Thomas Hardy Country – Far from the maddening crowd

Lyme Regis The CobbI recently discovered Dorset – not that I didn’t know it was there before, but more the fact that I never visit there as my obsession fort many years has been Cornwall.  My grandparents used to go on holiday in Dorset every year and we have a wonderful collection of family holiday snaps taken in the 1930’s on Chesil Beach and in Lyme Regis.

So last October, I decided that our half term trip would take us to explore Thomas Hardy country.  We booked a few days at Toomer Farm near Sherborne.  It is so difficult to find a place these days that wil accept a 3 year old, but this farm is a wonderful 16th century farm which operates not only as a working farm now, but also as a Bed and Breakfast and Equestrian centre as well and happily accepts toddlers.  Rumour has it that Elizabeth I stayed there as she toured her Kingdom.

My plan was to visit as much of Thomas Hardy’s country as I could.  My love of Hardy started when I was 14 and had to choose two books for my GCSE English coursework.  My tutor suggested Tess of the D’Urbervilles and I was hooked.  The vivid imagery of the people and the landscapes had me engrossed.  She also introduced to me what has become my lifelong favourite poem – The Darkling Thrush.  I remember visiting Hardy’s Birthplace not long after in the summer holidays with my mum, but I don’t think I’ve returned to Dorset since.  I only wish I’d returned sooner.

Thomas Hardy was born on 2nd June 1840 in the village of Higher Brockhampton, just a couple of miles south of Dorchester. He was the eldest of a family of four children and they lived in an idyllic cottage up a small country lane.  Even today, as you leave the visitor centre and make your way up the track, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped back 150 years and were about to bump into the Hardy family any moment. Hardy’s Cottage is now owned by the National Trust.  Surrounded by beautiful woodland, a cottage garden and miles of beautiful Dorset countryside it is not hard to see where Hardy got his inspiration from.

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After attending the village school, he went as a day boy to a private school in Dorchester.  In 1856, at the age of 16 he joined a local architect firm and for the next few years spent time on his favourite three interests – architecture, classics and his love of the Dorset countryside.  In 1862 he went to London to further his architecture career and by this time he was already starting to write.  But ill health in 1867 forced him to return to Dorchester where he continued to work as an architect. It was soon after that whilst working on a project in Boscastle that he met his future wife.  It wasn’t until the early 1870’s that Hardy’s writing began to gather momentum – his first published novel entitled ‘Desperate Remedies’ was not an overall success but the following year, 1872, the publication ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ was much better received and this start a lifelong literary career.  Although he loved writing novels, it is said that his main love was poetry.  The novels became a success financially allowing him the money to live a comfortable life and be able to write the poetry he craved.  People bought into the world he created, and still remain popular today.

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In 1874, Hardy married Miss Emma Lavia Gifford at St Peters Church in Paddington and for several years they moved from place to place around London.  But in 1881 they returned to Dorset.  At first they lived in Wimborne Minster but in 1883, Hardy purchased a plot of land about a mile south of Dorchester, on the Wareham Road and designed and built Max Gate, which was to be his home for the rest of his life. They still in kept in touch with London and frequently visited their friends and colleagues there.  But Hardy loved the peace and tranquillity of Max Gate and it was here that he wrote many of his finest novels including The Mayor of Casterbridge published in 1886, The Woodlanders in 1887 and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1891.   Max Gate is also owned and run by the National Trust.

Hardy was one of the founders of the Dorset County Museum and today the museum holds over 7000 items from his life, including a wonderful first edition of Far From The Madding Crowd.  Hardy died on 11th January 1928.  His ashes were taken to Westminster Abbey and his heart was buried in the churchyard at Stinsford, close to where his mother, father and other family members were buried.

While Hardy’s cottage fills you with memories of a simpler time when rural families lived in small cottages, the walls blackened with smoke, snakes slithering up to the back door (One was famously found in Hardy’s cot while he slept as a baby, by his mother), low ceilings and growing your own produce in your garden.  Max Gate is a much grander affair, reflecting not only perhaps a successful career but also a change in life and the progression of the Victorian ideals.  But Max Gate is a grand house on a small scale – as soon as you enter the hallway there is a cosiness and warmth about it.  It feels as if Hardy has merely stepped outside his front door for a walk in the hills to ponder his latest poem.

