Beatrix Potter, the Lake District and the National Trust

Yew Tree Farm and it's flock of Herdwick sheep, near Coniston, in Cumbria

Beatrix Potter’s passion for the Lake District started when she was just 16, during the first of many family holidays. The landscape here inspired some of her most famous tales, saw her become a prominent member of the farming community and led her to a life far away from Victorian London.

A fierce campaigner on local conservation issues, Beatrix protected large areas of the Lake District from development, and thanks to her legacy to the National Trust the landscapes, farming practices and traditions that define this UNESCO World Heritage site live on today. 

Inspired by Lakeland 

In 1882, the Potter family spent their first summer in the Lake District at Wray Castle, a mock-Gothic mansion on the western shore of Windermere. Beatrix had already developed an interest in sketching, and spent the summer drawing the mountains, woodlands, wildlife, flowers and fungi surrounding their holiday home.  

It was at Wray Castle that she first met National Trust co-founder Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, the vicar of nearby Wray Church, who later championed her books and inspired her conservation work.

Beatrix spent many summers in the Lake District, staying at Lingholm and Fawe Park near Derwent Water. It was during her stays here that she began to write picture stories for young relatives and acquaintances, including a tale of a mischievous rabbit named Peter. The landscape surrounding Derwent Water inspired some of Beatrix’s earliest and most loved tales. The tales of Squirrel Nutkin, Benjamin Bunny and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle are rooted here, the distinctive scenery serving as backdrops to Beatrix’s illustrations. 

View of Derwentwater from the Squirrel Nutkin sketchbook. The ink, pencil and watercolour studies in this 1901 sketchbook provided background scenery for the 1903 publication. / NT 242740
Sketchbook drawing in watercolour by Beatrix Potter
View of Derwentwater from the Squirrel Nutkin sketchbook. The ink, pencil and watercolour studies in this 1901 sketchbook provided background scenery for the 1903 publication. / NT 242740

The Potter’s also spent several summers at Esthwaite Water, in Near Sawrey, the area that would later become Beatrix’s home. 
 

Hill Top 

In 1905 Beatrix used the proceeds from her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, to buy Hill Top, a small working farm in the village of Near Sawrey. Beatrix made regular trips here from London, filling it with mementos, antiques and paintings and tending to the cottage garden. Beatrix would come to Hill Top to write and paint, and she used the house itself and the surrounding countryside as inspiration for many of her books. 

It was at Hill Top Beatrix grew her interest in farming, working with her farm manager John Cannon to extend the farmhouse and grow the farm stock, becoming an expert on the local traditional breed of sheep, the Herdwick.
 

Farming and Herdwick sheep

Purchasing Hill Top was the beginning of Beatrix’s transformation from a London writer and artist to a Cumbrian farmer. In 1923 she bought one of the largest farms in the Lake District, Troutbeck Park farm, in the Troutbeck valley, to save it from possible development. She took over the management of the farm herself, buying neighbouring farms and employing a local shepherd, Tom Storey to help her breed Herdwick sheep. 

Herdwick’s had grazed the Lakeland fells for centuries, but the breed was under threat. Beatrix did much to safeguard and promote the Herdwick breed and was the first woman to be elected president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association, set up by Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley in 1889.  
 

Beatrix Potter in later life with one of her prize-winning Herdwick sheep
Beatrix Potter in later life with one of her Herdwick sheep
Beatrix Potter in later life with one of her prize-winning Herdwick sheep

Beatrix and Tom built up a celebrated flock and some of the awards and trophies she won at local agricultural shows for her sheep breeding can be seen on display at Hill Top. 

A Lakes landowner

Beatrix purchased a considerable amount of land in the Lake District and was advised by local solicitor William Heelis, who she met in Hawkshead and later married. 

She and William lived in Castle Cottage, Near Sawrey, from 1913 until her death. Only a few books were produced for Frederick Warne after their marriage as she became much more focused on farming and investing in land and the local community around Near Sawrey.
 

Conservation and the National Trust

Faced with the threat of development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a growing desire to protect England’s open spaces. In 1883 Canon Rawnsley set up the Lake District Defence Society, the forerunner to the National Trust. 

Beatrix became a good friend of Canon Rawnsley and shared his desire to protect the landscape and traditions that defined the Lake District. 

Beatrix Potter with friend and mentor Hardwicke Rawnsley in the Lake District, 1912.
Beatrix Potter stands next to Hardwicke Rawnsley in front of a house in the Lake District, 1912.
Beatrix Potter with friend and mentor Hardwicke Rawnsley in the Lake District, 1912.

Many of Beatrix’s land purchases in the Lake District were to protect the area from unsympathetic development, and she worked closely with the National Trust, helping it to acquire land and manage farms with a view to long-term preservation.  

Whilst managing Troutbeck Park farm, she decided to bequeath it to the National Trust, providing detailed instructions on how the Trust should care for it, and in 1927 she supported the National Trust’s campaign to purchase Cockshott Point on Windermere’s east shore, selling signed drawings of Peter Rabbit to American fans to raise funds. 
 

" I wish there may be a sufficient representative number of the old farms in the hands of the Trust. "
- Beatrix Potter, letter to Eleanor Rawnsley, 1934

In 1929, Beatrix worked with the National Trust to save the vast Monk Coniston Estate from development. Stretching from the head of Coniston Water over to Little Langdale, the estate included Tilberthwaite, where Beatrix’s great-grandfather had once farmed, Tarn Hows, fell land, farms and cottages. Beatrix acquired the estate and sold half of it to the Trust once it had raised funds. 

A lasting legacy 

When she died in 1943, Beatrix left 4,000 acres of land, including 15 farms and buildings to the National Trust. All of these farms are still working farms managed by National Trust tenant farmers, in accordance with her wishes. 

Her beloved Hill Top house remains a tribute to Beatrix’s life, providing a snapshot of the life of this remarkable woman. 

Thanks to Beatrix’s pioneering conservation and campaigning, the scenes and landscape featured in her little books have changed very little over the last century, and her legacy has helped ensure the survival of the Lakeland way of life that she loved so well.