I’ve just returned from a ten-day research trip spent in the United Kingdom, investigating the life and times of author, environmentalist and Herdwick sheep breeder, Beatrix Potter. My journey was inspired because October 2 this year marks the 100th anniversary of the commercial publication of her famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
The bulk of my time was spent in the Lake District, a region of pretty lakes, undulating fields and whitewashed cottage-villages that is breathtakingly beautiful. In springtime, newborn lambs test their legs in green fields bounded by stone walls. Nearby, ancient beech woods with names like “Bishop’s Wood” are aglow with millions of bluebell blossoms.
Here and there, gleaming in the crook of a valley, are the actual lakes. Variously called “water” and “mere” (ancient words for “lake”) I visited Esthwaite Waters, Grasmere (home of Wordsworth), and Windermere… just to name a few.
The southern lakes are vastly different from their northern cousins. The south is as described above, while the northern lakes are reminiscent of wild heaths. Rolling green fields give way to a blasted landscape peopled by sheep and hikers, heather and buzzards.
Back in time, in the late 1700s to mid-1800s William Wordsworth, Coleridge, John Ruskin and others called the Lakes home. Any of you who have studied Wordsworth will know his deep passion for nature and admiration for the honesty of agrarian life, of people who toil on the land. And any of you who have read Ruskin will know of his social philosophy and his passion for the Arts and Crafts movement of his day.
Wordsworth and his group of Romantic Poets, as they were known (Coleridge, Shelley etc), extolled the virtues of keeping the Lakes natural. They worried about the advent of the train, in the mid-1800s, which brought tourists flocking to the Lake District. How, they pondered, could the Lakes maintain their natural look?
As a group, they fretted about how to educate “the masses” so that the landscape would be respected. They wrote about it: some people thought they were nuts. Others reflected, just as we do today, wondering how to balance tourism with conservation.
Their concern was warranted. Farmers started selling their land, subdividing it so that the wealthy English industrialists (cotton manufacturers for instance) could escape the rapidly industrializing cities of London, Preston, Manchester and others and come to the Lakes for the air (rather like Canadians flock to their cottages come summertime).
The wealthy as well as the burgeoning middle class built homes or rented accommodations that started to spring up to capture the growing tourist market.
And people such as Beatrix Potter’s family started to come to the Lakes. Born in 1866 in London, her wealthy family “holidayed” in Scotland (in Dunkeld and Birnam area, near Perth) for 3-6 months at a time. The family first came to the Lakes in 1882, to Wray Castle.
It was then she met Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, Vicar of Wray, who profoundly influenced the young Victorian girl. Rawnsley passionately believed it was crucial to save the Lake District from being whittled away, inch by inch, by well-intentioned visitors as well as the logging industry, which threatened to fell the area’s once-vast forests.
Thirteen years later he and two friends established the National Trust, an organization in Britain that is still dedicated to preserving natural spaces and historic lands for posterity.
The Lakes incredible beauty inspired Beatrix Potter and from here, she wrote 23 “Peter Rabbit” books. Royalties streamed in and she decided that she could make a difference. Until her death in 1943, she purchased properties, finally owning 14 farms, 8 cottages and 4,000 acres of land. In her will, she left all to the National Trust so the land would be forever protected as it was: as farmland.
Even today, her influence is keenly felt, admired and honoured. Potter’s plan was inspired: after World War I, many of the farm families had lost their sons to battle. As we here in Canada know, the war years were followed by the Depression. Potter intervened, purchasing homes and farms whose owners were becoming destitute.
But in an inspired touch, all the land she purchased was maintained as active farms. Tenant farmers worked the land, raised the Herdwick sheep she saved from potential extinction. In fact, via the National Trust, all Potter’s farms remain active today. What a legacy!
Today, visitors pour into the Lakes to see the sights, breathe in the wonderful air, and admire the daffodils dancing on the breeze. Wordsworth and Ruskin might spin in their graves to see how the villages of Ambleside, Bowness-on-Windermere and Grasmere swarm with tourists.
But thanks to their poetry and prose – and to Beatrix Potter’s inspired protection of farmlands – the Lake District still possesses its charming landscape.
All of us owe a great deal to early environmentalists and conservationists such as Beatrix Potter and the Romantics. They showed us all that direct action can indeed preserve not only a way of life, but also a variety of habitats that otherwise would have been lost to “development.”
And of course, this visit inspired me to reflect upon our Pontiac region. Our agrarian landscape is at risk, just as was the Lakes in the 1800s. Will we lose that inspiring view of the sweep of the Ottawa River just west of Aylmer to housing developments? It’s merely a matter of time.
Sure, it’s easy to read articles such as this and feel comfortable that here, we know what we’re doing.
But I ask you: do we? How do we protect our habitat? How can we preserve our inspiring views? How can we ensure that our Pontiac isn’t whittled away, bit by bit, to development?
What are our values, collectively and as individuals
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance travel, arts and environment writer, author and columnist who lives north of Quyon, Quebec.