As you enter the sitting room on the right, a warm fire crackled and spat, the wonderful smell of the burnt wood seeping through the air.  When you walk into some homes, you are greeted with a coldness of a time so far removed from our own its hard to imagine anyone actually living there.  But Max Gate is a home and I think always will be.  This is how I want my sitting room to be, warm, cosy and always inviting to anyone who turns up for a chat. However, my favourite part of the house was Hardy’s study – I was quite overwhelmed to be stood by his desk, overlooking his beloved garden.

DSC_0917I feel honoured to have the opportunity to stand, where Hardy would have stood as he wrote, contemplated, loved and laughed.

I struggle to write living in London.  It feels too enclosed and stifling – I need space, air and trees to really find my ideas.  I think a little bit of me was jealous as I looked out of the window – what a wonderful place to be able to live and write.  No wonder his works are so full of rich descriptions of the countryside that surrounded him.  How could they not be?

Hardy set all of his major novels in the fictional county of Wessex which he had created.  The places in his novels all exist but with fictional names.  At the start of his writing career to he chose to stick to the places he knew well – the area he grew up in.  Dorchester became Casterbridge and Brockhampton became Mellstock – Under the Greenwood Tree is nearly all set here.  But as his writing developed and the years went by, soon the whole of Dorset was included as well as parts of Wiltshire, Devon, Somerset, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.  Cornwall was referred to on occasions as ‘Off Wessex.’  Other famous references include

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Weymouth – Budmouth

Beaminster – Emminster

Bere Regis – Kingsbere

Marnhull – Marlott

Lulworth Cove – Lulwind Cove

Shaftesbury – Shaston

Much of rural Dorset has changed since Hardy lived there and perhaps this is one of the reasons that I have now fallen in love with its little villages and country lanes.  As I wondered on top of hills, looking out to the sea I could almost see Tess in the distance trudging across the muddy paths.  The landscape in Hardy’s works, whether it be his novels or his poetry are almost additional characters.  His descriptions are unique and so detailed that they almost have their own power over the characters, their flaws and stories.  The principal industry has always been Agriculture and it is the only county in the country not to have a mile of motorway – one wonders for how long!

In ‘The Return of the Native’ Hardy describes Egdon Heath which combines many of the gorse and bracken covered heaths to the south of Dorchester.  It is also the sight for supernatural happenings in another of my favourite stories, ‘The Withered Arm’.  There is a certain atmosphere of hostility towards civilisations, but also shows the power of nature in the open.  In his novels he uses the contrasts of the wildness of the countryside set against the hustle and bustle of the towns of Dorchester, Shaftesbury, Sherborne and later Oxford.

‘The Darkling Thrush’ published in 1900 was written on 29 December, although there are suggestions that it was written in 1899 on the eve of the new century.  It is perhaps one of his more lyrical and musical poems and for me the imagery of the frozen, desolate winter countryside are beautiful. Although this poem could have been written anywhere in the countryside, for me it is Hardy’s connection with nature and the Dorset countryside that makes this poem what it is.

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
    The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

Yet my images of Dorset since my last three trips (In 6 months) are those of peace, tranquillity, beauty, and a tip of the cap to a bygone era.  A place where time is slower, where people stop to say hello and chat over the garden gate, and a place which still lives and breaths what rural England once was.  I have a new obsession and will be returning many more times this year to explore this wonderful place.  I look forward to discovering more of the places that Hardy used as his inspiration.

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Henrietta Vansittart – Female engineer of the Industrial revolution

Industrial Revolution and James Lowe

When you think of the Industrial Revolution what images do you conjure up?  For me its the hardship and bleakness of smoke infested towns, enormous brick buildings pumping, whirring, grinding and shunting – coal, tin, wool, cotton, iron and steam. But its not only the bleakness of the places, it’s also the bleakness of the people – lined, weary faces of those trying to many a penny to survive, fresh faced excitement of those arriving from the countryside, and aristocratic men, in crisp, starched shirts and waistcoats inventing and creating new and even more fabulous inventions.

