Visiting Peter Rabbit In Englands
Author Beatrix Potter spent her summers here, the
setting for her whimsical tales.
By Pam Hobbs
I was late for my appointment with Peter Rabbit, I
tried to explain to a petrol station attendant on our
way north. I asked if he knew a shortcut to Lake District
National Park. Unsure what to make of me, he paused
a bit. Then with a nod and a wink, he said he once had
a six-foot rabbit called Harvey but couldnt rightly
remember Peter, so perhaps wed best stay on the
That was early last year. By now Im sure he knows
all about Peter, since the cheeky bunnys l00th
birthday was commemorated with parties, events and exhibitions
staged across Britain throughout 2002. Now a travelling
exhibition has arrived at Torontos Royal Ontario
Museum, a little late for the centennial but still very
exciting for Peter Rabbit fans.
Englands Lake District, where Peter is celebrated
at all times, provided a perfect setting for Beatrix
Potters whimsical childrens tales. A beauty
spot on the face of northern England, this is a region
of mountains, lakes and fells (hills), and farmlands
neatly stitched together with ancient stone walls. It
offers pleasure cruises and elegant country-house hotels,
tiny hamlets and historic market towns you want to poke
around in. Best of all for Potter enthusiasts, this
glorious landscape offers reminders of Peter and pals
at almost every turn in every country lane.
It all began in September 1893 when the author wrote
to her former nannys five-year-old son, Noel Moore.
I dont know what to write to you,
she informed the ailing lad, so I shall tell you
a story about four little rabbits whose names are Flopsy,
Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. In the tale, illustrated
by Potter, Peter ignores his mothers warnings
and scampers off to a garden owned by Mr. McGregor,
a farmer who has already cooked Peters father
in a pie. There Peter feasts on lettuces, broad beans
and radishes, gets tangled up in a gooseberry net, and
barely escapes the dreaded Mr. McGregor before returning
home without his shoes or blue jacket with brass buttons.
To date, the 23 childrens books that evolved
from this letter have been translated into 20 languages
and sold 80 million copies. Little wonder then that
the Lake District receives 12 million visitors a year,
many of them walking around with books in hand, matching
the illustrations with real-life scenes.
Sites associated with the tales are so popular that
Hill Top, a 17th-century farm at Near Sawrey
where Potter lived and worked, is closed two days a
week to recover from its legions of visitors. In neighboring
Hawkshead, the Beatrix Potter Gallery receives so many
visitors it has timed admissions. Obviously these two
sites are a must, but I suggest you also wander the
countryside on the lookout for rabbits and frogs and
farm cats such as those featured in the little white
books. Let your imagination fly and you may see them
as the author did, dressed in country-style clothes
and performing human chores.
Beatrix Potter was introduced to the Lake District
in the early 1900s when her parents rented summer homes
here. Her favorite spot was Sawrey, a hamlet so small
we drove through without knowing it. Beatrix stayed
here often in a summer rental she first knew as Lakeland,
which later became Ees Wyke Country House Hotel. Most
of todays guests, need I add, are here to explore
the haunts of Potters characters.
Our first stop was in the holiday town of Bowness on
a crowded Sunday afternoon. In a former laundry, The
World of Beatrix Potter presents a walk-through
exhibition of three-dimensional scenes so realistic
you can almost see Peters whiskers twitching.
Theyre all here: Jemima Puddle-Duck wearing her
blue bonnet and fringed shawl, looking for a place to
nest; Mr. Jeremy Fisher, who lived in a damp house
amongst the butter cups at the end of a pond . . .;
two jaunty little pigs from The Tale of Pigling Bland;
the hard-working hedgehog washerwoman Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.
