“I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland amongst the wild flowers, the animals, fungi, mosses, woods and streams, all the thousand objects of the countryside.” ~ Beatrix Potter
Here’s a bracing cup of English Breakfast tea and a warm blueberry muffin to start your day!
The light, misty rain we’ve been getting recently reminds me of England. While sipping my tea, I remembered visiting Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm located in Near Sawrey, in the Lake District. To get there, we drove through rolling farmland and wooded hillsides, everything so green, with stone houses nestled around every turn.
Potter at Hill Top, 1913
I might have read Peter Rabbit as a child, but only came to know the rest of Potter’s work as an adult. Making the pilgrimmage to Hill Top, which Potter purchased with money earned from her first few books, was my inner child’s dream come true. This was where Jemima Puddleduck, Tom Kitten, and Samuel Whiskers were born, and where Potter began to reclaim her life after her fiance, Norman Warne, died suddenly of leukemia.
Potter endured a very lonely Victorian childhood in South Kensington with her younger brother, Bertram. The children only saw their parents at bedtime and on special occasions. Left to their own devices, they spent hours in the schoolroom, studying, sketching, and painting insects, birds, and small animals they had smuggled in. Life in London was restricting and suffocating, and Potter lived for the family’s summer holidays in the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District. There, she and Bertram could run free and collect specimens of everything from fossils to fungus.
Beatrix with Spot, the spaniel, and Benjamin bunny
After Bertram was sent away to school, Beatrix was tutored alone with a succession of governesses. In her twenties, she further cultivated her interest in botany and mycology, doing scientific illustrations with the aid of a microscope. She worked for ten years studying fungi, even presenting a paper to the Linnean Society in April 1897, which was rejected. She wasn’t taken seriously since she was a woman (her findings were later found to be correct).
She was determined to live a purposeful life, and in 1901, self-published 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit after it was rejected by six publishers. Frederick Warne then agreed to publish it, and it became an overnight success, still one of the most enduring and famous children’s stories of all time. More books and success quickly followed, making Beatrix a woman of independent means. With her earnings, she purchased Hill Top and other properties and buildings in her beloved Lake District, where she eventually became a sheep breeder and farmer, and married her solicitor, William Heelis. An ardent conservationist, Beatrix once said:
There is much talk in the Lake District about rural planning. It is well that public opinion is being roused at last. This little corner of the country should be kept unchanged for people who appreciate its beauty. I have always tried to show unspoilt nature in my books. If I have done anything, even a little, to help small children enjoy honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good.
Beatrix Potter left 15 farms, cottages, and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust. She wanted to preserve the countryside that fueled her imagination. Her books have brought a keen awareness of the natural world to generations of children, and instilled the importance of preserving a vanishing rural lifestyle sustained by hillside farming. Today, Hill Top Farm is the most visited shrine in the Lake District.
I will always remember entering that front kitchen, with the fireplace on the left and open cupboard on the right, trying to picture Miss Potter sitting at the table with an animal or two curled at her feet. Viewing some of her original watercolours afterwards left me breathless. The colors were deeper, more vivid, the lines and textures exquisite. The reproductions in her books only begin to reveal the depth of her talent.
Here are three delightful poems from the original collection of Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes (1905):
IF ACORNS WERE TEA-CUPS
If acorn-cups were tea-cups,
what should we have to drink?
Why! honey-dew for sugar,
in a cuckoo-pint of milk;
With pats of witches’ butter
and a tansey cake, I think,
Laid out upon a toad-stool
on a cloth of cob-web silk!
THE MOUSE’S FIND
I found a tiny pair of gloves
When Lucie’d been to tea,
They were the dearest little loves —
I thought they’d do for me —
I tried them — (quite inside them!)
They were much too big for me!
I wear gloves with one button-hole
When I go out to tea.
I’ll put them in an envelope
With sealing wax above,
I’ll send them back to Lucie —
I’ll send them with my love.
Knitting, knitting, 8, 9, 10,
I knit socks for gentlemen;
I love muffin and I love tea;
Knitting, knitting, 1, 2, 3!
BLUEBERRY MUFFIN RECIPE
1/2 cup butter
2 cups flour
1-1/4 cups sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup milk
2 tsp baking powder
2-1/2 cups blueberries
2 tsp sugar (sprinkle on top)
Cream butter and sugar till creamy and fluffy.
Add eggs, one at a time.
Mix dry ingredients, add alternately with milk.
Mash 1/2 cup blueberries. Stir in rest of blueberries to batter, then add mashed berries.
Grease muffin tins and flour them. Pile batter high (sprinkle with sugar).
Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Cool 30 minutes before removing from pan.
Distinguished panel of judges gives the recipe an enthusiastic three paws up!
MORE ABOUT BEATRIX POTTER (official website):
1. Beatrix Potter: A Journal (Warne, 2006). A scrumptious scrapbook filled with excerpts from Potter letters, drawings, Victorian memorabilia, and even a facsimile of the first privately printed edition of A Tale of Peter Rabbit (with pen and ink illustrations). A lift-the-flap extravaganza!
2. Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, by Linda Lear (St. Martin’s Press, 2007). The most recent biographical work written by an environmentalist, with emphasis on Potter’s keen foresight as a conservationist and brilliance as an amateur naturalist. Website features excerpts from this fascinating book based on Potter’s own letters.
3. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller, and Countrywoman, by Judy Taylor (Warne, 1997). Historically accurate, engaging biography with personal photographs, writing excerpts, and charming illustrations, written by an internationally recognized Potter expert.
4. Miss Potter (biopic on DVD, 2006), starring Renee Zellweger as Beatrix, directed by Peter Noonan. Though fictionalized in parts, this lovely production is a thoroughly enjoyable peek into the Victorian world Potter was a part of, and does portray her as the forward-thinking and independent spirit that she really was. Great tea scenes, too!
5. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London houses the world’s largest collection of Potter artwork, writings, and photographs. Potter spent much time there researching. Wonderful info at the website!
P.S. If you’ve been naughty today like Peter, drink some chamomille tea and go straight to bed!