James Lowe was one such inventor.  Lowe had worked as a mechanist and smoke jack maker and invented a screw propeller for ships.  On the 23 March 1838 he took out a patent for a new screw propeller which ensured his place in history.  New inventions were taken to the Royal Navy weekly, and at this time there was very little money to be made from such things.  But Lowe would not give up and he spent all his wife’s money on his experiments and a succession of patents reducing the family to complete poverty by the early 1850’s.  Therefore it might seem strange, that his daughter, Henrietta Vansittart (nee Lowe) excelled herself to become a respected engineer and inventor in her own right, at a time when Victorian women should have been doing anything but science.

Henrietta Vanisittart nee Lowe

lowemarinepropellerHenrietta was born in 1833, to James and Marie Lowe (nee Barnes) – she did not have the most fortunate of circumstances, she was the third daughter of six sister and two bothers, and her father had almost bankrupted the family by 1852 through his desire to invent.  However, Henrietta it seems was a social climber and had dreams of grandeur, and by 1855 she had married a lieutenant in the 14th Dragoons, Frederick Vansittart who had been based in Paris.  Soon after they bought a house in Clarges Street, London and it seems he sold his commission to they could set up home.  But, this was not good enough for Henrietta and in 1859 she started an affair, which lasted 12 years with the novelist and politician, Edward Bulwer Lytton.  Lytton was a man of social status and Henrietta clearly had an effect on him, although perhaps not to Disrealis liking and is said to have blamed Lyttons absences from the House of Commons on his association with Henrietta.  Lytton became ill and in 1873 died, leaving Henrietta £1200 in his will and very oddly her husband, £300.  She returned to her husband and lived in Twickenham.  Henrietta was clearly a highly charismatic and feisty young lady who knew what she wanted and did not allow things to stand in her way.  (Image 1 – see source

During this time, Henrietta took a keen interest in her fathers work and accompanied him on the HMS Bullfinch in 1857 to test out the new screw propeller.  She had her own ideas for how it could be developed, and after her father was tragically killed by a cart crossing the road in London in 1866, she took on her fathers work without any formal scientific or engineering training.  Within 2 years she had patented another propeller to allow ships to move faster and smoother and use less fuel.  In 1868, the Vansittart Propeller was patented and was used on HMS Druid – she won numerous awards for this, had articles written on her in the Times Newspaper and attended exhibitions all over the world. She was clearly a remarkable woman.   It is believed that she was the only lady who ever wrote, read and illustrated with her own drawings and diagrams a scientific paper before members of the Scientific Institution.

Henrietta and Twickenham

Of course, no street or person would be complete without some intrigue, mystery and scandal and Henrietta certainly had some interesting moments.  It is one of my favourite things about researching a house history – the stories of the people who lived there.  The little scraps that give us a glimpse into the past – of squabbles and stand offs, intrigue and intellect, parties and politicians. Montpelier Row has certainly had its fair show of arguments,

Henrietta seems to have lived a colourful life in all areas.  It is perhaps strange that she left her husband to have her affair with Lytton in this age, and that Lytton then left both Henrietta and Frederick money in his will, £1200 to her and £300 to him, no small sum in 1873.  Stranger still perhaps that she then went back to her husband. Happily or not, who knows.

Mr & Mrs vansittart appear to have become property owners owning a number of houses in Montpelier Row Twickenham as well as on Maids of Honor by Richmond Green.  These were and still are desirable and expensive addresses.

Maids of Honor Row – Richmond Green.

.  The 1871 census lists them at 4 Maids of Honor Row although records suggest she was there in 1869 without her husband.  Perhaps she had bought it with funds from her patent, inheritence or from Lytton. Henry George Bohn in a letter to the Richmond Twickenham Times in 1879 states that she arrived in Twickenham around 1874.  In a later letter by Bohn he talks about 4 houses that she had purchased in complete squalor for between £200-£300, and which had then been converted into two, these appear to have been Number 4 and 5 which later became Seymour House and 1 and 2, which were known as Bell House and St Maur’s Priory.  It seems by 1880 she had No 1, St Maur’s Priory (Which had been named by her) and 2, Bell House left in her possession as she had sold the others off.  The 1881 census, shows that Frederick and Henrietta were living at No 1 Montpelier Row whose main frontage was on the Richmond Road.

