The world today, remembers Beatrix Potter as an author and illustrator of children’s books. But in her beloved Lake District, she is venerated as a crusading environmentalist, who is largely responsible for preservation of the ecology of the Lake District.
For the first twenty four years of her life, Beatrix spent most of her time in the claustrophobic confines of a school room, on the top floor of her house in 2, Bolton Gardens, London. For company, she had her governesses, and the little animals she smuggled into her room in her muffs or voluminous pockets. She created her own indoor animal farm with rabbits, mice or hedgehogs. It is therefore understandable why she yearned for the wide open spaces, for light and fresh air and colour.
But in summer every year, the family took off for a three-month holiday, either to Scotland or the Lake District. Here she was free to roam the rolling countryside, and breathe in the pure fresh air that blew in from the lakes. Though the castle they rented was a grotesque monstrosity, it overlooked the placid blue lakes. Besides, she had the use of a pony and phaeton, and could roam where she pleased.
It was here that she met the Rev. Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, Vicar of Wray, whose one passion was to preserve Nature’s beauty in this region. To this end, he formed a Club of like-minded individuals.
Though Beatrix was a sort of introvert, she warmed to the Vicar, who showed a keen interest in the animals, which travelled with her on holiday. They proved to be excellent models for her numerous sketches. He recognised her talent for painting, and encouraged her to paint scenes from the countryside. She also became an active member of his Club.
The royalties from her first books went into the purchase of her beloved Hill Top farm at Sawry, an old 17th century farm which emotionally bound her to this place forever.
But though financially independent, parental authority could not be flouted. As a dutiful daughter, she had to spend a major part of the year caring for her ailing father, and dancing to the tune of a whimsical mother, who was more of a socialite than a parent. Her parents even opposed her engagement to her publisher Norman Wayne, who unfortunately died of pernicious anaemia.
However, Beatrix managed to pay several short visits to Hill Top farm, during the year. Her resident tenant farmer John Cannon put her through the paces of becoming a farmer. She learnt how to plant and hoe, and how to use the farm gadgets. But she also used this time to make sketches of houses, gardens, animals and the countryside, which she could incorporate into her new books. Her keen observation of details helped put life into her animal characters.
But her earnings were ploughed back into the land. This obsession to preserve the area in its pristine splendour made her buy pieces of land and property that came up for sale, to save them from demolition or commercial enterprise.
Canon Rawnsley by now, had a viable National Trust for preservation of land and historic houses in Lake District, and Beatrix contributed generously to it.
Her only grouse was that she could not spend enough time on her farm because of filial duties. Though she had added many more farms and cottages to her property, she was by and large, an absentee farmer, because even at the age of forty seven, she could not abdicate her responsibilities towards her parents.
She was rescued from boredom and eternal spinsterhood, by William Heelis a solicitor, who belonged to the firm that managed her estates. Here again, parental opposition to a country solicitor much beneath her status, would have ruined her happiness, but for the intervention of her brother Bertram, who argued that at forty seven, she damn well had the right to marry whom she pleased.
The marriage was a turning point in her life. With William by her side, she had more freedom than before. As Hill Top was too small, she moved into a larger homestead, and plunged into the business of being a farmer seriously. The First World War was soon upon them, and many of the young men went off to war. Beatrix worked tirelessly in the fields with the few men who stayed back. By now, her father was dead, and her mother was moved to the Lake District under protest. This eliminated her trips to London.
Beatrix also tried to revive old traditions like folk dancing and music. She encouraged her tenants to participate in local competitions.
But her one magnificent obsession was still with preservation of the environment. Canon Rawnsley died in 1920, but Beatrix continued to be an active member of the Trust. She acquired property not out of greed, but with a genuine interest in preventing indiscriminate building, or demolition of old cottages.
The villagers knew nothing of her fame as an author though her little books were stocked in the little tuppeny store “Ginger and Pickles.” To them she was an eccentric lady farmer, who wore rough clothes and stomped around in wooden clogs. But she had a tart tongue for anyone who wanted to sell off their cottages for shops or pubs or fancy houses. She could be generous to a fault when it came to newly wed couples who couldn’t find accommodation, or widows who needed a roof over their heads.
Beatrix took care to preserve the ornate hand-carved panelling, the antique furniture or built-in cupboards in the cottages she bought.
She was also aware and concerned about the lack of medical facilities in the area. Due to the wet, dank weather, many epidemics spread through the villages. Beatrix arranged for a District nurse to live in a rent-free cottage, and even provided her with a car for use, not to speak of the other perks she threw her way. Each morning, the nurse called on Beatrix, who gave her a list of people she should visit. This was the beginning of the Hawkshead and District Nursing Association.
Beatrix thought nothing of doing menial jobs on the farm, or assisting a cow through a difficult delivery. She even became knowledgeable about sheep farming, and invested in a farm of Herdwick sheep because they were easy to rear.
But farming was not a lucrative business, and at the rate she was purchasing property, she was always short of funds. For this, she sold her pictures of Peter Rabbit and other animal characters. They were bought by an American publisher and helped tide over the crunch. Her low-key lifestyle, her sympathy for those in need, her economies, and her ancient jalopy “Noah’s Ark” which couldn’t pull uphill, made her a lovable character in the area. When electricity came in 1934, she still preferred the mellow lights of oil lamps and candles.
At the age of 72, she finally bid adieu to the land she loved. Her fourteen farms and 4000 acres of land, together with her flocks of Herdwick sheep, passed on to the National Trust. Mrs. Beatrix Heelis’ wish to preserve the rolling hills and green pastures, to keep the old world charm of small barns and cottages intact, and to prevent the incursion of tarred roads and concrete buildings in her beloved country, is now the work of the National Trust.
Beatrix Heelis nee Potter is remembered as a “blue-eyed bonny woman, who stayed bonny all her life,” like her animal character Mrs.Twiggy Winkle. A dapper woman whose love for animals and Nature shines through her books and drawings; a woman who put a basket of apples every day on her back porch, for the black birds to peck, and kept a rabbit pen in her garden, so that children who expected to see her animals like Peter rabbit living with her, wouldn’t be disappointed.
She bequeathed to her nation a legacy far more precious than all her books, the gift of green rolling pastures and shady woodlands, where one can still hear the warble of birds and the chattering of squirrels; an oasis of peace away from the industrial din of the cities.
Beatrix died on December 22nd,1943. Her shepherd of twenty years Tom Storey, scattered her ashes on the Hill Top pastures, where her presence still hovers benevolently over the dales. Perhaps she should be given the Borlaug Award posthumously, and the proceeds remitted to the National Trust, Lake District.
Sunday Herald, February 4th, 2001