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A Beatrix Potter Pilgrimage : Visiting the sites in England and Scotland that inspired the creator of Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Squirrel Nutkin

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<i> Sims is an Oregon-based free-lancer who writes frequently about the United Kingdom</i>

In certain parts of England and Scotland, it’s almost impossible to avoid Beatrix Potter. Her “little books,” as she called them, are sold in gift shops from Land’s End to John O’ Groats. Whole museums and stores are devoted to the self-effacing artist-storyteller, the inventor of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. And if her anthropomorphic illustrated tales didn’t guarantee her immortality, her efforts to preserve much of the Lake District, one of England’s great scenic wonders, certainly did.

My husband and I decided to visit the various locales featured several years ago in “The Tale of Beatrix Potter,” a Masterpiece Theatre TV series based on her life. Although neither of us had grown up with Potter’s books--indeed, I’d always thought them a bit too cute--we were both fascinated by her difficulties with her strict parents and her ultimate triumphs.

When we finally made the trip last fall, our Potter trail was more geographical than chronological: From London’s Heathrow Airport, we drove north, through Oxford and onto the M6, surely one of the least scenic motorways in England. Our destinations were the Lake District in England’s northwest corner, and central Scotland, following the upscale Victorian crumbs left by the Potter family’s summer holidays and Beatrix’s later passions. In other words, we started at the end--Hill Top farm in the Lake District, where Potter lived the last years of her life, dying at her beloved farm in 1943.

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We arrived at Hill Top on a rainy September day. So did dozens of others. Hill Top’s housekeeper, Catherine Pritchard, greeted Japanese visitors with a cheery welcome in Japanese, a few words of German to a German couple, English to my husband, Ed Barton, and me. I noticed that all of us were speaking in slightly hushed tones. Upstairs, two Japanese women huddled over an inlaid chest. A blond woman pointed to the dolls at the foot of Potter’s bed, a quaint four-poster with canopy and drapes.

Of the several properties Potter bought and farmed in the Lake District--about 4,000 acres total--Hill Top was her first and favorite. In 1905, nearing 40, grieving over the death of her fiance, she finally defied her repressive, suffocating mother and father; she bought Hill Top in Near Sawrey and moved away from her parents’ London home. She lived at Hill Top until her marriage to a local solicitor, William Heelis, in 1913. They moved into Castle Cottage, a short walk away, because she wanted Hill Top unchanged.

According to the terms of Potter’s will, Hill Top is preserved exactly as it looked when she lived and wrote there. The long path to the front door is bracketed by beds of vegetables and flowers and berries of the sort she grew; inside, toys and trinkets, dishes and books, are all arranged as if Potter had just gone out for a walk and would be back for tea any minute.

You can see much of Hill Top farm just by reading some of Potter’s books, because she painted the trappings of her everyday life. The pictures in “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers,” written and illustrated by Potter in 1926, show the central stairs, the upstairs landing and the barnyard and fields around the farm. The oak cupboard in the Hill Top kitchen appears in “The Tailor of Gloucester,” published in 1903--after she’d visited the house but before she’d bought the property.

The Edward VII teapot on the table (between the cat and dog) in “The Pie and the Patty-Pan” (1905) is now tucked away in a parlor cabinet. The front entrance to Hill Top, not much more than a peaked roof over a little stoop, shows up in “The Tale of Tom Kitten” and other books. In the upstairs “treasure room,” the dollhouse is not the one seen in “The Tale of Two Bad Mice,” but the food stolen by Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb--a tiny ham, a fish, some fruit--is there.

The barns and flowers, trees and pastures, all are there, just as they were, just as Potter painted them. The small vegetable garden opposite the front entrance to the house is exactly like the one where ditsy Jemima Puddle-Duck abandoned her egg under a rhubarb plant. Sure enough, there is an egg under a rhubarb plant at Hill Top, and when a middle-age woman saw it, she pointed and whispered delightedly--until she realized there were no ducks around. It was a plastic ringer. Children no doubt squeal with pleased recognition when they see it (I nearly did), so perhaps Beatrix would approve the slightly tacky deception.

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Visitors who approach Hill Top from London or the Midlands to the east usually take a ferry across Lake Windermere (unless they want to drive many miles around the north end of the lake). Near Sawrey is two miles from the ferry, farther than Far Sawrey, one of those droll contradictions favored by the British.