The 1881 census shows that Frederick and Henrietta were now living at No 1 Montpelier Row, known at this time as St Mary’s Priory, or St Maurs Priory which had been named by Henrietta.

1 Montpelier Row, Twickenham (Originally Numbers 1 and 2)

 In 1878, Bell House, Number 2 was offered for lease for the sum of £100 and Seymour House, Number 3 was also offered for sale for £73,10s.  Both properties were owned by Henrietta at this time and were offered for sale by Mr Fowler on 25 June 1878.  It appears that a neighbour, Henry George Bohn, the infamous fine art dealer, publisher and book collector, with whom there seems to have been some rivalry and dispute purchased Seymour House from Henrietta in 1879, paying £1100.00 – a vast increase on the alleged two hundred pounds she had spent only a few years earlier.

Henry George Bohn was the Vansittarts neighbour, living at North End House, just the other side of the Richmond Road.  There appears to have been a great deal of rivalry amongst the two households, not least perhaps because of Henrietta’s desire to own and lease property – the same property that Bohn also wanted to own and lease.  There was some argument with the local council in 1879, as the row had been changed to Montpelier Row to which Bohn took great displeasure and wrote to the Richmond Twickenham Times.(5)  He had erected a sign on the from of the wrought iron railings of No 1, Henrietta’s house which stated Montpelier Row,  He claims this had been agreed with Henrietta and that they had been on speaking on terms about it.  However, to his annoyance, early one morning he had spied from his house, Mr Vansittart at the top of a ladder, painting the sign out!  I can quite imagine the surprise and intrigue of curtains twitching as the early morning sun rose in Twickenham, to reveal an ageing Mr Vanisttart balanced among the top of a ladder, with an incensed wife in her long skirts, swishing in the dust at the bottom issuing her instructions.

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Bohn took to paper soon after, seemingly to air his grievances about Henrietta in public – entitle ‘The Montpelier Row Difficulty’, he writes that:

‘It is with great regret that I find myself brought once more into a verbal conflict with Mrs Vansittart, but she is inexorable, and by way of publicly introducing, what appear to me to be mere figment of the brain, contrives to make me the scapegoat.  I have no choice, therefore, but to reply to her, and bring out what may well be called the facts of a Tweedledum affair’ (6)

It seems that Henrietta had claimed that she had spent thousands of pounds on improving the row, both the buildings she had purchased but also the area of land opposite, which Bohn claims that he had in fact sectioned off and made good to stop costermongers and other nuisances taking over himself.  She stresses that she has done so much more for the neighbourhood than Bohn has ever done – keeping up with the Jones of the Victorian age.

He also airs in public his annoyance at her private affairs about the purchase and sale of her properties, and mortgages she had taken out.  Indeed, what obviously had been private discussions seems to have reached a head in 1879/1880 as both wrote backwards and forwards to the paper airing their grievances of one another’s behaviour over several years. A very public affair!

Sadly Henrietta met a very unhappy end.  In the autumn if 1883, it seems she was attending the North East Coat Exhibition of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineer at Tynemouth.  She was, found wandering the streets in a very confused state of mind and was consequently committed to the Tyne City Lunatic Asylum, where she died early in 1883 on anthrax and mania.  A sad end to an eventful life. One wonders why she was not moved back down South, had she fallen out with her husband again? Had she of lived one wonders what she would have gone on to achieve as a great woman engineer.

SOURCES

1.Epsom and Ewell History Explorer, James Lowe and his daughter Mrs Henrietta Vansittart, http://www.epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk/Lowe.html, first accessed 15/2/2017

2.Howes, A, Capitalism’s Cradle – An Economic History Blog, http://antonhowes.tumblr.com/post/115859870959/female-inventors-of-the-industrial-revolution-part

3.Intriguing History, Henrietta Vansittart Enginner, http://www.intriguing-history.com/henrietta-vansittart-engineer/, first accessed 10/2/2017

4.Wikipedia, James Lowe, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Lowe_(inventor), first accessed 10/2/2017

5. Richmond Local Studies Library, Richmond Twickenham Times, extract from a letter written to the paper from Henry George Bohn, dated 1 July 1879.

