Welcome to Peter Rabbit’s world

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Fyllis Hockman

Beatrix Potter wrote her classic tales of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck and other creatures from her home called Hill Top near Windermere, England. The house includes her doll house and the desk where she wrote her books.
Photo © National Tru

What do William Wordsworth, William Yeats and Jemima Puddle-Duck have in common? Well, they all lived in and around the fairy-tale villages of England’s Lake District. But only one of them actually is a fairy tale, and she’s possibly the most famous of the three — at least among the under-10 set.

Ms. Puddle-Duck, along with her good friends and neighbors, Peter Rabbit, Samuel Whiskers and Pickles among many others, were brought to life by Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), another famous resident of the Lake District. And she is the one most responsible for maintaining the environmental integrity of the area since her death in 1943, when she donated 14 properties to the National Trust — thereby preserving much of the land that now comprises the Lake District National Park.

Is there anyone alive today who actually made it through childhood without at least a cursory introduction to Peter Rabbit, Flopsy and Mopsy and that mean old farmer MacGregor? Well, this is where they lived until Beatrix caught them and immortalized them forever in little 5” by 4”-sized books.

A visit to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s home for 38 years, not far from Windermere, is the site of many of her creations’ adventures.

Many homes reflect the personalities of their owners — and sometimes even their pets. But rarely is a home so filled with the immediacy of its owner’s creations as is Hill Top, first purchased in 1905. They appear so alive as to permeate not only the house but the surrounding village and countryside, all of which became additional characters in what were soon to become a series of beloved children’s books.

Once you enter the grounds and garden of Hill Top, with all its original furnishings, you are transported back to the world as it was until the day she died.

Pick up A Tale of Samuel Whiskers lying about as you walk in, and follow the book’s story as you see the holes where the mice lived that threatened Tom Kitten. You can accompany Pigland Bland as he wanders through the village, and seek to protect Jemima Puddle-Duck’s egg as it lays hidden in the rhubarb patch.

You can almost hear the Two Bad Mice discussing the ham and cheese that don’t seem quite edible because they are, of course, from Beatrix’s doll house, which is right in front of you in the parlor.

Her desk contains letters she wrote, often illustrated with little cartoons and drawings. The first edition of Peter Rabbit, which started simply as a story written in letter form in September 1893 to cheer up a sick son of her former governess, is available for viewing.

The whole house becomes alive through the illustrations in her stories — or is it that the illustrations become alive because they re-create the reality of her home? The parlor contains a table with some partially eaten biscuits and some correspondence Beatrix was evidently in the process of completing — clearly she is expected to return at any moment.

And indeed every shop in the area seemingly sells some version of Peter Rabbit memorabilia. Emblematic of how much Peter invades the neighborhood, when my husband and I stopped at a local pub for some requisite fish and chips, he asked about the soup of the day. When told by the bartender that it was carrot, he quipped: “How appropriate. No doubt Peter Rabbit’s favorite.” 

For more information, visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top.

— Fyllis Hockman