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How Beatrix Potter’s books were inspired by Cumbria’s gardens

By
Constance Craig Smith


PUBLISHED:

17:30 EST, 15 November 2013


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UPDATED:

17:30 EST, 15 November 2013

Unmarried but clever, opinionated and quietly ambitious, Beatrix Potter started writing stories for children in her late 20s. In a letter written in 1892 to the four-year-old son of a former governess, she introduced the rabbits Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter.

This eventually became Beatrix’s first book, The Tale Of Peter Rabbit.

She self-published her little book in 1901. The first 250 black-and-white copies sold out, so Beatrix printed another 200. A year later the book was published nationally by Frederick Warne & Co.

Beatrix, who had a lifelong passion for gardening, grew up in London but often holidayed in the Lake District with her family.

How the gorgeous gardens in her beloved Cumbria inspired Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated books

How the gorgeous gardens in her beloved Cumbria inspired Beatrix Potter’s beautifully illustrated books

Now a new book reveals how the garden settings in Peter Rabbit were inspired by holiday homes Beatrix stayed in, particularly a walled vegetable garden at Lingholm stately home in Cumbria.

Peter Rabbit’s binge-eating takes place in an early summer garden, where rows of French beans provide shade for lettuce, carrots and radishes, and ripening gooseberries are netted against the birds.

The Tale Of Benjamin Bunny was based on Fawe Park, also in Cumbria, which the Potters rented in the summer of 1903. A pear tree provides the entry point for the rabbit burglars, while onions in the vegetable beds became their booty.

Her books brought Beatrix out of her shell. Warne’s was a family business and the sociable Warne clan opened its arms to her. Norman Warne was her project manager, and in July 1905 she received a letter from him asking for her hand. Her parents objected – Norman was in trade.

 The Tale Of Benjamin Bunny was based on
Fawe Park, also in Cumbria, which the Potters rented in the summer of
1903. A pear tree provides the entry point for the rabbit burglars,
while onions in the vegetable beds became their booty

To keep the peace the couple agreed to a quiet engagement, but just a month later Norman died suddenly of leukaemia. Less than two months later she bought 34-acre Hill Top Farm in the Lake District with royalties from her books and a legacy from an aunt, and started her first garden.

‘There’s nothing like open air for soothing present anxiety and memories of past sadness,’ she later wrote.

In her garden Beatrix mixed loose drifts of flowers with bulbs, flowering and fruiting shrubs, even vegetables. The garden appears often in her work. In The Tale Of Tom Kitten, Beatrix shares much of the front garden, while The Tale Of Jemima Puddle-Duck has a beautiful drawing of her walled vegetable garden.

The author’s writing sometimes played second fiddle to the demands of her garden. In 1910 she wrote to Norman’s sister Millie, ‘I am now taking a few days’ rest, ie gardening violently when I ought to be sketching pigs.’

When a farm across the road from Hill Top came on the market she bought it. Her solicitor was a local man, William Heelis, and in 1912 he proposed. They married the next year. Beatrix continued writing, buying land and gardening, and just three weeks before her death in 1943, aged 77, she wrote, ‘I have been pruning creepers against the wall in the sun here.’

In her will she left Hill Top to the National Trust. Her garden still frames Hill Top, ushering visitors in, serving as a living link to a remarkable woman and her interest in plants and gardening. 

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell, Timber Press, £16.99.

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