We crossed in the early evening, but even in the dim light, it was clear that the Lake District was special. No fast-food restaurants, no ugly modern buildings, nothing except a few automobiles to remind us of the 20th Century. Thanks to Potter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley (he co-founded the National Trust, which manages hundreds of historic properties), the Lake District’s villages are still quaint, its roads still narrow, its Herdwick sheep (also preserved and bred by Potter) still graze the lush hills.

In Near Sawrey, which is more a collection of houses (including several bed-and-breakfasts) than a real town, we stayed at Buckle Yeat, a small bed-and-breakfast next door to the Tower Bank Arms, the local pub, which is next door to Hill Top. At night, after the ferry stopped running, there was almost no traffic, which was good because Buckle Yeat is practically in the road. In the morning, before the generous English breakfast, my husband walked for miles--easily done, as the Lake District has public footpaths in all directions, crossing private property, up hill and down dale.

One of the district’s few concessions to commercialism is its untrammeled affection for, and exploitation of, good old Beatrix. The busy gift shop at Hill Top sells the familiar soaps, dishes, books, games, cards, anything that can display a Potter illustration. In nearby Hawkshead (a two-mile walk or drive), in an art gallery that was once her husband’s office, more of her works are on display--for a $4 admission price. This Potter passion extends to Scotland--wherever she laid her head or put paintbrush to paper.

After stalking Potter’s ghost at Hill Top and Hawkshead, we followed a narrow, winding road to Wray Castle, which was rented by her family in 1882. It was here, at age 16, that Beatrix first fell in love with the Lake District. The castle, an ominous gray stone heap, is now a school for marine radio operators and is not open to the public, but the grounds are lovely and the views stunning.

Then we set off for Scotland to trace the earlier days of this unusual woman.

Beatrix was the only daughter of wealthy parents who kept her at home, hiring tutors for whatever genteel education she was allowed. School was considered unnecessary for polite young Victorian ladies. Beatrix showed artistic talent, which was acceptable in a female, at an early age. When the family took its annual three-month vacation (!) in summer (they also had a brief holiday in the spring), she and her brother would draw and paint everything that caught their fancy. For the first 15 years of Beatrix’s life, the family summered in various parts of Scotland. In Dunkeld, in central Scotland near Perth, she began making detailed studies of mushrooms (which she would finish in the Lake District). Her theory--that lichens were compounds of fungi and algae--was scorned by the all-male mycological society, and her drawings were not taken seriously. History and science would prove her correct, but Potter was devastated. She would spend no more time on “serious” subjects.

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Ed and I started our Scottish part of the tour in Perth, where those rejected fungi paintings were on display at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery. Although the paintings seem to have darkened over time, her intricate renderings are still intact--just the sort of precision that, once coupled with her whimsical imagination, would bring rabbits, mice and hedgehogs to life a few years later.

From Perth, we headed northwest for lesser-known sites, such as Birnam and the Beatrix Potter Garden and Exhibition Centre, where copies of her fungi paintings are on display indoors. Outdoors, footpaths wander past little ponds and streams populated with metal versions of Jeremy Fisher, Mr. Tod, et. al. Charming for children, but not worthy of a lengthy detour.

In addition to her fungi painting, another important part of Potter’s history took place next door to Birnam, in Dunkeld. There, in a large house called Eastwood, Beatrix wrote and illustrated a letter to the son of a friend in 1893. That story and its pictures became “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” her first book, published in 1902, when Potter was 36.

If you want to see Eastwood, you may have trouble finding someone to direct you. The folks at the exhibition center didn’t know where it was; startled Dunkelders we buttonholed on the street had never heard of it.

Undaunted, we headed for the River Tay (we had read that Eastwood was on the river). A public footpath, Heritage Trail, follows the water, so we started walking, hopeful but uncertain. We did finally spy Eastwood (an undistinguished country house not open to the public) across the river, but we also stumbled unwittingly into the remains of Birnam Wood. Yes, the Birnam Wood, from the fourth act of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when three witches utter the prophecy, “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” Two ancient trees, an oak and a sycamore, are believed to be the only survivors from the forest depicted in the play. Their spreading limbs are propped up by crutches, and a plaque commemorates their longevity and poetic background.

Did Beatrix recline under those massive limbs? Did she feel the same awe, or wonder who else stood under those branches?

