Beatrix’s legacy to the Lakes

Beatrix’s legacy to the Lakes

Archive feature: August 2015 by Peter Naldrett

The exterior of The Thornhill Arms, located in Yorkshire's Calverley

Beatrix’s Hill Top home

Generations of children who have stood on the shore of Derwent Water could be forgiven for thinking they had seen the view somewhere before. Many of them will have. Published 110 years ago, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is a tale about a tail that was influenced by many of her stays in the northern reaches of the Lake District. Packed with riddles and island adventures in Cumbria, the story of Nutkin also marks the spot where she painted many of the illustrations placed in her little book.

Like many of Potter’s picture stories, Squirrel Nutkin started life as a letter, with pictures. In this case it was written while on holiday at Lingholm, Keswick, in 1901 – a full year before her first book was on the shelves. The Potters spent their summers at Lingholm, on the western shores of Derwent Water, no less than ten times between 1885 and 1907. The scenery combined with her imagination to create the splendid story of a cheeky squirrel floating away to an owl’s island to collect nuts and eventually getting into a scrape with the bird that cost him his tail.

Paintings in the book were clearly based on Derwent Water and the surrounding hills, while pictures of Owl Island reflect the view of St Herbert’s Island that sits in the middle of the lake.

During this time Beatrix completed many sketchbooks and used her drawings as a basis for the backgrounds and Lakeland scenes in Squirrel Nutkin. There are pages and pages of squirrel sketches dating from this time, along with books of Derwent Water paintings and even detail of the oak tree that was to become the home of Old Brown the owl. But while her Squirrel Nutkin story was undoubtedly based in and around Keswick and the mid-size rodents were described sailing across Derwent Water towards St Herbert’s Island, the area couldn’t provide all the detail she needed for the book.

Beatrix aged fifteen with family spaniel, Spot

Beatrix headed for London to get detailed drawings of Old Brown the owl, sitting in London Zoo to observe the ones held there. But to get the detailed sketches of squirrels, Beatrix had a rather more novel solution: she bought herself a couple as pets and kept them at home with her, observing them and drawing them for the book. When published in 1903, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin was an immediate success. The initial print run was 10,000 but it became apparent that this would not be enough so another 10,000 was arranged within a few months. And, as her second book, it was important that it was a success.

Rather than suggesting her Peter Rabbit debut to be a one-off, Squirrel Nutkin paved the way for years of more book sales and friendly characters.

Libby Joy, of The Beatrix Potter Society, reflecting on how the riddles and rhymes in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin were typical of her interest in them, says, “Beatrix Potter was fascinated by these and collected them from all over the place, as well as writing her own. She and Norman Warne, her first editor at Frederick Warne who became her fiancé, were working on a collection known as the 1905 Book of Rhymes at the time of his death. Subsequent editors at Warne were not interested in it, wanting more ‘tales’. However, after 1918 the firm fell on hard times and begged Beatrix for another book or two. She cobbled together Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes in 1918 and Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes (1922) from this earlier collection of rhymes and attendant watercolours, drawings and designs, in order to help the old firm.”

Beatrix in her later years

Seventy years ago, as the Second World War raged on, in December 1943, Beatrix was becoming gravely ill with bronchitis at her Castle Cottage home. Despite her failing health and the knowledge she was dying, her thoughts very much remained with her farm and livestock. In her last days she ensured that her shepherd, Tom Storey, would continue to look after the sheep on her farm. She also made sure Tom and her husband William knew she wished to be cremated and have her ashes scattered on the land above Hill Top. Following her death, the exact location remained a secret, as she wished, and William was made even keener to keep it so when public curiosity about the precise place of the scattering increased.

Her loyal husband did not tell anyone, and Tom kept the location a secret until on his own deathbed in 1986, when he passed the information onto his son. But when his son died unexpectedly a few years later the secret died too, and one suspects Beatrix would have been happy the news never became public knowledge.

The death notice in the Westmorland Gazette was characteristically factual and unsentimental, declaring there was to be a private cremation and “no mourning, no flowers and no letters, please.” Despite this, William did find himself inundated with letters of condolence, many coming from Beatrix’s fans in America. He replied to some, writing that Beatrix remained cheerful and brave to the end, despite the gloomy undertones of war felt over the whole country.

The task of dealing with her estate (worth £7m in today’s money) fell to William, and it took a long time to iron out details of what to do with her properties, savings and royalties. William was determined to see that Hill Top was left to the National Trust and preserved exactly how Beatrix had used it, complete with furniture, drawings and books, to be a permanent memorial to her and her work. And so it remains, with the artwork later being taken to the nearby National Trust’s Beatrix Potter Gallery at Hawkshead, in a building which used to be William’s legal office. The copyright from all her books published by Frederick Warne and Company were left to William while he was alive, and then they went to Norman Warne’s nephew before being ceded to the company.

Visitors at the Beatrix Potter Gallery. All images courtesy of the National Trust

But it was in February 1944 when Potter’s legacy really began to take shape and the National Trust was presented with what it called the “greatest ever Lakeland gift”. It included 4,300 acres (1,740ha) of Lake District land, sixty different buildings, fifteen farms and 500 acres (202ha) of woods. Beatrix also left £5,000 for the Trust to add or improve these gifts to the nation. And these were not a random collection of properties; Beatrix had been carefully choosing land in vulnerable areas to ensure the future of the Lakes.

After her death, interest in her work did not decrease. Far from it. When Hill Top was opened to the public, fans of her work poured through the door to take a look into the fascinating home where her writing took place. And Hill Top remains a popular attraction today – the timed tickets for entry mean it’s possible you could face a wait to get inside to see the fireplace, the writing desk, the publisher’s letters, the little die-cast figures of her characters. The Beatrix Potter gallery in Hawkshead is also a popular destination, while her childhood holiday home Wray Castle is also open for visitors.

Seventy years after her death, there seems no threat that the popularity of Beatrix Potter and her Peter Rabbit series of books will lose popularity. And today, over 100 years since the Beatrix Potter catalogue started to take shape, a new animated series on CBeebies is bringing the characters like Squirrel Nutkin and Pigling Bland to a whole new generation.


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