6. Richmond Local Studies Library, Richmond Twickenham Times, extract from a letter written to the paper from Henry George Bohn, entitled The Montpelier Row Difficulty.

7. Photographs are all taken from my own personal archive and are copyright to Emma Louise Tinniswood

William Wordsworth – Daffodils

Spring has to be one of my favourite seasons of the year.  I always feel a little like Mole, from the Wind in The Willows as he comes out of the ground and into the spring sunshine for the first time.  That wonderful fresh new smell of flowers bursting open, grass growing, the damp soil springing to life and the soft fragrance of early spring flowers that float on the breeze.

For me the first sign of spring is seeing the great swathes of golden headed stems adorn roadsides and riverbanks.  Driving round the windy roads of the Lake District in April, Daffodils popped up everywhere; in fields, beside lakes and in craggy rocks.  It is easy to see why William Wordsworth was so inspired by the landscape and county he grew up in to become one of the English languages most famous poets.  In fact, it is not difficult to see why the Lake District has inspired and nurtured so many artists and writers who have used the beauty and drama of the landscape to develop their art.  Wordsworth’s poetry is wholly encompassed by the landscapes that surrounded him and Dorothy’s journals give us a great insight into the flora and fauna of the area.

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William Wordsworth grew up in Cockermouth, the second of five children born to John Wordsworth and Ann Cookson.  His father was the legal representative for John Lowther, the 1st Earl of Lonsdale.  Due to the importance of his job, the family were granted a beautiful Georgia home in Cockermouth.  Wordsworth initially had an idyllic childhood, with days spent playing in the gardens of the family home with his brothers and sisters. Situated on the banks of the River Derwent, William developed his love of nature here as a young boy.   But the untimely death of first his mother, and then his father led to a dramatic change in the family’s circumstances and years of unhappiness.   A far cry from the happy days in Cockermouth as the much loved home was taken away, the family was split up and they left the house for good in 1784.  William and Dorothy, who had always been close as siblings were not reunited until 1795 having been sent to live with varying relations.

Wordsworth finally found solace and happiness once again with his sister Dorothy, when they purchased Dove Cottage in Grasmere in 1799, just weeks after William had walked past it with his brother.  From his cottage window he would have had an unadulterated view of the Lake at Grasmere and its beauty in all seasons with the mountains and hills beyond.  Both William and his sister, the diarist Dorothy, loved the outdoors and once again as adults they enjoyed each other’s company exploring the wilds of the mountain peaks and the pleasures of the lakeside walks.  She was for life, his mentor and confidante, and it was her journals and observations of the rugged terrain of Cumbria that often became a source of inspiration of Williams writing and a great passion for him.

Perhaps one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, I wandered Lonely as a cloud was inspired by the daffodils of springtime in the Lakes.

‘I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffoldils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.’

William was inspired to write his famous ‘daffodils’ poem after a walk along Ullswater with Dorothy in 1804.  He actually wrote the poem, about two years after their walk and his inspiration came from Dorothy’s account in her journal from April 15th 1802.  She wrote that the daffodils ‘tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the Lake.’  Dorothy’s journals clearly depict the wonder of seasons amongst the Lakes and were often a source for inspiration for William.  His poem was first published in 1807 and his final edited version was published in 1815.

“ When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the waterside. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing.”

This beautiful, eloquent observation of the flowers in spring show her connection to nature and the powerful descriptions must have been wonderful for William to read upon his return from his travels.  Dorothy maintained her journal throughout her time at Dove Cottage.

As Wordsworths family expanded, Dove Cottage became too small and the family moved locally before settling finally at Rydal Mount, only a couple of miles down the road from Dove Cottage, facing Rydal Water.  Whilst there he purchased a piece of woodland beside the property, originally called Rashfield.  Initially this purchase was a defence mechanism, when he was faced with eviction from Rydal Mount.  He planned to build a house on the plot.  However, in the end this was not needed and instead he gave the land to his daughter Dora.  When she tragically died, Wordsworth’s wife and their gardener had the woodland planted with hundreds of daffodils in honour of her.  It is known as Dora’s Field, to this day.  There is a wonderful oasis of calm as you sit amongst the trees and daffodils, overlooking in the distance the hills behind Rydal Water and breathe in the damp smell of woodland moss.  The field was left to the National Trust in 1935 so that future generations could enjoy this haven.

