Get on the trail of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle
Beatrix Potter is the subject of a major new film starring Renée Zellweger which premieres next weekend. Helen Pickles follows the author's footsteps around the Lake District, the landscape that inspired her
Sunday 26 November 2006
Will Tom Kitten escape up the chimney? Will the bunnies end up in Mr Brock the badger's stomach? Beatrix Potter's tales are as captivating today as they were when she wrote and illustrated them in the late 1800s. And the popularity of the author and her stories has been confirmed by the release of a new film, Miss Potter, starring Renée Zellweger in the title role, which receives its world premiere next Sunday and opens across Britain on 5 January.
Potter grew up in London but the Lake District is where she settled and based most of her stories. First stop is the World of Beatrix Potter Attraction, Bowness-on-Windermere, where all 23 Potter stories have been brought to life. Children aren't essential - half the adult visitors are unaccompanied as they make their way along a twisting path that leads through an Arcadian land of glades, gnarled tree trunks, cottage gardens and sunlit meadows.
At each turn, a fresh tableau of Potter characters is revealed. Disappointingly, they don't actually do anything. But that doesn't seem to bother children, who are enchanted by the near-perfect likeness to Potter's illustrations: the striped bedclothes on Mr Tod's bed, the squiggly way Peter Rabbit squeezes under Mr McGregor's gate, Jeremy Fisher sitting on a lily pad.
Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866 to a wealthy family. Summer holidays, first in Scotland then in the Lake District, gave her a love of the countryside and animals. Rabbits, mice and hedgehogs became pets, and long hours spent studying and drawing them turned her into an accomplished artist.
She began selling to greeting card companies but it was an illustrated letter to the son of her ex-governess that began her literary career: "I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter." Several years later, she thought the letter might make a book. Turned down by publishers, she privately printed The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901. The following year, Frederick Warne published it, all 8,000 copies selling out immediately.
There's a facsimile of the letter at Hill Top, the farmhouse she bought with her royalties in 1905. The 17th-century house in Near Sawrey is furnished as she left it when she died in 1943. As a single woman she was ahead of her time, able to buy property - 14 farms and more than 4,000 acres of land - from her earnings. When she eventually married, aged 47, she and her solicitor husband, William Heelis, lived at nearby Castle Cottage while Hill Top was kept as her "private space" for writing.
The house, village and surrounding countryside pop up in her books. On the half-landing I spotted the grandfather clock from The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, in the parlour the coronation teapot from The Pie and the Patty-Pan, while the path to the front door features in The Tale of Tom Kitten. It's odd but comforting to gaze on the same scenes as Potter and realise that little has changed, including the next door Tower Bank Arms (from Jemima Puddle-duck), which does a useful line in pub comfort food.
Her original illustrations are in the Beatrix Potter Gallery at Hawkshead, two miles away. Larger than in the books, they are gorgeous, the colours and expressions captivating. This pretty village, which appears in The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, is all cobbled lanes and little squares and heaving with tourists in high season.
A walk around Tarn Hows, at nearby Coniston, is more restful. Despite its legendary beauty, the landscape is artificial, created in the 1850s by the owner of nearby Monk Coniston Hall. Miss Potter pops up again; she bought the estate in 1930. She bought land and farms to prevent them from being broken up and because, in her later years, she became a farmer. (She bequeathed her land to the National Trust.)
From the northern end of the Tarn, I climbed up Black Crag, an easy walk that rewards with stunning views: the Langdale Pikes, Weatherlam, Coniston Old Man, Windermere and, if you're lucky, Helvellyn. Afterwards, I dropped in for tea and home-made cakes at Yew Tree Farm, also once owned by Potter during the 1930s.It still has the original furnishings and, in a nice throwback to the 1930s, customers must arrive by foot.
The farmhouse was used as the film stand-in for Hill Top. With a change of paint and windows and an instantly created vegetable garden on the field in front, it looks remarkably similar.
I headed north to Derwentwater, on the trail of Squirrel Nutkin. Taking the footpath from Hawes End towards Keswick, I didn't see any squirrels but, peering through a gap in the fence at Fawe Park, I caught my breath. There was the flat-topped wall on which Benjamin Bunny and Peter Rabbit had stood, gazing into Mr McGregor's garden. Half-close my eyes and I could see Peter's blue jacket hanging on the scarecrow.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE:
Helen Pickles was a guest of Lindeth Howe Country House Hotel, Windermere (015394 45759; lindeth-howe.co.uk), which offers double rooms from £150 b&b. Country Lanes (015394 44544; countrylanes.co.uk) offers a four-day cycling holiday, On the Trail of Beatrix Potter, from £195 per person, including three nights' b&b, bicycle hire and maps and routes and free entry to Hill Top.
World of Beatrix Potter Attraction (015394 88444; hop-skip-jump.com), Hill Top (015394 36269) and the Beatrix Potter Gallery (015394 36355), are closed until the spring. Call for opening times.
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