Cumbria prepares for a new Potter-mania

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The Independent Online

A stampede of tourists is nothing new to the custodians of the vast estate bequeathed to the Lake District by Beatrix Potter. The ivy-clad stone farmhouse at Hill Top, where she lived for 13 years, issued appeals in Japanese urging visitors to go elsewhere, some years ago, such was the appeal of the place.

But Cumbria is currently readying itself for an avalanche of visitors the likes of which it has never seen before, inspired by the biopic Miss Potter, starting Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, which goes on general release on 5 January.

The timing could hardly be better for the Lake District. The Potter-loving Japanese still flock to the Lake District - the 11,000 arriving annually from Japan comprise 6 per cent of the Lakes' entire tourism trade. But the Cotswolds have been muscling in on the action recently, by marketing Broadway, Moreton-in-Marsh and other villages as an alternative, quintessentially English, experience without the five-hour trek north from Heathrow.

Cumbria sees the film, directed by Chris Noonan of Babe fame, as a key weapon in its efforts to hit back. The strategy is not limited to luring more people up to Hill Top, where many of the Potter books were written, or to The World of Beatrix Potter, the Lake District's biggest attraction, at Bowness. The local tourist board, Cumbria Tourism, wants to steer visitors to lesser-known places with Potter connections to develop an appreciation thather real legacy to the Lakes is as much environmental as literary.

The film, needless to say, is more concerned with love interest than the more prosaic details of the writer's life. It focuses on her relationship with - and engagement to - her publisher's youngest son Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), which her parents opposed strongly, even though she was 40 at the time. Tragically, Warne died of pernicious anaemia only a month after proposing.

Potter, known in the Lake District as "old Ma Heelis", married William Heelis, a local solicitor, after that first tragedy, and settled down in the countryside she had come to love as a child.

Now the main task of her life emerged in the form of her 23 "little white books", the stories which enthralled several generations of readers worldwide.

Less well known is her record as a consummate businesswoman. Potter had hardly written Peter Rabbit before she visited the Patent Office, on 28 December 1903, and registered a Peter Rabbit doll. She sold it to Harrods, along with the Peter Rabbit board game, wallpaper, jigsaws and ceramics that she created. It was merchandising 25 years ahead of Walt Disney. Potter soon began buying land with her income and was a passionate advocate of preserving the natural beauty of the region.

When she died in 1943, Potter left 4,000 acres of Lakeland, including 15 farms, to the fledgling National Trust. As the writer Hunter Davies, author of Beatrix Potter's Lakeland observes, this was symbolic: "All that money, from the books and the gifts, had returned to the beautiful countryside which inspired the stories."

Noonan's film doesn't begin to explore the depths of Potter's qualities but Cumbria is determined to fill the gaps. Attractions on the new map include the little-known Armitt collection, at Ambleside, to which Potter bequeathed her collection of over 450 natural history watercolours.

There is Yew Tree Farm, which doubles in the film for her famous Hill Top farmhouse, which she saved from developers in 1930. And visitors will be drawn up to Hill Top farmhouse, furnished with the same stove on which the mouse pie is cooked in The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. When the sightseeing is done, there is the chance to explore the fells she loved best: Cat Bells, Loughrigg Tarn and Tarn Hows.

Liz Houseman, of the National Trust, believes 2007 will be a huge year for Cumbria. "There have been signs that we are losing visitors to the Cotswolds," she said. "So the film will be a major boost."