‘Ten thousand saw I at a glance

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance’

Yet it wasn’t just the beautiful of the spring daffodils that inspired Wordsworth.  Throughout his works, we see references to other flora and fauna which surrounded him. His poem, ‘Lines Written In Early Spring’, mentions the smaller wildflowers which would have carpeted woodland paths, and roadsides;

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 

The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 

And ’tis my faith that every flower 

Enjoys the air it breathes.’ 

For me Spring, is the long awaited breath of fresh air after the cold, dark winter.  A time to take stock of life, plan for the summer, look forward to warmer and lighter evenings and a sign of happy times to come.

‘And then my heart with pleasure fills

And dances with the daffodils.’

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For the Adventure

Dove Cottage is run by the Wordsworth Trust is open is to the public.  I thoroughly recommend visiting the house and the museum as a fascinating insight into the life of William and his family.  The house operates on a timed ticket system, as it is very small.  but the museum, which houses a wonderful array of archives from the Wordsworth Family can be visited while you wait.

Visit https://wordsworth.org.uk/visit/dove-cottage.html

For details of Rydal Mount visit http://www.rydalmount.co.uk/

Dora’s Field is owned and looked after by the National Trust https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ambleside/features/daffodils-at-doras-field-

Beatrix Potter – Writer, Illustrator & Countrywoman

I had never really thought about the connection between writers and gardens, until I attended a workshop at the Chelsea Physic Gardens last May, hosted by writer and journalist Jackie Bennett.  Suddenly a whole world of beautiful gardens and landscapes took on a whole new meaning as we saw how they had influenced the lives and work of writers such as Jane Austin, Roald Dahl, William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter.

Many a gardener will tell you about the ability to get completely lost in their work – time and life escapes you as you plant and plan, sometimes successfully and other times not so.  The little personal oasis offers a place to relax and unwind, a place to escape the toils and troubles of our everyday lives and place to just stop, breathe and take a moment to look at the beauty the English countryside and nature can give us.   I’m sure many will be familiar with the Tales of Beatrix Potter and her beautiful illustrations of talking bunnies and cottage gardens.

I have always loved the stories, ever since my mum read the Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle to me as a child.  Many children and adults will be familiar with Peter Rabbit and his escapades in Mr McGregor’s garden, and perhaps not so familiar with Tales such as The Tale of Pie and the Patty-Pan.  Perhaps even less familiar are we that many of the illustrations represent not only Beatrix Potter’s love of gardens and indeed her own garden at Hill Top, near Hawkshead in Cumbria but also of the village of Near Sawrey where she lived.

For someone so famous for writing children’s books, strangely it was not as a writer that she really wished to be known and remembered, and indeed there was so much more to her life that we possibly realise.  Beatrix was born into a wealthy family who had made their money in the Cotton industry.  Although her father was a lawyer, he had no need financially to practice.  The family lived a comfortable life at 2 Bolton Gardens, Kensington and spent their Springs and Summers staying in beautiful country estates around the British Isles.  No doubt these trips were holidays but also to escape the pollution of Victorian London and to enable Bolton Gardens to be cleaned.  It was on their adventures that Beatrix began to fall in love with the British countryside.  From a young age Beatrix painted and developed a keen eye for painting fungi, plants and flowers.

For many years the family holidayed at Dalguise in Scotland, but when this was no longer available they turned their attention to the Lake District. Close to Scotland and with similar breath-taking landscapes and water, it was here that the shy Beatrix Potter’s heart found happiness. For the rest of her life, Potter became a prominent figure in the Lake District, not only as a writer and illustrator, but as a gardener, landowner, sheep breeder, agriculturalist and wife.  She described in later years London as her ‘unloved birthplace’ and both her and her brother Bertram found solace in the fresh air, surrounded by beautiful landscapes.

