Beatrix Potter is best known as the celebrated children's author and creator of Peter Rabbit, and 2016 marks the 150th anniversary since her birth. Fewer people realise however that Beatrix was also a talented botanist, illustrator, farm manager, conservationist and shrewd businesswoman, and that without her visionary thinking, the Lake District might have been a very different place today.
A bit about Beatrix
Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 to a wealthy family in London. As children, she and her younger brother, Bertram, loved natural history and art. Beatrix was educated at home by a governess, and she and her brother were expected to marry well or to stay at home and manage the care of their parents in old age.
Holidays in the Lakes
Every summer the family took a three-month holiday, usually to Scotland, and Beatrix's first taste of the Lake District came when she was 16 and they rented Wray Castle. Other holidays were taken at large Lakeland houses including Lingholm and Fawe Park near Keswick, Holehird near Windermere, and Lakefield (now Eeswyke) in Near Sawrey.
The creation of Peter Rabbit
The Tale of Peter Rabbit was first written as a 'story letter' by Beatrix to the son of a former governess. She used her own pet rabbit, Peter, as a model for her drawings. As is so often the case with successful authors, she couldn't find a publisher, and so had 250 copies of the book printed herself with pen-and-ink line illustrations. The publishers Frederick Warne & Co reconsidered, and when the book was published with Beatrix's colour illustrations in 1902, 50,000 copies were sold in just over a year.
More Lakeland tales
Beatrix published more books in the following years, with the Lake District forming many of the settings, including:
• The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin set on Derwentwater.
• The Tale of Benjamin Bunny based on the garden at Fawe Park.
• The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle featuring scenery from the Newlands Valley.
• The Tale of Jeremy Fisher set on Esthwaite Water.
Marriage and personal loss
Beatrix grew close to Norman Warne, her publisher, and in 1905, he asked her to marry him. Despite the opposition of her parents, Beatrix accepted, but tragically just four weeks later Norman died of leukaemia. Although heartbroken, using her book royalties Beatrix was soon to be the owner of Hill Top Farm, a working Lake District farm at Near Sawrey. She quickly added vast quantities of land and further farms to her collection, and married local solicitor William Heelis in 1913, aged 47. Her parents had again been opposed to her choice of husband, until her brother confessed that he had been secretly married for the past 11 years!
Beatrix as a farmer and conservationist
On becoming Mrs Heelis, Beatrix threw herself into Lakeland life and farming, and was particularly interested in breeding Herdwick sheep. She became highly respected and was even elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association (an incredible achievement given the role women were expected to play at this time).
She had been close friends with the local vicar Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley from her very first trip to the Lake District, and became a great supporter of land preservation and the National Trust, which he co-founded in 1895. When she died in 1943 she left 4,000 acres of land, including fifteen farms, to her husband, which were to be preserved by the National Trust after his death.
Enjoying Beatrix Potter's Lake District
Today, there are several places you can visit to see for yourself Beatrix Potter's many talents and immerse yourself in her love of the Lake District:
Hill Top, Near Sawrey
After Beatrix and William Heelis married, they made their home at Castle Cottage, which can be seen a short distance from Hill Top. Beatrix continued to use Hill Top as her studio and for receiving fans of her books (often from America), who would frequently visit. The house is almost entirely as she wished it to be left, and gives a personal insight into her life.
Many of her book illustrations are based on the house and its furniture - see if you can spot the resemblances as you walk around! On 7 July 2016, Hill Top celebrates 70 years of care by the National Trust.
015394 36269, nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top
Wray Castle, near Ambleside
Wray is a mock-gothic fantasy castle hidden on the western shore of Windermere and the house in which Beatrix Potter enjoyed her first Lake District holiday.
Tarn Hows, near Coniston
Take an accessible two-mile walk around this beautiful tarn, part of the Monk Coniston estate preserved by Beatrix and the National Trust. Also look out for the rare Belted Galloway cattle and Herdwick sheep.
Take a look at our cottages in and around Coniston.
Allan Bank, Grasmere
Beatrix's friendship with Canon Rawnsley had a lasting effect on her. Rawnsley once lived at Allan Bank which, saved from fire in 2011, is currently a work in progress with the National Trust.
015394 35143, nationaltrust.org.uk/allan-bank-and-grasmere
Take a look at our properties in the Grasmere and Rydal area.
The Armitt Museum, Ambleside
Beatrix loved the study of mycology, and even wrote a research paper for the Linnean Society in London. She left her scientifically accurate and beautiful botanical illustrations and watercolours to the Armitt Museum, as well as personal first edition copies of her books. Discover more about this side of her life at the 'Image and Reality' exhibition.
Beatrix Potter Gallery, Hawkshead
The Beatrix Potter Gallery, a 17th-century house, was previously the office of Beatrix's solicitor husband William Heelis. See exhibitions of Beatrix's original artwork on display.
The World of Beatrix Potter, Bowness-on-Windermere
This gorgeous little attraction brings Beatrix Potter's tales to life with 3D scenes, sounds and smells from settings such as Jemima Puddleduck's woodland glade and Mr McGregor's greenhouse. Take a virtual walk of Beatrix Potter's Lakeland, see Peter Rabbit's outdoor garden and enjoy lunch or a snack in the tea room. This is a lovely rainy day activity for children.
Take a look at our cottages in Windermere.
To mark Beatrix's 150th anniversary, the Royal Mint has created a Beatrix Potter 50p piece featuring Peter Rabbit - will you be the first to find one in your purse or wallet?!
You'll find lots of special events happening in the Lake District in 2016, including:
Realism and Romance: Beatrix Potter, a Life Inspired by Nature (exhibition)
12 March - 30 October, Beatrix Potter Gallery, Hawkshead
Two Bad Mice: Mischief in Beatrix Potter's Tales (exhibition)
12 March - 30 June, except Fridays, Wordsworth House and Garden, Cockermouth
Beatrix Potter's Love of the Northern Lakes (exhibition)
16 July - 30 October, except Fridays, Wordsworth House and Garden, Cockermouth
Beyond Peter Rabbit - Beatrix Potter's Inspiration
February half-term until Christmas, Allan Bank, Grasmere
National Trust Book Festival
4,5 & 6 March (advance booking essential), Wray Castle, near Ambleside
Defenders of the Lakes: Potter and Rawnsley
Every day from 25 March, Allan Bank, Grasmere
Beatrix Potter's Big Birthday Picnic
28 July, various National Trust locations across the Lakes
Further information about National Trust events can be found at: nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/celebrating-beatrix-potters-anniversary-in-the-lake-district
The Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windermere:
Where is Peter Rabbit? The Beatrix Potter Musical Adventure, 27 June - 4 September
A unique stage show bringing to life Beatrix Potter's favourite characters. Recommended for ages 5+.
Meeting Bea, 16 September - 9 October
A charming play about Beatrix Potter's later life as Mrs Heelis the Herdwick sheep farmer and countrywoman.
Cottages in Beatrix Potter's Lakeland
Sally's Cottages has a number of properties with Beatrix Potter connections. The Parrock and Mill Cottage (above) are located in the beautiful Newlands Valley, the setting used in The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.
Penny Hill Farm holiday cottage in Eskdale (above), once owned by Beatrix Potter, is situated on a working farm which manages her favourite Herdwick sheep. Meanwhile, some of the film, 'Miss Potter', was shot in Loweswater and at our property Low Millgillhead.
To find the perfect cottage for you, whatever your ideal location, use our online search facility.