Visitors to Potter’s farmhouse can see original illustrations that gave birth to her most memorable characters, from Peter Rabbit to Jemima Puddleduck.
NEAR SAWREY, England — When I was a little girl, my grandparents gave me a beautiful set of Beatrix Potter books for Christmas one year. I could barely wait for everyone to finish unwrapping presents so that I could sneak off to my room with my treasure. The first Potter story I read on that long ago Christmas Day was “The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher,” about a determined frog whose fishing trip turned out to be not quite what he expected.
Now, all these years later, here I was wandering through the rooms of Hill Top House, Beatrix Potter’s 17th-century farmhouse in England’s Lake District. The tiny cottage is decorated much as it was when Potter used it as a sanctuary for writing and illustrating (she actually lived in another, larger house across the road).
Visitors can see original illustrations that gave birth to her most memorable characters, from Jemima Puddleduck to Peter Rabbit and all his siblings (check out a replica of Mr. McGregor’s garden on the grounds).
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth, an event celebrated by those who grew up on her imaginative children’s books.
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Though born in London, Potter fell in love with the Lake District after a summer spent here as a girl. After achieving fame (and the perks that went with it), she worked with her lifelong friend, Canon Rawnsley, founder of Britain’s National Trust, to ensure that this beautiful part of England would never be developed. Today, the 885-square-mile Lake District National Park is the country’s most visited.
Mountains with romantic names such as Cat Bells, Helvellyn and Great Gable loom over small villages such as Grasmere, Hawkshead and Ambleside. Of course, the major drawing card is the lakes. Guidebooks will tell you there are 16 of them, with Windermere being the longest (10.5 miles) and Wastwater, the deepest (243 feet).
If you want to be technically correct, however, there is only one official lake — Bassenthwaite. The others are “waters” or “meres.” To further confuse the issue, there are a number of “tarns” (an old Norse word for pools), mostly cradled in mountain glens, giving them an Alpine feel.
Lakes, meres, waters or tarns — all are beautiful. So beautiful that the 19th-century Romantic poets (in particular, William Wordsworth) extolled that beauty in verse and were the first to mass market the region’s appeal.
If you love Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” you’ll want to head to Ullswater, the lake that inspired him, especially in the spring when the poet’s “golden host of daffodils” bend and sway along the banks, creating a tapestry of yellow.
Both Potter and Wordsworth are lauded in the Lake District. The World of Beatrix Potter in Bowness-on-Windermere is a Disneyesque display featuring dioramas of Peter Rabbit’s Garden, Mr. Toad’s underground home, Mrs. Tiggy-winkle’s kitchen, Jemima Puddleduck’s forest glade and a host of others.
Wordsworth takes pride of place in Grasmere, where Dove Cottage, home of the poet and his sister Dorothy, is now a museum offering guided tours.
If you want to pay homage to both, you can do it in Hawkshead. Visit the grammar school attended by Wordsworth and then take in the Beatrix Potter Gallery, where her original artwork is on display in a 17th-century house.
Exploring the district
There is plenty more to see in the Lake District, both on land and by water. One of the best excursions by water is a boat cruise from the resort town of Ambleside to Wray Castle, a mock Gothic edifice complete with turrets and towers, where Beatrix Potter celebrated her 16th birthday while on holiday with her family.
You won’t lack for top-rated accommodations in the Lake District. The Waterhead Hotel has a lovely setting near Ambleside. Sip a glass of wine on the lawn and watch the sun set over the lake before heading to the hotel restaurant with its stunning view of the mountain locals lovingly refer to as Coniston Old Man.
While the Waterhead has the style of a luxury boutique, its sister property, the Wild Boar, has a more rustic feel — perhaps because it takes its name from the legend of Sir Richard de Gilpin, who allegedly slew a ferocious wild boar in the woods near the present-day hotel.
It seems the epic battle made heroes of both beast and man as the boar got a hotel named after him and the Gilpin Valley where it’s located is named in honor of Sir Richard. Restaurants are equally stylish — from the Tower Bank Arms, which began as an ale house in the 17th century, to the ultramodern Zeffirelli’s where the cuisine and décor evoke the Mediterranean. If you’re in need of a local treat, stop at the tiny whitewashed cottage with green trim in Grasmere, home to Sarah Nelson’s famed gingerbread.
Visitors to the Lake District will stay and play in a region so stunning that it will make them gasp, and who knows — they may encounter the ghosts of Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth while they are there.