Beatrix Potter is best known as the celebrated children's author and creator of Peter Rabbit.
However, fewer people realise that Beatrix was also a talented botanist, illustrator, farm manager, conservationist and shrewd businesswoman. Without her visionary thinking, the Lake District might have been a very different place today.
Visit the Lake District to discover the impact Beatrix Potter had on this beautiful landscape, walk in her footsteps and explore the many destinations she held dear to see how she made her mark on the national park.
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. However, they rented Wray Castle when Beatrix was 16, which gave the girl her first taste of the Lake District. Other holidays were taken at large Lakeland houses including Lingholm and Fawe Park near Keswick, Holehird near Windermere, and Lakefield (now Ees Wyke) at 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 Mr Jeremy Fisher, set on Esthwaite Water.
Marriage and Personal Loss
Beatrix grew close to her publisher Norman Warne 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 soon bought 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 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 15 farms and eight cottages – to her husband, which were to be preserved by the National Trust after his death. The National Trust now safeguards this important legacy on behalf of the nation and looks after many sites that you can visit today.
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:
Wray Castle is pivotal to the story of Beatrix Potter. It was here that the Potter family stayed on their very first trip to the Lake District and became friends with Canon Hardwick Rawnsley. He was to have a lasting impact upon the young Beatrix.
From here, it’s an easy drive to Hawkshead, where you will find the Beatrix Potter Gallery. Beatrix’s husband, William Heelis, worked here as a solicitor and land agent. Nowadays, the building houses many of Beatrix’s original watercolours for her children’s books.
As an optional detour, take the road towards Coniston and head to Tarn Hows. This picturesque beauty spot was bought by Beatrix Potter in 1930 to preserve it from unwelcome development and later given to the National Trust. Take an accessible 2-mile walk around this beautiful tarn and look out for rare Belted Galloway cattle and Herdwick sheep.
Nearby is Yew Tree Farm – one of Beatrix’s tenanted farms and the most photogenic of all. The farm featured as the stand-in location for Hill Top in the film Miss Potter.
Return to Hawkshead and drive along the west shore of Esthwaite Water. At the far end of the lake is a short nature trail based on characters from Beatrix Potter’s books. Beatrix sketched water lilies here and the lake was the likely setting for The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher.
Approaching Near Sawrey, look across to the large white house on the left. This is Ees Wyke Country House (formerly Lakefield), another of the Potter family’s holiday homes. Whilst staying here in 1896, Beatrix fell in love with the local area.
On the proceeds of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter bought Hill Top in the village of Near Sawrey. The house, Beatrix Potter's home, and its surroundings inspired her to illustrate several more children’s books including The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and The Tale of Tom Kitten.
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!
Have a break for refreshments at the Tower Bank Arms in Near Sawrey, a traditional Lakeland pub that featured in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.
Continue down to the car ferry point and cross over to Bowness-on-Windermere. A short hop, skip and jump away is The World of Beatrix Potter. 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 tearoom. This is a lovely rainy-day activity for children.
End the day at the Armitt Museum in 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.
Cottages in Beatrix Potter's Lakeland
Sally's Cottages has a number of properties with Beatrix Potter connections. The Parrock and Mill Cottage are located in the beautiful Newlands Valley, the setting used in The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.
It's rumoured that Beatrix spent some time at Bongate Cottage, now Beechcroft, which was built by the Heelis family.
To find the perfect cottage for you, whatever your ideal location, use our online search facility.