By Vivian Murray
The Lake District (Cumbria) of northwest England had been on my ‘someday-I-will-travel-to’ list for ages. The added bonus to seeing the beauty of this countryside was also to see where Beatrix Potter, author of Peter Rabbit and other sweet animal characters, lived, loved, and bequeathed to the U.K.
In 2013 I was invited to join family members on a heritage walk where I could finally see the area where my grandfather was born and raised. After a stop in London, Seaford, and Brighton, I headed north on the trains to another cousin’s home.
After day trips to Wigan, Manchester, and Liverpool, I ventured north again. The drive from John and Denise’s home in Congleton to Cumbria took about an hour and a half. The scenery passed by with a few interjections from my cousin John of notable landmarks, one of which was a mountain area known for the Lancashire witch-burning back in the day of notable witch-burnings. There was a mountain range called the Howgills which were snow-covered on this March day, and every pasture we passed was streaked with impressive handmade stone fences crisscrossing the thousands of acres of land.
Eventually we drove off the freeway and into the bucolic national park arriving at a ferry crossing over Windemere Lake. Our timing was impeccable; the small ferry arrived and we on the other side of the lake in less than 10 minutes.
After disembarking from the ferry, it was a relatively short drive through picture-perfect scenery until arriving at the small village of Hawkshead. Imagining a small hamlet stuck out in the middle of nowhere, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of Peter Rabbit images and souvenir shops brimming with small and large replicas of animal characters. There was no doubt that we had arrived in Beatrix Potter country.
Upon her death, Potter endowed hundreds of acres of land in the Lake District to the National Trust (UK’s version of America’s National Park Service).
Curiously, many of the shops featured Japanese translations for the Potter signage. John later learned how in Japan, students are taught English by reading Beatrix Potter’s children’s books. Therefore, thousands of Japanese tourists make their way to Hawkshead and to Potter’s beloved home, the Hilltop House, every year. I had no idea of the impact Ms. Beatrix Potter made on people in other parts of the world other than my familiar English speaking universe.
Wandering in Hawkshead, and knowing virtually nothing about what we should see, we ended up inside what had been a land procurement building. It was now a gallery featuring several original works of art on walls and under glass along with story lines of Beatrix’s life, including her personal life. There were short tales about her engaged to one fellow in London, but married another one whom she met in this Lake District’s land procurement office, when purchasing her first property in Cumbria from the proceeds of her popular children’s books. There is a movie about her life starring Renée Zellweger named “Miss Potter” which goes into more detail. While watching, you may want to have your tissues handy.
The three of us skirted around the rickety two-story building first on the ground floor and then up an uneven staircase to a landing with wildly uneven and wavy floorboards as well as a window placed in a strange location (at floor level). I proceeded to happily escape into my photo-journalist-fantasy-world capturing the fascinating ‘artifacts’ presented. Along the way John and I had a little fun with the period hats.
As I rounded a corner, a woman suddenly jumped out of nowhere and severely admonished me for taking photos. This was against the rules she stated in no uncertain terms, while she pointed to a sign, written in plain English, reiterating the fact. As a side note, this guard was Japanese and I wondered if she had ever imagined working in Hawkshead guarding Potter exhibits when she was growing up in Japan and learning English from Potter books. Now, speaking Japanese was also quite useful in her job.
From there, we high-tailed it (a little bunny talk) back to the car before our time ran out in the parking lot meter. Yes, we had to pay for parking in this small village in the middle of nowhere. We drove a short distance, following arrows, up to Hilltop House. At the National Trust admissions desk, I paid my fee and John and Denise bought an annual National Trust pass, which as it turned out, served them well.
We had to pass through a souvenir shop to access by a pathway leading up to the Hilltop House, as well as back again which had to be a revenue maker from people like me.
Inside the weathered and cozy house, it was obvious I couldn’t take photos with so many “guards” and signs scattered about! The primarily female guards of a certain age stood guard watching over a large array of antiques and collectables which Beatrix and her husband acquired during their lives in Hawkshead.
On the second story was Ms. Potter’s creative room where I stood in front of a large oak carved desk. The curators had positioned a pen and sketch pad portraying little animal drawings. As I peered over the desk for a closer look at the intricate drawings, the sunlight broke through billows of clouds shining through a beveled glass window onto the drawings in the same fraction of a second. The suddenness of the light startled me and I blurted out to the guard, “Wow, she had great lighting for drawing, didn’t she!” He (one of the few male guards on hand) merely mumbled a brief acknowledgement as I silently mused upon my experience. It was a perfect room for an artist to draw and it felt as if I was experienced what it must have been like for Beatrix to work in this room.
After checking the other rooms containing oodles of collectibles with dozens of small miniature figurines scattered about on shelves and inside glass cases, there were also standard period pieces, such as bellows for the fireplace and a rifle, strategically placed.
Frustrated I couldn’t take photos, I went outside where I could freely click away in front of her house. I envisioned the artist’s imagination soaring as she stumbled across antics of her animals in the farmyard. I noticed the now dormant vegetable garden and antiquated stone barn facing a view of a hillside when seemed made specifically for hours of human meandering.
Soon we were on the rocky path back to the carpark with plans to head back to town for lunch when something caught my eye. Hiding in the dead winter grass, was a small wooden rabbit sitting somewhat haphazardly in the dry grasses.
At that point, my camera battery died. I had not charged the other two the night before after we had visited Liverpool and all-things-Beatles. This day was not over and having 3 dead batteries was NOT a good thing. I am usually quite disciplined on keeping the battery system for my devices going strong while I travel: one battery in the camera, one fully charged in the camera case for the day trip, and the third in the charger plugged in wherever I’m sleeping the night. But this time our fast pace had thrown me off kilter. I needed an outlet.
Earlier when we wandered in the village, I noticed a humorous sign in front of a pub and suggested we give it a try for lunch. We made a bee-line for the thatch roofed establishment and as soon as we placed our orders, I was on the hunt for an electrical outlet to charge my battery. The bartender pointed out an outlet by the back door which charged my battery during our lunch and thankfully I had my UK electrical converter in my camera bag.
The salad at The King’s Arm was a savory salad turning out to be the best of my entire journey. I noticed they rented rooms were a reasonable rate, too, at least for what was currently considered off-season. It wasn’t the Four Seasons but it would most likely be an experience to remember. Light was fading and we had a dinner engagement where I would meet additional “long lost cousins” from Lancaster for a family reunion before heading back to Congleton.
This area would be perfect to explore for a longer and more leisurely holiday in the Lake District. It was obvious that a few hours in the Lake District just touched the surface of this lush, stunning area. For the fit and hardy, there are walking trails everywhere, mountains to climb, and beautiful vistas to inhale. I was given an unique opportunity to experience this area of England thanks to my cousin John and his wife Denise. My once-in-a-lifetime Heritage Walk in England had come to an end.
Vivian C. Murray is a local writer and EPIC member who leads the monthly Travel Writing group. She is currently researching and writing about her British and Russian family who lived in Shanghai from the 1920s through the 1940s. All photos copyright of V.C.Murray.
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