The Lake District celebrates the Beatrix Potter’s 150th birthday
- Credit: Archant
A host of events are planned in the Lake District to make the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth. Mike Glover reports
FROM a new Alan Ayckbourn play to appearing on a 50p piece, the world appears to have gone Peter Rabbit mad. But it is the role of his creator Beatrix Potter as a pioneer of conservation and farming which lies behind most of the celebrations in her beloved Lake District.
The Beatrix Potter Society and the National Trust are organising special programmes of events to commemorate her 150th birthday on July 28th.
Neither has forgotten that her family made their money in the Lancashire mills and she helped create the National Trust’s foothold in the Lake District from her base on the Lancashire side of Windermere.
The much-loved storyteller and illustrator of classic children’s books bequeathed more than 4,000 acres of land, 14 farms and numerous cottages to the Trust.
Without her, it would not be caring for about a quarter of the Lake District today. ‘The main aim is to celebrate who she was and what she did,’ says the Trust’s south Lakes general manager, John Moffat, who has spent three years planning the celebration. ‘Most people get to Beatrix Potter through Peter Rabbit, which is fine, but we want them to learn what came before her books – her life as a scientist – and what came after: her life as a farmer, her love of Herdwick sheep and her conservationism.
‘Then at the end of her life came the bequest to the National Trust – not the usual historic stately home with gardens, but farms and outlands and farmers’ cottages. It is still one of the biggest bequests we have ever had.’
Beatrix bought her 17th century farmhouse at Hill Top, Near Sawrey, with royalties from her ‘little books’ in 1905 and it became her inspiration and her studio, filled with antique oak furniture and treasured china and curios.
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The Trust is running ‘showcase tours’ where visitors can enjoy exclusive, after-hours access with a curated look at the house and the chance to get up close to its treasures.
A rare glimpse of Castle Cottage, Near Sawrey, where Beatrix spent her married years as Mrs Heelis, is to be opened by its tenant on July 8 and 28. It is not normally open and the tours are described as ‘deeply personal’.
Hawkshead’s Beatrix Potter Gallery, where her husband, country solicitor William Heelis had his office, is hosting the exhibition, Romance & Realism, until October. It explores her early and enduring love of the natural world. Highlights include original drawings from classics such as The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, excerpts from her coded journal and precious sketchbooks.
Meanwhile, at Allan Bank in Grasmere, an exhibition is shedding light on the inspiration the author drew from her friendship with Canon Rawnsley, one of the Trust’s founders. Beyond Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter’s Inspiration runs until Christmas.
The storyteller’s ‘lifelong love affair’ with the Northern Lakes is also to be evoked at Wordsworth House in Cockermouth from July 16 to October 30 with the spotlight on the characters Squirrel Nutkin, Benjamin Bunny and Mrs Tiggy-winkle, as captured in her Derwentwater sketchbook.
In addition to Trust activities, the Beatrix Potter Society is pushing the boat out. The tenant of Castle Cottage, Mr and Mrs Heelis’s actual home, is Mandy Marshall, who is also sales manager of the Society. She runs a handbag and accessory company which uses worsted wool from Herdwick fleeces, an act of entrepreneurship of which Miss Potter would surely have approved.
The Society’s annual conference is being held in the first week of July at Burnside Hotel, Bowness. But they are organising bus tours of Manchester, Liverpool and other centres of Beatrix Potter’s ancestry and links with the textile trade. The Society will also be involved in the events at Castle Cottage.
Another iconic farmhouse forever associated with her is Yew Tree Farm near Coniston. She bought it for the National Trust and it doubled as Hill Top in the film, Miss Potter, starring Renee Zellweger.
The current tenant farmer is Jon Watson, who cares for more than 700 acres of traditional hill farm with up to 400 Herdwicks, 40 belted Galloway cattle, assorted poultry, five dogs and three cats.
He and his partner, animal artist Jo McGrath, are putting on an eight-day exhibition in the famous barn, with its distinctive ‘spinning gallery’, from July 2 to 9. It will feature Herdwick drawings, paintings and photographs with Jo’s work will be joined by that of landscape painter David Sims.
‘People are not so aware of her role as a farmer and her part in the preservation of Herdwick sheep, so that is the aspect we are focusing on,’ said Jo. On the two Saturdays there will be tours of the parts of Yew Tree Barn which still contain furniture, letters and artworks donated by Beatrix to allow the original tenants to raise money to pay the rent.
Appropriately The World Of Beatrix Potter attraction in Bowness and National Trust properties in The Lakes were the first places in the country you could receive a special Peter Rabbit 50p coin in your change – minted to mark Beatrix Potter’s 150th anniversary. It is the first time a children’s book character has appeared on a British coin of the realm.
The World of Beatrix Potter is also the home of the Old Laundry Theatre which will be hosting Alan Ayckbourn’s specially commissioned children’s show, Where’s Peter Rabbit, from June 27 to September 4, 2016.
It promises to reflect Miss Potter’s wicked sense of humour, needed for handling the often brutal tales of nature, red in tooth and claw.
So although the show will feature puppets, in the style of Lion King, some children may be surprised to find it exploring the darker side of Miss Potter’s otherwise bucolic tales. So whether it is on stage, on canvas, on land or on the page, it will be difficult to escape Beatrix Potter this month.