A car ferry from Bowness took us across Lake Windermere
to its west shore, into landscapes immortalized by some
of Englands best-loved artists and poets. This
is what we expect of Peter Rabbits playground:
narrow winding roads are overhung by ancient trees;
gentle hills etched in wildflowers are dotted with plump
sheep. We pass the occasional shepherd with his trusty
dog, and rosy-cheeked hikers who wave cheerily as we
drive on by. Soon, small unobtrusive signs point us
to Hill Top, where Potter lived surrounded by her animal
Hill Tops prolific gardens appear often in the
books. A crazy-paved footpath leads us from the road,
cutting through tousle-headed azaleas, majestic hollyhocks,
lilies, rock plants, roses and fruit trees haphazardly
interspersed with vegetables to give the informal cottage-garden
ambience Potter so loved. All thats missing today
is Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit running along the path with
her nude kittens, anxious to have them out
of the way before her friends arrive for tea.
Were you to tell me the author lived here still I would
believe you. Her illustrations are so true to life that
I can readily see a cat wearing a blue print dress sweeping
the front porch, Jemima nesting in the Canterbury bells,
and Peter hopping about in the cabbage patch.
At Potters request, the property is exactly as
it was when she lived here. Her clogs are on the hearth,
her spinning wheel and rocking chair nearby. Potted
geraniums flourish on window seats, horse brasses glint
from the wooden mantel. Almost all of the nooks, crannies
and furnishings are replicated in watercolors in one
or more of Potters tales. To mention just a few:
the wooden sentry-box of a porch with cabbage-sized
pink roses clinging to it is featured in The Tale of
Tom Kitten; an antique dresser is readily recognized
from The Tale of Samuel Whiskers; the long case clock
appears in The Tailor of Gloucester.
It is easy to visualize Potter here, sketching her
farm animals and wildlife friends outdoors, or writing
at her 18th-century bureau in the New Room. Her Treasure
Room contains mementoes the author chose to have on
display a miniature china tea set, a fully furnished
dolls house and bronzed characters from her books.
Personal memorabilia include bracelets and pendants,
assorted l9th-century chinaware, bits and bobs she used
in her illustrations.
Across the road from Hill Top, you can see the now privately-owned
white house which was Potters second farm purchase.
Following her marriage, she and her husband lived there
for some 30 years, keeping Hill Top as a place where
she could work and entertain her literary friends.
After her marriage, Potter wrote only four more in
the series of little white books. One, The Tale of Johnny
Town Mouse, is set in Hawkshead, established in the
9th century and a market town since the 12th. Pounded
by torrential rain, we arrived in this toy-like community
where quaint cobbled alleys are lined with bow-windowed
buildings, lopsided and stooped with old age. Signs
advertise the sale of maggots for fishermen; shops specialize
in hiking and fishing gear. A plaque on the 16th-century
school tells us poet William Wordsworth was a student
here for eight years from 1779.
Beatrixs husband, William Heelis, used to practise
law in Hawksheads historic offices which now house
the Beatrix Potter Gallery. Here you can see watercolors
submitted with the manuscripts, and realize Potters
tremendous dedication to detail. The same can be said
of the simple black-and-white sketches illustrating
the original privately published Peter Rabbit book.
Displays include the letter to young Noel Moore that
started it all, as well as correspondence from the author
in her new role as Mrs. Heelis, sheep farmer.
Potter was also deeply involved in the preservation
of Lake District farmlands. Thanks to the phenomenal
success of Peter Rabbit and pals, she was able to buy
a total of 15 area farms for conservation, ending up
with 4,000 acres of prime land during her lifetime.
She also put her celebrity to use as a National Trust
fundraiser, enabling this organization to purchase additional
land for conservation. Sixty years after her death,
her generosity continues as proceeds from property admissions,
book and souvenir sales continue to pour into National
Trust coffers. As a result, regional landscapes have
remained virtually unchanged in a hundred years.
We saw the area at its loveliest a few days later when
we set off for London at that magical time of morning
soon after dawn. Roadside flowers were heavy with dew
and sheep huddled cosily against the cool stone walls.
I found myself wondering why Potter never drew sheep
dressed in striped woolly jumpers and knitted trousers.
Rabbits were everywhere, breakfasting on blackberries
beneath roadside hedges, playing hide-and-seek, dashing
in front of our car on some urgent errand, or perhaps
a dare. The last one wore a shrunken blue jacket with
huge brass buttons. And you know something? He didnt
look at all out of place. n