This is another contribution from the EPIC Group Travel Writers, who meet at Savvy Traveler once a month. To learn more, visit www.epicgroupwriters.org
The Lake District (Cumbria) in northwest England had been on my “someday-I-will-travel-to” list for ages. An added bonus to experiencing the beauty of this countryside would be to see where Beatrix Potter, author of Peter Rabbit and other sweet animal characters, lived and loved, as well as who bequeathed land to the U.K. to keep the Lake District wild and pristine.
In 2013 I was invited to join family members on a heritage walk where I could see the townships and areas where my maternal great-grandparents, grandfather and cousins were born and raised before, during and after the Industrial Revolution. The first week was spent with cousins seeing London, Seaford and Brighton. From southeastern England, I took the train and headed north.
Basing myself in the home of my cousin John and his wife Denise, in a village named Congleton which is not far from Manchester, we took day trips to Wigan, Darwen, Manchester, and Liverpool before heading north again.
The drive to Cumbria was no more than two hours with our time filled by helpful interjections by John who noted landmarks, one of which was a mountain area known for the Lancashire witch-burning back in the days of notable witch-burnings. There was also the Howgill Fells (mountains) which were snow-covered on this March day, and every pasture we passed was streaked with impressive handmade stone fences crisscrossing thousands of acres of bucolic scenery.
Eventually we exited off the freeway into the Lake District and soon arrived at a ferry crossing over Windemere Lake. Our timing was impeccable; the small ferry arrived and we on the other side of the lake in less than 20 minutes.
After disembarking, it was a relatively short drive around picture-perfect lakes and hills before arriving at the small village of Hawkshead. Imagining a small hamlet stuck out in the middle of nowhere with nary a tourist in sight on a chilly late winter day, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of Peter Rabbit images and souvenir shops brimming with small and large replicas of animal characters, as well as tourists milling about in all directions. There was no doubt that we had arrived in Beatrix Potter country.
Wandering the village, we noticed many shops in Hawkshead featured Japanese translations for the Potter signage. John later learned from a shopkeeper that in Japan, young students are taught English by reading Beatrix Potter children’s books. Therefore, thousands of sentimental Japanese tourists make their way to Hawkshead and to Potter’s beloved home, the Hilltop House, every year. I had no idea of the impact Ms. Beatrix Potter made on people in other parts of the world other than my familiar English-speaking universe.
Walking the stone-lined streets in Hawkshead, and knowing virtually nothing about what we should see, we ended up inside what had once been the land procurement office. It was now a gallery featuring several works of art on walls and under glass along with story lines of Beatrix’s life, including her personal life. There were short tales about her engagement to a fellow in London, but marrying another whom she met in this land procurement office while she was purchasing her first property from the proceeds of her children’s books. There is a 2007 movie about her life starring Renée Zellweger named “Miss Potter,” which goes into further detail. While watching, you may want to have tissues handy.
The three of us skirted around the rickety two-story building, first on the ground floor and then up an uneven staircase to a landing with wildly wavy floorboards as well as an odd window placed at floor level. I proceeded to happily escape into my photo journalist fantasy world, capturing the fascinating “artifacts” presented. Along the way John and I had a little fun with the period hats.
As I rounded a corner, a young woman suddenly jumped out of nowhere and severely admonished me for taking photos. This was against the rules, she stated in no uncertain terms as she pointed to a sign, written in plain English (and Japanese), reiterating the fact. As a side note, this guard was Japanese and I wondered if she had ever imagined working in Hawkshead guarding Potter exhibits while she was growing up learning English from Potter books. Now, speaking Japanese must also be quite useful in her job.
From there, we high-tailed it (a little bunny talk) back to the car before our time ran out in the parking lot meter. Yes, we had to pay for parking in this small village in the middle of nowhere. We drove a short distance, following arrows on the two-lane roadway, up to Hilltop House
After parking (free this time), we were guided by more arrows to pass through a souvenir shop to access the pathway leading up to the Hilltop House, as well as back again, which had to be a terrific revenue maker from people like me. At the National Trust admissions desk, I paid my fee while John and Denise procured their first annual National Trust pass which, as it turned out, served them well in their travels around the country afterward.
