A beloved authoress known for her petite tomes filled with charming stories and watercolor illustrations, Beatrix Potter’s talents and interests extended widely beyond children’s literature. An avid farmer, she coupled this love with a vision for conservation—becoming an active force in the preservation of the Lake District in England. Her legacy lives on in the northwest region of Cumbria.
Raised in London, the noted authoress and artist Beatrix Potter was captivated by England’s Lake District during her childhood holidays spent among the charming hamlets and misty moors. As a girl, she collected small animals during these trips and gently tamed them into pets. The domesticated creatures provided inspiration and companionship during her solitary Victorian childhood as she developed her story-writing and artistic talents. When Beatrix grew into adulthood, these tales and illustrations were published, and the now-cherished books became her livelihood. She continued to use many of the landscapes and villages of the Lake District as the backdrops for her woodland animal characters.
In addition to her literary fame, Beatrix was well known for her dedication to farming and the community. She used the profits from her first book to buy Hill Top, a seventeenth-century cottage and garden in the hamlet of Near Sawrey, in 1905. Although still living in London, the authoress escaped to the Lake District as often as possible, immersing herself in bucolic farm life and enjoying the waterside lifestyle. Beatrix continued her creative endeavors, writing and illustrating books about the animals she so loved. Her affinity for agriculture and livestock served as both a means of living and a muse, as she painted her flock of sheep and the naughty rabbits that came to nibble at her garden’s edge.
Following the death of her first fiancé, publisher Norman Warne, Beatrix relocated to the Lake District, working year-round at Hill Top and later marrying William Heelis, a local solicitor who advised her in purchasing cottages and land parcels within the area. Mrs. Heelis, as she was known locally, became an ardent conservationist and a Herdwick sheep farmer. Her agrarian pursuits developed into award-winning farming practices and a devout desire to preserve the rural way of life. Utilizing her intellect and passion, she grew to become an astute businesswoman and inspirational farmer.
With an inheritance from her family and the profits from her books, she acquired farms and land throughout the Cumbrian region. A long-standing friendship with Canon Rawnsley, one of the founding members of the British National Trust, led Beatrix to leave fourteen farms and more than 4,000 acres of land to the institution upon her death, thus ensuring the preservation of a way of life and the beauty of her beloved lakeside landscape for generations to come.
The cozy cottage garden at Hill Top remains much as it was under owner Beatrix Potter’s care—lush, verdant, and rambling. Gardening was both a passion and an inspiration for the authoress’ many illustrations: The property’s house and grounds appear in The Tale of Tom Kitten, and the wrought-iron Art Nouveau gate is painted in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. Farmyard friends also resided at Hill Top, which was home to a menagerie of ducks, chickens, and sheep.
Nestled in a small hamlet alongside a babbling brook, Yew Tree Farm is one of the many properties once owned by Beatrix, and now under the care of the British National Trust. In order to avoid any damage to the original Hill Top, its exterior and décor were re-created at Yew Tree during the filming of the motion picture Miss Potter. Today, as Beatrix would have liked, this charming property is a working farm with heirloom livestock and a five-star bed-and-breakfast.
Find “Lady of the Lakes: The Legacy of Beatrix Potter” in the September/October 2010 issue of Victoria magazine.
Text Brittany Williams
Photography Kate Sears