"Some of the walls were four feet thick, and there used to be queer noises inside them, as if there might be a little secret staircase. Certainly there were odd little jagged doorways in the wainscot, and things disappeared at night—especially cheese and bacon." - from The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, by Beatrix Potter
Many people come to the English Lakes to immerse themselves in the world of Beatrix Potter. Potter visited the area as a child, and when she was engaged to her publisher, Norman Warne, they planned together to move to a Lake District farm. When Mr. Warne died of an illness before they had even announced their engagement, Potter spent her grieving by coming to the Lakes without him, buying Hill Top Farm, and learning the boundary fences and property lines, commissioning work to be done. In a September 30, 1906 letter to her friend Millie Warne, her fiance's sister, she relays a very funny story about what happened when she first arrived after she'd purchased the house:
The first thing I did when I arrived is go through the back kitchen ceiling, I don’t think I ran any risk, it went down wholesale so it was not scratchy to my stockings, & the rafters were too near together to permit my slipping through. The joiner & plasterer were much alarmed and hauled me out.
And she wrote of the house, "It really is delightful if the rats could be stopped out!"
Visitors to the Lakes can explore the house, where her shoes and hat remain by the fireplace. Throughout the hallways and the rooms, Potter's books are laid out with their pages opened to identify the corners she painted into her little critters' lives. You can imagine Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit standing on the landing at the turn of the stairs. In Potter's bedroom - a small room with bed curtains Potter herself embroidered - the beautiful dollhouse that served as the model for The Tale of Two Bad Mice houses Tom Thumb’s ceramic ham (shiny yellow streaked with red) that in the story jerks off the plate and rolls under the table, provoking poor frustrated Tom Thumb to have at it with shovel and tongs.
You can stroll in Beatrix Potter's garden and the small town of Near Sawrey, where you can see more scenes from Potter's books: the cottage that was Ginger and Pickle’s store and the charcoal burners’ hut; the hole where Benjamin hid before rescuing the Flopsy Bunnies, up on Oatmeal Crag; the Tower Bank Arms that appears in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, and the beehive set in the garden wall that also appears in that book, when poor Jemima despairs of having her eggs forever found and carried off. And as you walk the lane, you can pause at the spot that appears in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, where Beatrix Potter painted herself into her characters' lives.
Meg Waite Clayton's new novel, The Wednesday Daughters (Random House/Ballantine, July 16), is set in the English Lakes.