I had never really thought about the connection between writers and gardens, until I attended a workshop at the Chelsea Physic Gardens last May, hosted by writer and journalist Jackie Bennett. Suddenly a whole world of beautiful gardens and landscapes took on a whole new meaning as we saw how they had influenced the lives and work of writers such as Jane Austin, Roald Dahl, William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter.
Many a gardener will tell you about the ability to get completely lost in their work – time and life escapes you as you plant and plan, sometimes successfully and other times not so. The little personal oasis offers a place to relax and unwind, a place to escape the toils and troubles of our everyday lives and place to just stop, breathe and take a moment to look at the beauty the English countryside and nature can give us. I’m sure many will be familiar with the Tales of Beatrix Potter and her beautiful illustrations of talking bunnies and cottage gardens.
I have always loved the stories, ever since my mum read the Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle to me as a child. Many children and adults will be familiar with Peter Rabbit and his escapades in Mr McGregor’s garden, and perhaps not so familiar with Tales such as The Tale of Pie and the Patty-Pan. Perhaps even less familiar are we that many of the illustrations represent not only Beatrix Potter’s love of gardens and indeed her own garden at Hill Top, near Hawkshead in Cumbria but also of the village of Near Sawrey where she lived.
For someone so famous for writing children’s books, strangely it was not as a writer that she really wished to be known and remembered, and indeed there was so much more to her life that we possibly realise. Beatrix was born into a wealthy family who had made their money in the Cotton industry. Although her father was a lawyer, he had no need financially to practice. The family lived a comfortable life at 2 Bolton Gardens, Kensington and spent their Springs and Summers staying in beautiful country estates around the British Isles. No doubt these trips were holidays but also to escape the pollution of Victorian London and to enable Bolton Gardens to be cleaned. It was on their adventures that Beatrix began to fall in love with the British countryside. From a young age Beatrix painted and developed a keen eye for painting fungi, plants and flowers.
For many years the family holidayed at Dalguise in Scotland, but when this was no longer available they turned their attention to the Lake District. Close to Scotland and with similar breath-taking landscapes and water, it was here that the shy Beatrix Potter’s heart found happiness. For the rest of her life, Potter became a prominent figure in the Lake District, not only as a writer and illustrator, but as a gardener, landowner, sheep breeder, agriculturalist and wife. She described in later years London as her ‘unloved birthplace’ and both her and her brother Bertram found solace in the fresh air, surrounded by beautiful landscapes.
Hill Top in near Sawrey, just to the West of Windermere was purchased with the money she had received in royalties from her early books, published by Fredrick Warne. After the untimely death of her fiancée, Frederick Warne, she bought Hill Top within two months and set about transforming it into the home and garden she had dreamed of for so long. Hill Top was and still is a warm and cosy 17th century cottage, which is part of a larger estate and far, set in some 30 acres.
Beatrix launched herself into the pleasures of building a garden. She laid out the main paths and dug deep flower beds which led to the cottage as the main focal point. Although she had experiences of formal gardens of larger country houses, Beatrix chose an informal way of planting, opting for dense planting, mixing hardy plants with fruits, herbs and vegetables. She bought plants from a local nursery called Mawson Bros’ in Windermere and also gratefully received cuttings, seeds and plants from the neighbours and friends of the village and hedgerows. She filled her new found space with lavenders, sweet williams, Japanese anemones, roses, foxgloves, phlox, lilies, azaleas as well as daffodils in Spring.
But aside from her garden, Beatrix Potter had the beauty of the Lakeland landscape as her inspiration, and she loved to walk the lands and fields, incorporating the rolling hills, little streams and rockeries, rolling meadows and small woodlands into her books.
She surrounded herself with colour and beauty and many of the nooks and crannies of her garden as well as the village can be seen in her books: Her vegetable patch became Mr McGregor’s Garden and Jemima Puddleducks hiding place for her eggs, her front door with its foxgloves and roses and the long front path with its deep borders and trellis work was featured in The Tale of Tom Kitten.
Yet, increasingly she threw herself into life as a countrywoman, breeding a fine stock of Herwick Sheep, showing at Agricultural shows, buying farms and large areas of Lakeland to ensure its survival and preservation away from modern developments. Her friendship with Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founding members of The National Trust was also key in ensuring the preservation of so many thousands of acres of land.
After her marriage to her solicitor, Mr Heelis, they bought Castle Cottage just the other side of the village and Beatrix began to lead almost two lives. At Hill Top she continued to be Beatrix Potter, writer and illustrator. She used it for work, for developing her garden and for meeting people whilst at Castle Cottage she was Mrs Heelis, farmer, agriculturalist and conservationist, and fiercely protective of her private life. She later said that this was how she wished to be remembered – as a countrywoman and wife. It seems that these were, in the end, more important to her than her writing and illustrating.
Beatrix Potter died on 22 December 1943, following bronchitis. There were to be no flowers or mourning and her ashes were scattered above Hill Top. At her death she owned 15 farms, several cottages and around 4000 acres of land which went to the National Trust.
Standing on the hillsides surrounding Hill Top, looking over to Windermere it is easy to see why Beatrix fell in love with the Lakes. I’ve always felt much abler to write and read when in the countryside, there is something incredibly therapeutic and humbling about being surrounded by such vast swathes of countryside, mountains and water.
For me, I always feel like I’ve been transported into another world when I turn off the M6, and even to another era. Standing in the garden of Hill Top, its almost hard not to expect her to appear from the cottage as you hear the crackle of the range and the old Grandfather clock chime twelve.
For The Adventure
Hill Top is owned by the National Trust and open to the public. Situated in the village of Near Sawrey near Hawskshead. There is a small car park in the village (which used to be Potter’s orchard) with a short walk to the cottage. It is suitable for families, but take note that entry is by timed ticket and the cottage is small, so it’s worth getting there early. The garden is at its best in late Spring and Summer. The small village also has many places of note which are also featured in Beatrix Potter’s Books such as Buckle Yeat and the Tower Bank Arms, as well as Castle Cottage which can been seen from Hill Top across the field opposite.
Nearby Wray Castle is where she spent some summer holidays with her family and can be visited on the same day as Hill Top given enough time.
For the mind
If you wish to read further about Beatrix Potter or indeed writers and their gardens, I can recommend these books:
Marta McDowell – Beatrix Potters Gardening Life – published by Timber Press, Portland, Oregan.
The Writer’s Garden – Jackie Bennett – published by Francis Lincoln Limited, London
Beatrix Potters Hill Top, published by The National Trust – property guide