Hill Top in near Sawrey, just to the West of Windermere was purchased with the money she had received in royalties from her early books, published by Fredrick Warne.  After the untimely death of her fiancée, Frederick Warne, she bought Hill Top within two months and set about transforming it into the home and garden she had dreamed of for so long.  Hill Top was and still is a warm and cosy 17th century cottage, which is part of a larger estate and far, set in some 30 acres.

Beatrix launched herself into the pleasures of building a garden.  She laid out the main paths and dug deep flower beds which led to the cottage as the main focal point.  Although she had experiences of formal gardens of larger country houses, Beatrix chose an informal way of planting, opting for dense planting, mixing hardy plants with fruits, herbs and vegetables.  She bought plants from a local nursery called Mawson Bros’ in Windermere and also gratefully received cuttings, seeds and plants from the neighbours and friends of the village and hedgerows.   She filled her new found space with lavenders, sweet williams, Japanese anemones, roses, foxgloves, phlox, lilies, azaleas as well as daffodils in Spring.

But aside from her garden, Beatrix Potter had the beauty of the Lakeland landscape as her inspiration, and she loved to walk the lands and fields, incorporating the rolling hills, little streams and rockeries, rolling meadows and small woodlands into her books.

She surrounded herself with colour and beauty and many of the nooks and crannies of her garden as well as the village can be seen in her books: Her vegetable patch became Mr McGregor’s Garden and Jemima Puddleducks hiding place for her eggs, her front door with its foxgloves and roses and the long front path with its deep borders and trellis work was featured in The Tale of Tom Kitten.

Yet, increasingly she threw herself into life as a countrywoman, breeding a fine stock of Herwick Sheep, showing at Agricultural shows, buying farms and large areas of Lakeland to ensure its survival and preservation away from modern developments.  Her friendship with Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founding members of The National Trust was also key in ensuring the preservation of so many thousands of acres of land.

After her marriage to her solicitor, Mr Heelis, they bought Castle Cottage just the other side of the village and Beatrix began to lead almost two lives.  At Hill Top she continued to be Beatrix Potter, writer and illustrator.  She used it for work, for developing her garden and for meeting people whilst at Castle Cottage she was Mrs Heelis, farmer, agriculturalist and conservationist, and fiercely protective of her private life.  She later said that this was how she wished to be remembered – as a countrywoman and wife.  It seems that these were, in the end, more important to her than her writing and illustrating.

Beatrix Potter died on 22 December 1943, following bronchitis.  There were to be no flowers or mourning and her ashes were scattered above Hill Top. At her death she owned 15 farms, several cottages and around 4000 acres of land which went to the National trust.

Standing on the hillsides surrounding Hill Top, looking over to Windermere it is easy to see why Beatrix fell in love with the Lakes.  I’ve always felt much abler to write and read when in the countryside, there is something incredibly therapeutic and humbling about being surrounded by such vast swathes of countryside, mountains and water.  For me, I always feel like I’ve been transported into another world when I turn off the M6, and even to another era.  Standing in the garden of Hill Top, its almost hard not to expect her to appear from the cottage as you hear the crackle of the range and the old Grandfather clock chime twelve.


For The Adventure

Hill Top is owned by the National Trust and open to the public.  Situated in the village of Near Sawrey near Hawskshead.  There is a small car park in the village (which used to be Potter’s orchard) with a short walk to the cottage.  It is suitable for families, but take note that entry is by timed ticket and the cottage is small, so it’s worth getting there early.   The garden is at its best in late Spring and Summer.  The small village also has many places of note which are also featured in Beatrix Potter’s Books such as Buckle Yeat and the Tower Bank Arms, as well as Castle Cottage which can been seen from Hill Top across the field opposite.

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top

Nearby Wray Castle is where she spent some summer holidays with her family and can be visited on the same day as Hill Top given enough time.

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wray-castle

For the mind

If you wish to read further about Beatrix Potter or indeed writers and their gardens, I can recommend these books:

Marta McDowell – Beatrix Potters Gardening Life – published by Timber Press, Portland, Oregan.

The Writer’s Garden – Jackie Bennett – published by Francis Lincoln Limited, London

Beatrix Potters Hill Top, published by The National Trust – property guide