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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Potter Revisited

Air Date: Week of

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Beatrix Potter is best known as the author of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit". She's less known as a conservationist but Potter played a big role in preserving England's Lake District, the region that served as a backdrop for many of her stories. Tom Verde reports.


ROSS: Dr. Robert Ballard is off to spend the next 41 days deep in the Black Sea searching for ancient shipwrecks.

Peter Rabbit celebrates his hundredth birthday this year. It was a century ago that English author Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated the now-familiar story of the mischievous bunny who trespassed in Mister MacGregor’s garden. While Potter went on to fame and fortune as a children’s book writer, her true passion was preserving the landscape that provided inspiration for her stories – the hills and farms of western England’s Lake District. Tom Verde visited the region in search of Peter Rabbit’s creator and has this story.

VERDE: The pastoral charm and rugged beauty of England’s Lake District have inspired many poets and writers . . . Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ruskin, to name a few. But perhaps none has made the region more familiar to us than Beatrix Potter.

POTTER VOICEOVER: The sunshine crept down the slopes into the peaceful green valleys, where little white cottages nestled in gardens and orchards. “That’s Westmoreland,” said Pig-wig. She dropped Pigling’s hand and commenced to dance.

   Beatrix Potter with pet Belgian (Photo: National Trust)

VERDE: Potter’s richly illustrated children’s stories such as “The Tale of Pigling Bland,” “Squirrel Nutkin,” and, of course, “Peter Rabbit” established a popular vision of the English countryside that endures to this day.


LEAR: It’s given the Lake District world renowned. People know from reading those books what the Lake District looks like.

VERDE: Linda Lear, a professor of Environmental History at George Washington University, is researching a biography of Potter that focuses on her life as a naturalist. It’s a life that began in Victorian-era London, where Potter lived a privileged but reclusive childhood. Her happiest memories were of family vacations spent in the wilds of Scotland or the Lake District. It’s there, says Lear, she felt liberated.

LEAR: In the country, she was able to wander at will, and to discover at will, and to be away from her family. Nature was the key to her independence, and it starts very, very early, it starts at age five or six.

POTTER VOICEOVER: My dear Papa. Things are not nearly so far on here as I expected. I don’t think the bushes are so green as those in the park in London. We hardly found any primroses, as they are only just coming up.

LEAR: And she’s a compulsive artist, she draws everything in nature she can see, and she gets better and better and better, so she becomes a really fabulous natural history illustrator.

VERDE: As a young woman, Potter considered a career as a botanist, but academia’s all-male bureaucracy stood in her way. She couldn’t even attend the presentation – before a prestigious London botanical society – of her own groundbreaking research on lichen spores because the society didn’t allow women at its meetings.


VERDE: Still, there were those who understood and supported her interest in nature. One influential mentor was the Reverend Hardwicke Rawnsley, a co-founder of the National Trust, today one of England’s largest land and historic building preservation organizations. It was Rawnsley who encouraged Potter to submit her first manuscript: a manuscript based on an illustrated letter she once composed for a sick child.

POTTER VOICEOVER: My dear Noel. I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. They lived with their mother…

VERDE: Much to the author’s surprise, “Peter Rabbit” was a runaway best-seller, and Potter dutifully delivered 22 more titles, at the rate of about one or two a year. Most were set in her beloved Lake District, with its whitewashed farmhouses, rambling gardens, and soaring hills, or fells as they’re called locally.


VERDE: Yet, by the early twentieth century, it was a landscape under threat. The railroad brought unprecedented numbers of vacationers to the region, as well as land-hungry developers eager to build houses and hotels to accommodate them. Meanwhile, farming was in decline, the victim of a nationwide recession. Plus, there was a rising demand for factory-made as opposed to locally produced goods. Potter took it upon herself to tackle these threats head-on.

DENYER: What Beatrix Potter did, was to raise money from her little books, quite large sums of money, which she then invested in the landscape.

VERDE: Potter biographer, Susan Denyer.

DENYER: And one of her first farms, Troutbeck Park Farm in Troutbeck, she bought to stop that whole area being developed. It’s very difficult now to imagine that might all be covered in houses.