Inside the weathered and cozy house, it was obvious I couldn’t take photos with so many “guards” and strict signs scattered about! The primarily female guards, of a certain age, hovered over a large array of antiques and collectables which Beatrix and her husband acquired during their lives in Hawkshead.
On the second story was Ms. Potter’s creative room, where I found myself pulled to a large carved oak desk. The curators had positioned a pen and sketch pad portraying little animal drawings on the flat top. I peered over the desk for a closer look at the intricate drawings, when a shaft of sunlight broke through the billows of clouds, shining through a clear beveled glass window, and onto the drawings in the same fraction of a second as I was examining them. The suddenness of the light startled me and I blurted out to the guard, “Wow, she had great lighting for drawing, didn’t she!” He (one of the only two male guards, also of a certain age) merely mumbled a brief bored acknowledgement as I silently mused upon my experience while feeling a bit gushy. It was a perfect room for an artist to draw in, and it felt as if I briefly experienced what it must have been like for Beatrix to work in this room.
After checking the other rooms containing oodles of collectibles, there were hundreds of miniatures scattered about on shelves and inside several locked glass cases. Throughout the house there were also standard period pieces such as antique bellows for the fireplace, and a hunting rifle affixed above a doorway.
Frustrated by being unable to take photos, I went outside where I could freely click away in front of her house. I envisioned the artist’s imagination soaring as she watched the antics of her animals in the farmyard in front of me. I noticed the now-dormant vegetable garden and antiquated stone barn facing a view of a hillside, which seemed specifically created for hours of human meandering.
As we walked on the rocky path back to the carpark, with plans to head back to town for lunch, something caught my eye. Camouflaged in the dead winter grass was a small wooden rabbit sitting somewhat haphazardly in the dry grass. I took a photo of this crudely carved creature, after which my camera battery died.
I had not charged the other two batteries the night before after our full day visiting Liverpool and all-things-Beatles, and this day was far from over. Now possessing three dead batteries was NOT a good thing. I am usually quite disciplined with keeping the battery system of my devices going strong while I travel: one charged battery in the camera, one fully charged in the camera case for the day trip, and the third in the charger plugged in wherever I’m sleeping for the night. But this time our fast pace had thrown me off kilter and I needed an outlet.
When we wandered in the village earlier in the day, I noticed a humorous sign in front of a pub and suggested we give it a try for lunch. We made a bee-line for the thatch roofed establishment and as soon as we placed our orders, I was on the hunt for an electrical outlet to charge my battery. The bartender pointed out an outlet by the back door, which charged my battery during lunch; it was a very good thing I had my U.K. electrical converter in my camera bag.
The salad at The King’s Arms was so fresh and savory, it turned out to be the most memorable salad of my entire journey. Looking around the quaint Kings Arms pub, I saw a sign hanging by the bar which listed reasonable prices for their rented rooms. It wasn’t the Four Seasons, but it would more than likely be an experience to remember.
After shopping for a few additional souvenirs for my grandchildren, and a small Peter Rabbit bell for me, light was fading. We still had a drive to make for a dinner engagement at the 19th century-old Slyne Lodge with our additional “long lost cousins” who lived in Blackpool. It was an interesting and pleasant family reunion before we headed south back to Congleton.
This entire area of England would be perfect to explore on a longer and more leisurely holiday in the Lake District. It was obvious that a half day just touched the surface of this lush, stunning area. For the fit and hardy, there are walking trails everywhere, mountains to climb, and beautiful vistas to inhale. I was given this unique opportunity to experience the northern area of England, thanks to my cousin John and his wife Denise. My once-in-a-lifetime Heritage Walk in England had come to an end.
— Story and photos by Vivian C. Murray
Vivian C. Murray is a local writer and EPIC member who leads the monthly Travel Writing group. She is currently researching and writing about her British and Russian family who lived in Shanghai from the 1920s through the 1940s. All photos copyright of V.C. Murray.