When I was a little girl, my grandparents gifted me with a beautiful set of Beatrix Potter books for Christmas one year. I could barely wait for everyone to finish unwrapping presents so that I could sneak off to my room with my treasure. The first Potter story I read on that long ago Christmas Day was The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher, about a determined frog whose fishing trip turned out to be not quite what he expected.
Now, all these years later, here I was, wandering through the rooms of Hill Top House, Beatrix Potter’s 17th century farmhouse in the English Lake District. The tiny cottage is decorated much as it was when Potter used it as a sanctuary for writing and illustrating (she actually lived in another, larger house across the road).
Visitors can see original illustrations which gave birth to her most memorable characters from Jemima Puddleduck to the Cottontail clan (check out a replica of Mr McGregor’s garden on the grounds).
Last year was the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth, an event celebrated by those who grew up on her imaginative children’s books – while I was at Hill Top, an entire tour bus of Japanese fans were queuing for entry.
Aside from her skill as a writer/illustrator, Potter was an avid conservationist and preservationist. She was one of the early supporters of Britain’s National Trust, donating much of the land she accumulated (1,619ha) to the Trust.
As I strolled along the lanes near Hill Top, with their hedge rows and stone fences, and saw nothing for miles but emerald green patchwork fields and grazing sheep, I thought how fortunate that an organisation such as the National Trust was committed to putting so much land on this small island aside for the common good.
Though born in London, Potter fell in love with the Lake District following a summer spent here as a girl. After achieving fame (and the perks that went with it), she worked with her lifelong friend, Canon Rawnsley, founder of the National Trust, to ensure that this beautiful part of England would never be developed. Today, the 2,292 sq km Lake District National Park is the country’s most visited.
Mountains with romantic names such as Cat Bells, Helvellyn and Great Gable loom over small villages such as Grasmere, Hawkshead and Ambleside. Of course, the major drawing card is the lakes. Guidebooks will tell you there are 16 of them, with Windermere being the longest (16.9km) and Wastwater, the deepest (74m).
If you want to be technically correct, however, there is only one official lake – Bassenthwaite. The others are “waters” or “meres.” To further confuse the issue, there are a number of “tarns” (an old Norse word for pools) mostly cradled in mountain glens, giving them an Alpine feel.
Lakes, meres, waters or tarns – all are beautiful. So beautiful that the 19th century Romantic poets (in particular, William Wordsworth) extolled that beauty in verse and were the first to mass market the region’s appeal.
If you love Wordsworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, you’ll want to head to Ullswater, the lake that inspired him, especially in the spring when the poet’s “golden host of daffodils” bend and sway along the banks, creating a tapestry of yellow.
Both Potter and Wordsworth are lauded in the Lake District. The World of Beatrix Potter in Bowness-on-Windermere is a Disneyesque display featuring dioramas of Peter Rabbit’s Garden, Mr Toad’s underground home, Mrs Tiggy-winkle’s kitchen, Jemima Puddleduck’s forest glade and a host of others.
Wordsworth takes pride of place in Grasmere, where Dove Cottage, home of the poet and his sister Dorothy, is now a museum offering guided tours.
If you want to pay homage to both, you can do it in Hawkshead. Visit the grammar school attended by Wordsworth and then take in the Beatrix Potter Gallery, where her original artwork is on display in a 17th century house.
There is plenty more to see in the Lake District, both on land and by water. An unusual landmark is Windermere Chippy – what at first appears to be an indistinguishable fish and chips restaurant.
What does distinguish Windermere Chippy from others of its ilk is its location at the exact midpoint of Britain – halfway between John O’ Groats at the northern tip of Scotland and Land’s End at the south-westernmost tip of Cornwall.
One of the best excursions by water is a boat cruise from the resort town of Ambleside to Wray Castle, a mock Gothic edifice complete with turrets and towers, where Beatrix Potter celebrated her 16th birthday while on holiday with her family.
You won’t lack for top-rated accommodations in the Lake District. The Waterhead Hotel has a lovely setting near Ambleside. Sip a glass of wine on the lawn and watch the sun set over the lake before heading to the hotel restaurant with its stunning view of the mountain locals lovingly refer to as Coniston Old Man.
While the Waterhead has the style of a luxury boutique, its sister property, the Wild Boar, has a more rustic feel – perhaps because it takes its name from the legend of Sir Richard de Gilpin, who allegedly slew a ferocious wild boar in the woods near the present-day hotel.
It seems the epic battle made heroes of both beast and man as the boar got a hotel named after him and the Gilpin Valley where it’s located is named in honour of Sir Richard. Restaurants are equally stylish – from the Tower Bank Arms, which began as an ale house in the 17th century, to the ultra-modern Zeffirelli’s where the cuisine and decor evoke the Mediterranean. If you’re in need of a local treat, stop at the tiny white-washed cottage with green trim in Grasmere, home to Sarah Nelson’s famed gingerbread.
Visitors to the Lake District will stay and play in a region so stunning that it will make them gasp, and who knows – they may encounter the ghosts of Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth while they are there. – Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service