VERDE: Potter was purchasing more than just real estate. She was preserving a way of life that had existed in the Lake District for generations. And, she meant to keep it that way. Potter also had strong opinions on livestock, and preferred one local breed of sheep in particular.

BURKETT: In them days, there nearly only was ‘erdwicks in the Lake District.

VERDE: Sixty-eight year old Johnny Burkett is one of a long line of tenet farmers to raise Herdwick sheep at High Yewdale, a former Potter farm, now in the care of the National Trust. Herdwicks are indigenous to the Lake District. They’re able survive on the high, stormy fells where no other sheep can, says Burkett, by virtue of their hardiness and thick, distinctively grey wool. The breed is also unique in that it’s hefted to the land, meaning Herdwicks instinctively stay put wherever they’re born and don’t wander off like other sheep.


BURKETT: Bah, bah. You’re all right, have a look around…

VERDE: In Potter’s day, the breed was in danger of extinction. Disease was one factor. Another was the invention of linoleum, which home owners increasingly preferred over woolen rugs, once commonly made from Herdwick fleece. Potter’s willingness to experiment with costly new veterinary medicines coupled with her sheer determination eventually saved the Herdwick, even though she sometimes rubbed fellow sheep farmers the wrong way.

BURKETT: Me father used to say, when you were buying rams, she was a bit of a nuisance, ‘cause she had bigger pocket than what the ordinary farmer had, and she could get the best.

VERDE: Sheep farming has never been an especially easy, let alone profitable business, and Potter knew it – which is why she encouraged farmers to take advantage of the inevitable tourist trade by operating tea rooms and bed and breakfasts on their farms.


VERDE: In the tea room of Yew Tree Farm, owner Hazel Relph sells everything from Herdwick wool sweaters to ground Herdie burgers. The income from wool alone, she says, no longer pays the rent.

RELPH: Fifty years ago there would be four women and four shepherds running this place, and now there’s my husband and I, and I get part time help. But without the bed and breakfast and the tea room and selling our own meat, you couldn’t make a living.

VERDE: Peter Rabbit’s creator wasn’t above a little merchandising herself. Long before there was a Harry Potter, Beatrix Potter patented a Peter Rabbit doll, board game, china set, figurine, coloring book, calendar, even wallpaper and slippers. Yet, she continued to siphon the profits from these products and her books right back into the Lake District. When she died in 1943 at age 77, she left nearly all of her land – more than 4000 acres – to the National Trust for the public’s enjoyment. It remains the largest donation ever made to the Trust and one that helped the then-fledgling organization establish itself.

Today, Potter’s stone farmhouse at Hill Top in the little village of Near Sawrey, the setting for many of her books, is the Trust’s most popular attraction. Visitors from around the world come here to see the real-life home of Peter Rabbit and other familiar characters.


VERDE: The challenges of preserving this environment remain much the same as those of Potter’s day. Of the 20 working farms she left to the National Trust, a third have gone under. Meanwhile, the pressures of tourism – even supposedly low-impact eco-tourism – continue to take their toll. Millions of hiking boots tramping across the footpaths have caused erosion in some areas. The Trust’s regional manager, Charles Flannigan, admits there’s much left to be done and that Potter would probably be the first to agree with him.

FLANNIGAN: I think if Beatrix Potter was still alive today, she would say we haven’t lived up to her standards, but her standards were exceedingly high, to an intense degree of detail. Equally, I think times have moved on and we are fulfilling the spirit of her wishes as far we are able to do so.

VERDE: And if Potter was alive today, it’s likely she’d still recognize many of the farms and fells and footpaths she wandered half a century ago. Author Judy Taylor chairs the Beatrix Potter Society.

TAYLOR: Oh yes, I mean it’s been kept exactly as she wanted it. And what it means for us today is that we’re free to roam the Lake District and cannot build on it and it’s preserved for all of us. It’s strange, really, that the royalties from books like the “Tale of Peter Rabbit” and the other little books enabled her to do this for us. It’s lovely.


VERDE: For Living on Earth, I’m Tom Verde in England’s Lake District.

[MUSIC: Radiohead “There there” Hail to the Thief Capitol 2003]



See a slideshow of Beatrix Potter’s work

See a slideshow of photos from the area that inspired Beatrix Potter’s work


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