Life in the Lake District

Hill Top Farm

As a young woman Beatrix had spent many holidays in the Lake District and the place she liked best was a village called Sawrey near Windermere. In 1905 she decided to use some of the income from her books and a legacy from her aunt to buy a traditional Lakeland farm in Sawrey called Hill Top. She arranged for an extension to be built on the house so that the farm manager, John Cannon, could continue to live there with his family and run the farm, with its pigs, cows, sheep, ducks and hens.

Although Beatrix was still living at home in London with her parents she spent as much time as she could visiting her new home. She organized renovations to the farmhouse and created a beautiful English cottage garden. Furthermore she used Hill Top as background material for the illustrations in her books.

In The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907) Tom and his family live in a house like Hill Top and the illustrations show the porch, glimpses of the interior and the wonderful flowery garden.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908) is set in the farmyard. John Cannon’s wife and children appear in two of the illustrations, and both the simple-minded duck, Jemima, and Kep the kindly collie are based on real inhabitants of Hill Top Farm.

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (1908) again features Tom Kitten and his family and has many scenes showing the rooms of the house looking exactly as they do today. The story was inspired by a real infestation of rats at Hill Top.

The Tale of Ginger and Pickles (1909) is set in the Sawrey village shop. The elderly owner of the shop appeared in the story at his own request, as a dormouse. By this time Beatrix was very much part of the local community. Her neighbours all enjoyed seeing representations of their homes and cats in a book.

The Tale of Pigling Bland (1913) features the Hill Top farm pigs, including the little black pig, Pig-wig, whom Beatrix kept as a pet because she was rejected by the farm manager as being too small. The story has a romantic ending with Pigling Bland and Pig-wig running away together. It was published in the year of Beatrix Potter’s marriage to William Heelis, although Beatrix always denied that the charming picture of the two pigs arm in arm represented her and William.

William Heelis

Managing Hill Top Farm taught Beatrix much about farming. With the money earned from the Peter Rabbit books, she began to extend her property in the Lake District. William Heelis was the local solicitor who advised her on her land dealings. He shared her love of the Lake District. In 1912, William Heelis proposed marriage to Beatrix and she accepted. William and Beatrix were married in October 1913 in London, when Beatrix was 47. They made their home at Castle Cottage, Sawrey.

Farming and The Fairy Caravan

During her lifetime Beatrix bought fifteen farms, and took a very active part in caring for them. Dressed in clogs, shawl and an old tweed skirt, she helped with the hay-making, waded through mud to unblock drains and searched the fells for lost sheep. She said she was at her happiest when she was with her farm animals.

With her shepherd, Tom Storey, she bred Herdwick sheep, winning major prizes at local shows. In 1943 she became the first woman to be elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association, a sign of the high regard in which she was held by the local farming community.

She liked to keep secret her identity as Beatrix Potter, author of the Peter Rabbit books. However, she always welcomed American fans who made the journey to Hill Top, because she felt American readers had a more sympathetic understanding of her work than British ones. In 1929, she wrote her longest story, The Fairy Caravan, which featured her own Herdwick sheep. The book was dedicated to an American boy, Henry P. Coolidge, and she arranged for it to be published only in America by the firm of David McKay.

Conservation and the National Trust

Beatrix’s interest in conservation began on her first visit to the Lake District when she was sixteen. The local vicar was a charismatic young man called Hardwicke Rawnsley whose views on the need to care for the environment made a strong impression on Beatrix. Later Rawnsley was one of the three founders of the National Trust, dedicated to preserving places of historic interest and natural beauty.

Beatrix supported the National Trust all her life. She followed the Trust’s principles in managing her land, maintaining traditional buildings and farming methods. She understood the need to preserve rural culture as well as beautiful scenery. On her farms she reintroduced Herdwick sheep, a threatened native breed particularly suited to the Lake District fells.

When Beatrix died in 1943, she left fifteen farms and over 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust. In accordance with her wishes, Hill Top Farm was kept exactly as it had been when she lived in it and today receives thousands of visitors a year.