As a show about the writer opens at the V&A, William Cook visits the Lake District spots that inspired her lovely books
In the Beatrix Potter Gallery, Hawkshead, Alice Sage, a National Trust curator, is showing me a precious picture that takes me right back to my early childhood.
It’s a tiny illustration from The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. What a thrill to see the original painting after all these years – so small and fragile, and yet so full of life. Half a century since I first read her books, I still haven’t grown out of Beatrix Potter. Here, in the antiquated office where her husband, a local solicitor, used to work, her characters seem to live and breathe, just as they did when I was small.
In February, a Beatrix Potter exhibition opens at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Beatrix wasn’t only a children’s author (though, to my mind, there’s no higher calling). She was also a scientist, a conservationist – and a brilliant artist too. This extensive show will shed fresh light on all these achievements. But to understand her properly, you have to travel to the west bank of Windermere, where she made her home and set so many of her stories.
The Lake District was her great escape from the stifling constrictions of her affluent upbringing, in a grand but dreary house in Kensington, around the corner from the V&A. She fell in love with the Lake District in her teens, and in 1913 she moved up here and became a farmer.
Over the next 30 years, she bought up thousands of acres of farmland, to save it from developers. When she died, in 1943, she left most of it to the National Trust.
If it hadn’t been for her, the Lake District would look very different today. A wander around the landscape she preserved is a great way to get to know her.
The last time I did this trip, I brought my five-year-old daughter and she loved it. Now she’s 17, far too cool to tag along.
So this time I came alone, and it was a journey tinged with melancholy. As Beatrix (who had no children) understood, though childhood is fleeting its memory lingers for a lifetime. For me, and millions like me, that memory is preserved in her timeless books.
Unlike a lot of places in the Lake District, Windermere is easy to get to. And it’s one of the few places in the Lakes where you really don’t need a car. My Avanti train from London took barely three hours, with just one change, at Oxenholme. It’s the most comfy way to travel here – a lot less hassle than driving.
From Bowness-on-Windermere, you can visit all the main Beatrix Potter sites on foot, as long as you’re fairly fit and have a few days to spare. If you’re not feeling all that energetic, or if you’re simply pushed for time, I’d recommend Mountain Goat, a local firm that’s been ferrying lazy hikers like me around the Lakes for 50 years. Nowadays their speciality is guided tours, including a bespoke Beatrix Potter tour. I decided to give that a go on my first day, and then walk around a few of the other sites during the days to come.
My friendly Mountain Goat driver, Gerry, met me at Windermere station, and drove me to Wray Castle. From a distance, Wray Castle looks medieval, but it’s actually Victorian. Beatrix spent several summers here in her teens and twenties, with her parents. It was here that she met Canon Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust. He encouraged her drawing and writing. They remained friends for life.
Wray Castle is now owned by the National Trust and, thanks to Beatrix, so is much of the surrounding countryside.
There’s nothing to see inside the castle but that doesn’t really matter. The exterior is uplifting, and the lakeside setting sublime. You can picture Beatrix here as a shy and bookish teenager, exploring these woods and meadows, sketching the things she saw.
Our next stop was Hill Top, just up the road. Beatrix bought this quaint old farm in 1905, with the royalties from her early books. She left the farmhouse to the National Trust, and they’ve kept it just the way she left it. It’s a dark, little house, with low ceilings and small windows (‘I never saw such a place for hide & seek’).
She set The Tale of Tom Kitten here, and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers – her most sinister story, in which Tom is imprisoned in the attic and rolled in pastry to make a pie.
The surrounding village, Sawrey, is almost implausibly picturesque (‘nearly as perfect a place as I ever lived in’). It looks like a village in a children’s picture book – which is fitting: Beatrix used it as a setting for several of her stories, most notably The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. A century later, it’s hardly changed. The local pub, the Tower Bank Arms, still looks just the same.
We finished our tour back at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead. Hawkshead is the town in The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, written in 1918. By now, Beatrix was in her fifties – more a farmer than an author now. Her best books were behind her. ‘When one is up to the eyes in work with real animals, it makes one despise paper-book animals,’ she said.
I spent the night at Lindeth Howe, a handsome Tudorbethan villa on the leafy outskirts of Bowness. Nowadays it’s a smart hotel (their Beatrix’s Footsteps package includes a guided tour with Mountain Goat) but it used to be a private house. After her father died, Beatrix bought it for her mother to live in. Beatrix dropped in fairly often.
It was here that she put the finishing touches to The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes and The Tale of Pigling Bland.
Beatrix’s relations with her mother were always strained, and it’s telling that this house is a safe distance from Sawrey, on the other side of the lake. Here, on the busy east bank, you can see how the west bank might have ended up if Beatrix hadn’t intervened. It’s attractive but, compared with Sawrey, it feels almost suburban – a jolly holiday resort for sightseers like me.
Next morning, bright and early, I set off for the Armitt Museum in Ambleside (the nicest way to get there is on one of the pleasure cruisers that criss-cross the lake). Before she started writing children’s books, Beatrix was a budding botanist, and she left her precise drawings of fungi to the Armitt. Today, they form the basis of an illuminating little exhibition about her life.
On my last day, I caught the ferry across the lake from Lindeth Howe and walked along the lakeside path to Wray Castle. Because of Beatrix, this wild and peaceful shoreline is protected from all future development, bequeathed to the National Trust in perpetuity.
As I retraced my steps back to the ferry, I remembered her words, written when she was 70: ‘It sometimes happens that the town child is more alive to the fresh beauty of the country than a child who is country-born.’