Beatrix Potter is one of the crowning jewels of the Lake District. Her tales of Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the Flopsy Bunnies and many others are synonymous with the area after Potter took inspiration from her surroundings to create characters and stories that would become immortalised in the world of children’s literature, creating a lasting legacy both for her writing and for the Lakes.
Born Helen Beatrix Potter on July 28th 1866 in Kensington, West London, her parents were wealthy and privileged; she was home-schooled by governesses and experienced a sheltered childhood away from other children aside from her younger brother, with her holidays spent in Scotland and the Lake District. It was on these trips that she developed an adoration of flowers and landscapes, of which she subsequently spent lots of her free time painting alongside her illustrations of her numerous childhood pets.
Tarn Hows, one of the many plots of land that Potter owned and inspired her writing
She frequented London art galleries throughout her teenage years, before gaining an invested interest in the sciences in her twenties. From astronomy to archaeology to entomology, Potter eventually developed a passion for mycology and fungi, putting a great amount of work into research and refining her knowledge in the field. Throughout this time to make money she and her brother Walter printed cards for special occasions, most of which featured illustrations of mice and rabbits, a feature that would go on to be a staple of her books.
On her holidays to Scotland, Potter would often write to the children of Annie Carter Moore, one of the governesses who taught her as a child. It was within these letters that her infamous characters were brought to life for the first time, and it was one particular story detailing four little rabbits that began the journey from science prodigy to writer extraordinaire. After a battle to find a buyer, she used her own money to publish a draft of her first book for family and friends before a firm that originally declined her decided to accept, publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit on October 2nd 1902.
The immediate success of her book made Beatrix Potter a household name. She went on to create a multitude of whimsical tales, illustrating characters with both her words and imagery: Jemima Puddleduck, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Mr Jeremy Fisher, the Flopsy Bunnies and Squirrel Nutkin are just some of the names that became immortalised in her works, as the trailblazing author’s ambition helped make her a fortune and propel her to the top of the list of renowned literary artists.
With the substantial amount that she made, Potter invested in an abundance of land and property in the Lake District, the first of which was Hill Top in Sawrey, two miles from Hawkshead, in 1905. She married a local solicitor, William Heelis in 1913, and learnt the ways of agriculture and farming before settling into life in the Lakes. Seven of her tales are based in or around Hill Top, including characters Tom Kitten and Samuel Whiskers, who she depicted living there. Her ardour for land in the region related to her passion for conservation, purchasing areas including the Monk Coniston Estate, Tarn Hows and Castle Farm. This love for the environment was carried on after her death, when she entrusted almost all of her original illustrations to the National Trust.
“Illustration by Beatrix Potter” by Sofi / CC BY 2.0
Beatrix Potter’s works were so loved thanks to those very illustrations that helped bring to life her beautifully articulated characters, alongside the human-like qualities she granted them, and the basis of their homes being inspired by real-life Lake District locations. Squirrel Nutkin and Benjamin Bunny have roots in Derwentwater and Fawe Park, whilst Peter Rabbit in his garden, Miss Tiggy-Winkle in her kitchen, and Jemima Puddleduck on her hill all created a synonymous link with the reader and the commonplace settings of everyday life.
The fascinating woman, author and illustrator passed away on December 22nd 1943, at the age of 77. She left thousands of pounds to the local area, as well as 14 farms, 4000 acres of land and 25,000 sheep. Many pieces of her artwork were donated to a local gallery, just one of the many attractions dedicated to her literary works around the Lake District. Known as the Armitt Library and located in the pretty village of Hawkshead it was, for Potter’s life, better known to her as the office of her husband, William. Now owned by the National Trust, it is the Beatrix Potter Gallery, where her paintings and drawings are commemorated for all to enjoy.
Yew Tree Farm, one of the many things belonging to Beatrix Potter that she bequeathed to the National Trust after her death
One of the most prominent of her lasting legacies is her old residence, Hill Top, which to this day stands as a time capsule to her life, with many of her beloved treasures on display for the adoring public. The 17th century house appears as though time has stood still within, featuring many references to stories in her books. Owned by the National Trust, it has a time-ticketed system to ensure it is never too crowded, and is popular with visitors from all around.
From Hawkshead and the home of Potter, you can take a half an hour ferry across the lake, docking in Bowness-on-Windermere before a short drive takes you to the World of Beatrix Potter Attraction. From the rooms designed intricately to emulate those of the characters’ homes in the books, to the virtual tour, Beatrix Potter shop, and beautifully themed tea room, there is so much to explore at this fantastic attraction. It is an accessible and family-friendly world dedicated to the works of a literary genius, built to ensure people of all ages can still experience the magic of Peter Rabbit and company for years to come.
In an era where women were discouraged from flourishing and men were the business-savvy workers, Beatrix Potter was a trailblazer, accomplishing more in her lifetime than many could ever imagine. An artist, storyteller, botanist, environmentalist, farmer and impeccable businesswoman, Potter was a visionary. Single-mindedly determined and ambitious, she overcame professional rejection, academic humiliation, and personal heartbreak to create an eternally revered series of characters that have been forever immortalised in her enchanting words and imagery.