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If she did, she hasn’t bequeathed us any commemorative art. Still, we can comfort ourselves with the hundreds of drawings, sketches and paintings she did leave behind, which are distributed throughout England, Scotland and the United States (the Philadelphia Free Library has this country’s largest collection of Potter art).

But for most Potter fans, Hill Top is the best reminder of all that she accomplished. She managed to sidestep the limitations imposed by a rigid Victorian society, express herself creatively and entertain millions around the globe in the process; she also achieved great success in publishing and farming and made an enduring mark on a large piece of English real estate.

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GUIDEBOOK

England by the Tale

Getting there: From LAX fly nonstop to London Heathrow on American, United, Delta, British Air, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic; advance-purchase round-trip fares start at about $875, including taxes and fees. Most other U.S. carriers offer direct flights to Heathrow.

From London Heathrow Airport, take the A2 Airbus to Euston Station in London. Trains to Windermere, with a change in Oxenholme, leave from Euston about eight times a day, and the trip takes 3 1/2-4 1/2 hours. First-class one-way ticket, about $100; standard class, $66. For train arrangements, call BritRail Travel International Inc., 1500 Broadway, New York, NY 10036; telephone (800) 677-8585 or (212) 575-2667(both numbers often busy).

In Windermere, you can catch the local No. 555 bus that connects Ambleside, Grasmere and Keswick. In Ambleside, hire a taxi (or take a nice eight-mile hike) to Near Sawrey.

Or, by automobile, the most direct route to Near Sawrey is through Windermere to the ferry at Bowness (ferry cost: about $2). It takes you across Lake Windermere to Far Sawrey, just a couple of miles from Near Sawrey.

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Where to stay: Near Sawrey has several B&Bs;, including Buckle Yeat (Sawrey, near Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 0LF; tel. from U.S. 011-44-153-94-36446); about $30 per person per night. There is one pub, Tower Bank Arms, which rents three rooms. Advance reservations recommended, especially in summer.

Where to eat: Tower Bank Arms serves lunch and dinner; Buckle Yeat serves breakfast, light lunch and tea. Sawrey House Hotel offers dinner. Several restaurants in Hawkshead, including the vegetarian A Room With a View, serve lunch and dinner.

Hill Top: Open April 1 through Oct. 31, 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sat.-Wed.; admission about $6. There is a small parking lot across the road.

Wray Castle: Now a school for marine radio operators, Wray Castle is two miles northwest of Near Sawrey, down a narrow road that branches off to the north near Hawkshead (follow the signs to High Wray).

Hawkshead: The Beatrix Potter Gallery, with many of her original drawings, is open April 1-Oct. 31, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; admission $4.

Tours: Lake District bus tours are offered by many companies. Consult a travel agent to find one that fits your times and needs.

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Perth, Scotland

Getting there: From Windermere in the Lake District take one of four morning trains, change in Oxenholme and again in Edinburgh or Glasgow, and arrive in Perth about four or five hours later. First class, one-way, $96; standard class, $63.

The Perth Museum and Art Gallery: (George Street; tel. 011-44-1738-632-488) owns Potter’s fungi paintings but may not have them on display. To forestall disappointment, write Mike Taylor, keeper of natural sciences at the museum, George Street, Perth PH1 5TJ; tell him when you will be in Perth and request a private showing (available only with advance notice). The museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat.

For more information: Perth’s Tourist Information Centre (45 High St.; tel. 011-44-1738-638-353) can direct you to car rentals, restaurants, hotels. The center is open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. every day.

Dunkeld and Birnam, Scotland

Getting there: By train: Seven or eight trains leave Perth for Dunkeld every day. The journey takes 20 minutes and costs $6 for a standard-class ticket.

By car: Take the A9 northwest from Perth to Dunkeld, about a 10-mile drive.

Follow the Heritage Trail along the River Tay to find Birnam Wood and Eastwood. Or take the road to Caputh.

For more information: Dunkeld Tourist Information Centre, The Cross, Dunkeld, PH8 0AN; tel. 011-44-1350-727-688. The center is open 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. in summer.

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General information: Devoted Potter fans and serious scholars may want to join the Beatrix Potter Society by contacting its West Coast representative, Barbara Vollick, 22804 Parkhill Court No. 3, Hayward, CA 94541; tel. (510) 538-1470. Annual dues are $25.

The British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176-0799; tel. (800) 462-2748 or (212) 986-2200.

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