“Once upon a time there was a little girl called Lucie, who lived at a farm called Little-town.” So begins The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter, a well-loved part of my childhood. As I met this young girl on an adventure to find her misplaced handkerchiefs, I was also drawn into the world created through the illustrations. These beautiful watercolors show images of a farm, a waterfall, a small ‘woman’ in a neat room behind a tiny door in a hill.
After visiting the Lake District in England last summer, these pictures have taken on a new life. It turns out these aren’t imagined illustrations for a children’s book, but reflections of life around the land that Potter loved. Into this land she inserted her characters, sometimes people, but mostly animals. A dressed up hedgehog doing laundry didn’t seem amiss. There is a joy of seeing beyond the confines of the world in these pictures – and the stories.
Beatrix Potter: The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Genius by Linda Lear. provides a further view into this woman. Beatrix Potter may be primarily remembered for her child’s books, beginning with The Tale of Peter Rabbit. However, this is only one part of her heritage.
Hers was not an easy path to publishing. For years, starting as a child, she actively worked on her drawings and the wording of the stories. She eventually had to privately publish Peter Rabbit in order to produce a book that met her specifications. Once the quality, and marketability, of this book was obvious, Frederick Warne & Co. took on the task of putting together the trade publication. It wasn’t long before Potter this one book became a series. Through it all, she continued to have a significant voice in the content and look of her books. Eventually, when it was suggested that book related toys and items be developed, she had final say in these products as well.
Always drawn to this land she loved, her financial success in publishing allowed her to purchase her own place – a farm in Sawrey. Though she wasn’t experienced in farming, she was not afraid to learn. Starting with this farm, she became an integral part of the life of this community. As she was able, she bought up other tracts of land in order to preserve traditional farming practices and keep the land from potential commercialization. She wanted people to be able to see and enjoy this land and its ways as she did.
Enjoy it I did when I visited. Here was more than a house preserved, but an entire landscape. Driving the narrow roads through the small towns provided the perfect preparation to see her farm, Hill Top, and the places Potter brought to life in her drawings and stories.
Walking through the flower gardens in the rain and up to the green front door of this grey farm house, I was ushered into a living space. The kitchen area had a large fireplace with a low, timbered ceilings. Walking stick and hat were ready for Potter to head out on a walk. A study lined with books had a table set for tea. What a glorious place to rest for a bit! A stairway headed up to the bedrooms. Then a long hallway brought me to Potter’s workroom. Her desk was set up with copies of her work – letters, water colors. A room saved as she wanted it.
I wanted to stay – and I did walking from room to room. Her bedroom. The study. Back to the work room. Then I finally left and headed back out into the gardens. Rabbits were running through the grass and around a few trees. Rain ran off the leaves. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have an umbrella. It was great to be part of this world even if for a few hours, in the midst of that farm I first heard about so many years ago.