The wonderful Beatrix Potter characters like Jemima Puddleduck bring Kevin Pilley back to his childhood as he revels in the 150th anniversary celebrations of the writer’s birth.
The front door rang a bell and the carpet struck a chord. The longcase grandfather clock too. The dresser, the chairs and the cupboard were all equally familiar. So was the staircase. There was a lot of déjà vu going on.
Everything brought back childhood memories. Notably of my mother impersonating a hedgehog. And my wife being a pig. We all grew up with those white jackets.
Beatrix Potter — the 150th anniversary of her birth is this year — lived on and off in the 17th century Hill Top cottage near Lake Windermere in the Lake District of Cumbria (old Cumberland). She used it regularly in illustrations for her famous children’s books.
“The range is a replica. So is the wallpaper but everything is virtually as she left it,” a lady volunteered.
“The clock on the landing is in the portrait of Tabitha Twitchit.”
I asked her where I had seen the carpet before.
“In The Tales of Samuel Whiskers,” she smiled in a way that suggested she enjoyed jogging memories every day.
The doll’s house appears in Tale Of The Two Bad Mice. In the parlour is a 1902 coronation teapot seen in The Tale of The Pie and the Patty-Pan. The garden was used in drawings for The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907). The Tale of Ginger and Pickles (1909) is set in the village shop.
“The owner wanted to be included in one of her books. He turned up as dormouse!” said the lady.
“The Tale of Pigling Bland featured her actual pet rescue pig, Pig-wig. Kep the kindly collie was based on a real dog. And Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca were real too.”
Generations are united by the Complete Treasury collections by Frederick Warne & Co. Potter initially published them privately. First edition can now fetch five figures.
With the royalties from her “little books” Beatrix Potter bought Hill Top and its 34-acres in 1905 and left it to the British National Trust on her death in 1943.
Potter was a feisty traditionalist and environmentalist , protesting against a hydroplane factory and proposed railway routes. She valued period furniture and stonework.
She bought and restored old farms. She was a committed fell farmer and was very hands-on in rural issues like footpath maintenance.
She bred pigs and won prizes for her Herdwick sheep. She was also an expert on fungi and its reproduction techniques.
Self-taught Potter left almost all her original drawings and watercolours to the trust.
She drew from all sources and locations. The pond in Peter the Rabbit is probably from Tenby in west Wales. The potting shed from her uncle’s house Gwaenygog in north Wales. Fawe Park on Lake Derwentwater was the setting for The Tale of Flopsy Bunny. St Herbert’s Island in the middle of the lake is probably ‘Owl Island’ in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.
Potter, who affected clogs as a rebellion against her strict upbringing, used furniture and vegetable gardens seen on trips to south Devon and Melford Hall, Suffolk.
However, Hill Top Farm is the heart of Potter country.
Every room there echoes with the past, preserving history. Both Beatrix’s and yours. Voices come back to you.
My mother did a very good Mrs Tiddywinkle but struggled with Mr Town-Mouse. She was at her sweetest and gentlest when she was Mrs Hackee. My father was an occasional and very reluctant King Stork.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born on July 28, 1866 into Victorian privilege in Kensington, London.
A family friend described it as “a dark Victorian mausoleum completed with aspidistras”.
When it was bombed flat in the war Potter did not mourn “ my unloved birthplace”.
Beatrix’s father, Rupert, was a leisured barrister and her mother’s father was a wealthy cotton merchant and shipbuilder. The young Beatrix was taught by governesses.
“Thank goodness my education was neglected. School would have rubbed off some of the originality,” she wrote in her journal which she wrote in a code. Only recently cracked.
The North Country inspired her to write her tales which , she hoped, reflected and retained “the spirit world of childhood”.
Her picture letter sent from Scotland to Noel and Norah, the sick children of her last chaperone and companion Annie Moore, ended up as the story of Flopsy, Mopsy , Cottontail and Peter “who lived underneath the trunk of a very big fir tree”.
Beatrix had actual rabbits called Mopsy and Peter. She and her younger brother, Bertram kept a large menagerie which they took everywhere — even on holidays to Dunkeld and Dalguise in Scotland. Beatrix had a pet frog called Punch.
They even had a pet bat. Beatrix published 23 children’s stories. Her bat story ‘Flittermouse and Fluttermouse’ was never completed.
A newly discovered story is to be published as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations.
Written in 1914, ‘The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots’ is about “a well-behaved black kitty cat who leads rather a double life”.
Inspired by Edward Lear, Aesop’s Fables, fairy literature and Joel Chandler Harris’s Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus as well as by Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix earned money from designing greeting Christmas cards and providing illustrations for books of verse before Peter the Rabbit was published in 1901-2.
“She was a savvy businesswoman who designed a ‘Peter Rabbit’ doll and other spinoff merchandise like a colouring book,” said the ‘Mountain Goat’ guide which takes in the Potter-related sites. Like Wraye Castle where the Potters first stayed in 1887.
You can visit Yew Tree Cottage, Coniston which Beatrix owned and which was used as her home in the movie with Rene Zellweger.
Surrounded by a suckler herd and hill flocks, the cruck-framed Lakeland farmhouse goes back to 1690.
While acting at a land agent for the National Trust, Potter bought the 600 acres in the 1930s, filling it with her own fixtures and fittings. She helped the tenants turn it into a tea room.
Aware of her own fame and realising visitors like to see items that belonged to her, she provided all the candlesticks, tables, ornaments and dark wood furniture,
Potter collected properties and restored them. She saved many from developers. Her real home was Castle Cottage close to Hilltop on the Lancashire side of Lake Windermere.
The Lingholm Estate and its lakeshore Catbells walk provided more inspirations and claims the original wicket gate.
Touring Potter Country you can stay in everything from a bijou shepherd’s hut (a herdy) near William Wordsworth’s house at Rydal Mount to a country house hotel like Linen Howe, which Potter bought for her mother. There is also her local pub, the Tower Bank Arms.
All low oak beams and slate floors, she used it in The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck. The pub grub menu does not feature rabbit pie. Or, minnows. The blackboard specials do not include Wellington-boot stuffed trout or roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce (as in Jeremy Fisher).
It is the obvious base to do some walking to discover Tarn Hows, Fishpond Wood, Grizedale Forest, the Heights of Claife and High Blind How.
Mr McGregor’s greenhouse is at The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction at Bowness-on-Windermere which also has a shop stocking such Potter-iana as Peter Rabbit milk chocolate bars, Jemima Puddleduck My First Tooth boxes, Potter-themed piggy banks, shower cards, egg cups, coasters, figurines and the Royal Mint’s new 50p Beatrix Potter coins.
We are all different. My wife’s favourite character has always been Mrs Tittlemouse. Our sons liked Mr Tod and Old Mr Brown. I have always had a soft spot for Jack Sharp the stickleback. And Mr Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise.
It all comes back in the firehouse (kitchen) of Hilltop. My journey was one of atonement. While playing indoor soccer as a child, I once accidentally amputated Jeremy Fisher at the knee. My mother had to Superglue the porcelain limb back on.
“That’s the hole Anna Maria ran through!” said a mother, pointing her young daughter down to the skirting board.
The memories flooded back. Vividly, I remembered being traumatised by my mother impersonating a red squirrel losing its tail.
I remembered poring over the depictions of cuddly lovable bunnies. And 30 years later, reading to my own children. I was an atrocious Johnny Town-Mouse and my Miss Moppett wasn’t that hot either. My wife was a much better bed-time story reader.
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