She was an imaginative storyteller, a talented illustrator, a smart entrepreneur, an enthusiastic farmer, an award-winning Herdwick sheep breeder, a committed conservationist and a generous philanthropist.
Called “the busy Bee” by her cousin, Beatrix, her parents and her brother began vacationing in the Lake District, and the family tradition continued for more than 20 years. In 1882, the Potters rented Wray Castle, a showy Gothic-style house near Ambleside that was built in the 1840s by James Dawson, a retired surgeon from Liverpool.
In 1911 and again in 1913, they stayed at Lindeth Howe, a summer holiday home a mile south of Bowness-on-Windermere that was built for a mill owner in 1879. While staying here, Beatrix illustrated The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes and The Tale of Pigling Bland; her amateur photographer father, Rupert, took many photographs of the house and gardens that are now displayed there. After Rupert died in 1915, Beatrix bought Lindeth Howe for her mother, Helen, who lived there until 1933. Today, it is a wonderful hotel where I stayed for the first week of my third Potter pilgrimage.
Guests can relax on the terrace overlooking six acres of gardens, enjoy afternoon tea and scones served on slabs of slate in the hotel’s sitting room and lounges, read books about Beatrix Potter and the Lake District in the library, and visit a flock of zebra finches in the aviary, a feature that dates back to when Mrs. Potter lived in the house. The best part of staying in room 209 of the hotel was this picture-perfect view of Lake Windermere and the fells beyond.
Shortly after the death of her fiancé, Norman Warne, 39-year-old Beatrix used a small inheritance, together with her royalties from The Tale of Peter Rabbit and six more of her books, to buy Hill Top Farm as a holiday retreat in 1905. In the years that followed, she bought one Lake District farm after the other, creating a significant holding of over 4,000 acres of land that she would eventually give to the National Trust. But Hill Top was always her favorite.
Located near the village of Sawrey, Hill Top’s farmhouse is filled with Beatrix’s favorite possessions, still arranged just as she left them. At this charming place, you can recognize some of the iconic scenes from her books, like the staircase where Tabitha Twitchit stood in The Tale of Tom Kitten, the oak dresser that Anna Maria passed with her plate of dough in The Roly-Poly Pudding, the longcase clock seen in The Tailor of Gloucester, and the green-painted garden gate from The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck. In fact, Jemima Puddle-duck was the name of a real duck at Hill Top, named for the ornithological illustrator Jemima Blackburn, whose 1868 book, Birds from Nature, was a present Beatrix received on her 10th birthday, and whom Beatrix met in 1891.
A path made from local Lakeland slate winds its way through the cottage garden, which Beatrix filled with lilies, hollyhocks, roses, phlox, saxifrage, Japanese anemones, snowdrops, daffodils and azaleas. She planted apple, pear and plum trees in the orchard. She created a walled vegetable garden and built an oak trellis to support espalier apples.
Beatrix was a member and benefactor of the Armitt Library and Museum in nearby Ambleside, donating over 120 books from her father’s library, her watercolors of Roman artifacts in the museum’s collection and a portfolio of her natural history drawings. Items from the Armitt’s Beatrix Potter archive are displayed in “Image & Reality: Beatrix Potter,” an exhibition that explores her life.
The three Armitt sisters – Sophia, Annie and Mary Louisa — had many intellectual interests, and were well-traveled. Sophia was an artist and botanist. Annie was a published novelist, a poet and a writer of short stories. Mary Louisa, the youngest, studied musicology, ornithology and social history. In 1909, they founded a library in Ambleside as a resource for local scholars, and it formally opened in 1912. The library houses one of the best collections of guidebooks to the Lake District, local history books, mountaineering volumes from the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District, and a number of rare items, including a 17th-century door to the Salutation Hotel in Ambleside that was removed in the 19th century and used to test brands made at a local blacksmith’s forge.
At The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction in Bowness-on-Windermere, you can walk through three-dimensional recreations of scenes from Beatrix’s books, virtually visit the Lake District places that inspired her, spend time in an outdoor garden that illustrates Beatrix’s work as a naturalist, shop for gifts inspired by Peter Rabbit and his friends, and take tea or lunch in a Beatrix Potter-themed tearoom. The attraction also created an award-winning Peter Rabbit Garden at the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show.
Miss Potter, the 2006 film about Beatrix Potter starring Renée Zellwegger and Ewan McGregor, includes several exterior location scenes that were filmed in the Lake District. The Lakeland slate farmhouse at Yew Tree farm, which Beatrix also owned, served as the exterior of Hill Top.
Some of my favorite books about Beatrix Potter and her connection to the Lake District are A Victorian Naturalist: Beatrix Potter’s Drawings from the Armitt Collection, by Eileen Jay, Mary Noble and Anne Stevenson Hobbs; “Beatrix Potter at Hill Top,” a chapter in The Writer’s Garden: How Gardens Inspired Our Best-Loved Authors, by Jackie Bennett, with photography by Richard Hanson; Beatrix Potter 1866-1943: The Artist and Her World, by Judy Taylor, Joyce Irene Whalley, Anne Stevenson Hobbs and Elizabeth M. Battrick; At Home with Beatrix Potter, the Creator of Peter Rabbit, by Susan Denyer; Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales, by Marta McDowell; Beatrix Potter’s Lakeland, by Hunter Davies; “The Two Lives and Two Legacies of Beatrix Potter,” an article by Deborah Robson and Donna Druchunas in the November/December 2010 issue of PieceWork; The Making of Miss Potter: The Official Guide to the Motion Picture, by Garth Pearce; Walking with Beatrix Potter: Fifteen Walks in Beatrix Potter Country, by Norman and June Buckley; The Art of Beatrix Potter: Sketches, Paintings, and Illustrations, with text by Emily Zach, foreword by Steven Heller, introduction by Linda Lear and afterword by Eleanor Taylor; and ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’: The Life of Beatrix Potter, by Matthew Dennison.
For more on the Armitt sisters and their library, see The Armitts: Sophia and Her Sisters, by Barbara Crossley, and Rydal, by Mary Armitt.