Literary Dispatches from London: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit

As a kid, I loved Peter Rabbit. He was naughty and fun. Stories about him in Mr. McGregor’s garden were engaging, but Potter’s drawings were really what makes the books so engaging and unique. Whether it is The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, or Jemima Puddle-Duck, there is nothing dumbed down for kids. The illustrations were detailed and real, and they helped tell the story. You could get lost in those drawings. Reading them as a kid, and then rediscovering them with my own children has been a joy. It wasn’t, however, until I traveled to her home in the Lake District of England that I came to appreciate how remarkable Beatrix Potter was as an artist, writer, and person on the leading edge of feminism and environmentalism long before those terms were ever coined.

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Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 to a wealthy London family, whose grandparents were from Scotland. In addition to writing over thirty books, Potter is also known as a conservationist.  As a teenager, she fell in love with the Lake District, which is a mountainous region in North West England. It’s about a 2-3 hour ride on the train and about a 6 hour car ride depending on where in the Lake District you’re going. For our Beatrix Potter day, we took the train and hooked up with Mountain Goat tours in Windmere. (https://www.mountain-goat.com).  It was a beautiful summer day and easy to understand why the area has been a popular escape from London for over a hundred years. I took a lot of photographs as we toured the area, but few really did it justice. It is one of those places that is so vast that a picture doesn’t capture its essence.

One of our first stops was to Wray Castle, which overlooks Lake Windmere. Although it looks medieval circa the 1300s, the castle was actually built by a prominent London surgeon in 1840.  I guess the guy just really liked castles. Anyway, about 40 years later in 1882, Beatrix Potter lived in the castle for the summer with her family. It was a vacation and an escape from the pace of London life. She was 16 at the time, and that was the beginning of her family’s trips to the Lake District and her eventual purchase of a home and later work preserving the area’s natural beauty.

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After Wray Castle, we went to Hill Top. This is where Beatrix Potter lived and created most of her stories. As a writer, it was amazing to see where Beatrix Potter wrote and drew her illustrations. Reading her books, I imagined what Mr. McGregor’s garden and the area looked like. It was stunning to realize that the place I imagined was real. The small shops, gardens and hills where the animals had their adventures were not just conjured by Beatrix Potter. She created the stories from the environment where she lived. It was a reminder to me that the best stories don’t come entirely from fantasy, there are elements of reality in even the most fantastic fiction.

After visiting Hill Top, we ate lunch in Hawkshead. This is a small town where the poet William Wordsworth went to grammar school, and then we took in the natural beauty of the Beatrix Potter country with a trip up into the mountains and cruise on the lake. 

The preservation of the Lake District is, perhaps, Potter’s greatest contribution. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, she was at the cutting edge of using animals as a form of land management. She raised Herdwick Sheep, and she also used her wealth to purchase farmsteads, preventing the area’s overdevelopment and fostering traditional farming practices. Upon her death, Potter left all her land and her original drawings to The National Trust. Through the trust, Potter’s vision and legacy continues. It’s very safe to say that without Beatrix Potter, the Lake District would not look the way that it does today. There are no highways, large resorts, or mountain sides cut up into individual housing developments. It is largely the way it was when Beatrix Potter stayed in Wray castle as a 16 year old, and that is how it will continue to be.      

JD Trafford is the award winning author of six novels, including “Little Boy Lost” which has sold over 100,000 copies worldwide. His latest best-selling legal thriller “Without Precedent” is available now. You can learn more about or purchase J.D. Trafford’s books at https://www.jdtrafford.com/the-books

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JD Trafford