 farmlands to the National Trust, her name becoming synonymous with the land she so loved.

Wray Castle opened to the public a couple of years ago, and the walk to the castle from where you get off the boat is only about a kilometre but it is totally green and very lovely — one of the best walks I did on this trip, through droopy trees and lined by large fields on one side. It’s a mock-Gothic castle, because its owners, the Dawsons, wanted something grand and elaborate (they even made fake ruins!) and a tour of the castle is quite worth it, even if you are not a Potter fan.

Off the boat, however, and in the town of Bowness-on-Windermere is one of the best things any Beatrix Potter fan, child or adult, can do. I visited the World of Beatrix Potter with a tiny bit of cynicism, expecting to be amused in the way grown-ups are when they see things for little children, but it turned out my cynicism was quite misplaced. A permanent exhibition that brings to life all the characters from the tales, this is a wonderland full of artistic brilliance. Stills from ‘Peter Rabbit’, ‘Jeremy Fisher’, ‘Mr Tod’, ‘Jemima Puddle-Duck’ and other stories are depicted in this maze of rooms using life-sized statues and 3D art; for those who don’t know much about the stories, this is a good place to learn a bit about the tales, and for those who know the tales, this is magical. Art lovers will admire the scale — there are some really tiny figures — and detail of the exhibits, including the Peter Rabbit garden outside, complete with his lost shoe. There are also tips on gardening and descriptions of various plants and flowers that are really interesting and helpful for a beginner. This was definitely an unexpected pleasure.

The shop here is great to buy souvenirs for younger friends or children, and there is a tea shop where I proceeded to sit down for a cup of Earl Grey, scones and clotted cream. As I was eating and enjoying the view from the window, I learned, from a chatty co-traveller, that as an older woman Potter could be quite nasty to the neighbourhood kids, often telling on them and pulling them up for making noise or playing pranks. At least one of the children later wrote in a memoir that they were scared of passing by her house. This reminded me of Potter skinning her pet rabbit. Perhaps she had a secret evil side that I can return to explore: as good an excuse as any to return to the beautiful Lake District.

Kalyani Prasher is a Delhi-based freelance writer



Fact File

Getting there

Take the British Airways flight from any Indian metro to Manchester via London; Lake District is a 2-hour drive from there.

Getting around

It’s best to hire a car at the Manchester airport and drive around. You can also get a boat pass from www.windermerelakecruises.co.uk/ and combine that with (a lot of) walking. There is a Rails, Sails & Tales package currently that includes train, boats and sightseeing connected to Beatrix Potter.

Stay

Waterhead, Ambleside

or The Wild Boar Inn

Tip

Eat the special smoked steaks at the charming restaurant at The Wild Boar, one of the best places to eat in town. Shop at Grasmere for the famous gingerbread made only in this little town near Bowness-on-Windermere.



Published on July 29, 2016

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