Authors At Home: Childhood Memories With Beatrix Potter

Like millions of other children around the world, the illustrated tales of Beatrix Potter were among my earliest reading materials.

On my first (and only) holiday in England’s Lake District a few years ago, I was looking forward to visiting the farmhouse and gardens which feature prominently in six of her books.

Sadly, the place was awash with coach-trip passengers and other day-trippers all with the same idea. On a hot and sunny day, it was too much of an ordeal to join the lengthy queue for admission.

The farmhouse is so well hidden from the road that it was only by looking at booklets in the local tourism office that I got even a sense of what I’d missed.

Herbaceous borders lining the path to the door of Hilltop

Hilltop is a traditionally-built stone and slate-roofed farmhouse that dates from the seventeenth century with an extension built by Potter for her farm manager and his family.

Beatrix Potter bought the estate as a 34-acre working farm in 1905, using the proceeds from her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Only a year earlier, her fiancé Norman Warne had died as a result of leukaemia. She sought solace in the Lake District, a place she knew and loved from many childhood holidays.

She continued to live in London initially because, as a single woman she was expected to care for her ageing parents. Nevertheless she visited Hilltop as often as possible, sketching the house and garden, the surrounding countryside and animals for her new books.

Beatrix Potter. via Wikipedia. Creative Commons License

From 1909 Beatrix Potter began to buy other property in and around the nearby village of Sawrey, including Castle Farm and Castle Cottage. Her intention was to prevent the land becoming developed for commercial purposes.

In 1913, aged 47, she married William Heelis, a local solicitor, and moved permanently to Castle Cottage which was bigger and more convenient than Hill Top. They made this their permanent home, Beatrix spending less time on writing and more on farming, eventually becoming an expert breeder in Herdwicks (an indigenous Cumbrian sheep).

She retained a strong attachment to her first house, keeping both a study and a studio within the farmhouse until her death in 1943. In her will she bequeathed the estate to the National Trust, with the stipulation that nothing was to be moved or altered and no-one would ever live in the house. Hill Top she said should be  “presented to my visitors as if I had just gone out and they had just missed me.”

Changes were however required, particularly in the garden. An apple tree and a wisteria over the garden shed, both planted by the author, had survived. But other parts of the garden had to be restored using letters, photographs and diary entries to indicate the types of plants she had grown and where she had placed them. Inside the house, wallpaper has been replaced and a rug re-woven to match illustrations in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.

Entrance Hall at Hill Top with Chippendale-style chairs often used in
Beatrix Potter’s illustrations.

If I’d been able to get inside, according to the National Trust I’d have discovered “a time-capsule of her life” where artefacts are arranged adjacent to the illustration in which they appear in her books. Every room contains a reference to a picture in one of the six books she wrote while living in Lakeland: The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-PanThe Tale of Tom KittenThe Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding.

It sounds a magical place to visit. Unfortunately that’s not possible at the moment. Like most of the National Trust properties, the house is closed because of Covid-19 restrictions although the garden and tea-shop are open. I’ll just have to be patient a little while longer.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

20 thoughts on “Authors At Home: Childhood Memories With Beatrix Potter

  • October 13, 2020 at 5:33 pm
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    Karen, I visited Hill Top as a child, but sadly don’t have the greatest memory of it, so it would be lovely to go again some day. I hope you are able to visit, too. 🙂

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    • October 16, 2020 at 8:39 pm
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      So many of the National Trust properties are not going to re-open. Let’s hope this one does

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  • October 4, 2020 at 10:41 am
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    I had Peter Rabbit books and matching dinner bowl and cup (I wonder if mum still has them). You’ll have to visit the house as soon as restrictions are lifted and before tourism restarts – I read somewhere that Covid-19 has made Venice quite bearable, so hopefully that will apply everywhere.

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    • October 5, 2020 at 9:58 am
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      That’s a sweet image now of yiu with your matching bowl and cup. If your mum is as sentimental as mine, she probably does have them still.

      Reply
  • October 2, 2020 at 4:12 pm
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    What a gorgeous place, how sad that you weren’t able to manage the queue. Recently, in doing some biographical research, I learned that Beatrix Potter’s stories were among the early favourites of biologist and, later environmentalist, Rachel Carson–it makes sense!

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    • October 3, 2020 at 6:02 pm
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      That’s a connection I would never have anticipated

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  • October 2, 2020 at 1:52 pm
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    I enjoyed Beatrix Potter’s books as a child, read them to my children, and in my middle years, I bought a lovely omnibus edition, complete with the beautiful delicate illustrations, purely for my own pleasure. I think my favourite story is Squirrel Nutkin, but my favourite illustrations are from The Tailor of Gloucester. Periodically I take it down and read the stories. A wonderful antidote to the year 2020.

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    • October 3, 2020 at 6:04 pm
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      I love the idea of you reading that omnibus edition, putting all the awful world news out of your head while worrying about nothing more troubling than what those little creatures are up to

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  • October 2, 2020 at 1:28 pm
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    It looks gorgeous from the inside, but I think the inside is a bit dark for me…. But lovely. I don’t think I read her as a child but my children loved the stories.

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  • October 1, 2020 at 11:15 pm
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    I’d love to visit the house.

    I have a strong memory from childhood – and a sad one now that I know the full story as an adult – a girl came to my school, an only child, who had more toys than anyone I’d ever met. The crown jewel (from my perspective!) was the full set of Potter books, housed in a tiny wooden bookcase of their own. I remember telling my mum about the books and the book case – I had a few of Potter books and I loved them. Many years later, I learnt that the girl had had a brother who died in an accident and I think the message was ‘she has things, but doesn’t have her brother’. I still love Potter’s stories and illustrations, but they’re now linked to this girl from my childhood.

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  • October 1, 2020 at 11:01 pm
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    Sounds fabulous. I hope you see it in the near future!

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    • October 3, 2020 at 6:06 pm
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      It’s quite a small property so very hard for the National Trust to make it viable for people to enter and stay safe. So I suspect it’s closed until next year when (hopefully) the worst of the pandemic will be over

      Reply
  • October 1, 2020 at 10:12 pm
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    The Beatrix Potter home would be so fun to see minus the crowds!

    Reply

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