How many of you grew up with at least an awareness of Beatrix Potter’s much-loved, animal characters? Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs Tiggywinkle were my childhood favourites, and no doubt inspired many with a love of nature. My well-worn set of little books, with their shabby paper dust jackets, are now among my daughter’s prized possessions and evoke our early love of books and animals. The recent release of coins and stamps in celebration of this writer’s life revived a nostalgia in me, so I went in search of the real Miss Potter and discovered we share more than a love of writing.
The London-born writer wrote and illustrated 28 books that have been translated into more than 35 languages and sold over 100 million copies and she is one of the world’s best-selling and best-loved children’s authors. Images from her illustrations of these books are reproduced on all manner of nursery items everywhere. But what draws me to her even more, is her less celebrated role as an active conservationist, which evolved as the 39-year-old spinster sought solitude in her first farm in the Lake District in 1905.
Her friendship with Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, a founding member of The National Trust, influenced her views on preservation and led her to become a passionate campaigner on local conservation issues. She observed the problems of afforestation, the establishment of a forest or stand of trees in an area where there was no previous tree cover, choosing to preserve the grazing lands and manage carefully the quarries and timber on the farms she subsequently bought. All her farms were stocked with Herdwick sheep and frequently with Galloway cattle, both now on the rare breed lists.
Rare breeds and Herdwick sheep have always been favourites of mine, since the days of watching “One Man and His Dog” on TV with my father. When she moved to Hill Top Farm, Cumbria, Beatrix gradually became a prominent member of the farming community, winning prizes for breeding Herdwick sheep, her interest extending to the preservation of the way of life of the fell farmers. In recognition of her campaigning to promote the breed, she became the first woman to be elected president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association (although she died before she took up the chair).
She was also an authority on the traditional Lakeland crafts, period furniture and stonework. Her royalty income allowed her to restore and preserve the farms that she bought or managed with a sensitive eye for the vernacular, making sure that each farm house had in it a piece of antique Lakeland furniture. She married in August 1913, when she was 47, beginning a happy partnership of thirty-years. Even then, she seems to have been aware of the effects of light pollution, disliking the advent of an electricity supply and writing by candlelight, only lighting the gas lamps when her husband came home.
This wonderful woman believed in doing good wherever and whenever she could. Her involvement in her local community was fed by her opinions on women’s issues. She supported the Girl Guide Association, District Nursing and campaigned for women to be allowed have a healthier life toiling on farms than in wartime munitions factories. When she died in 1943, she left 4,000 acres of land and countryside to the National Trust, as well as 14 farms, saving huge areas for future generations.