The garden gate to Beatrix Potter's vegetable patch is open, swaying on its hinges -- almost as if Squirrel Nutkin or Jemima Puddle-Duck had left it ajar in their haste to wander the meadow, where a shepherd collie darts among young lambs and butterflies soar and dive. It is a scene so peaceful, so bucolic, so far removed from London and England's bleaker cities, that it is almost impossible to imagine yourself in the same country.
Almost. But not quite.
Especially when the tabloids have been having a field day slam-dunking the reputation of one of England's most sainted figures, children's author Potter. Poised on the doorstep of what was once her cottage in Lake District National Park -- the same cottage where Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Tom Kitten and scores of lovely cuddly mice frolicked in a dozen children's bedtime tales -- I am pondering an unthinkable question:
Did Beatrix Potter really kill Peter Rabbit? Was the gentle storyteller and illustrator really a rabid vivisectionist, mercilessly rampaging the remote stretches of England's north country? That's what the writer's fans have been wondering since London's papers earlier this year charged Potter with the singular crime of bunnicide. Don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. -- "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" The venerable Times of London started it all when it got hold of one of Potter's diaries in which the writer mentioned boiling down a squirrel to study its anatomy. "Beatrix Potter Boiled Squirrels," screamed the front-page headline; the story claimed that "Potter had animals killed to order, then boiled and dissected them." The character of Jeremy Fisher, it went on, was inspired by a frog that Potter meticulously dissected, probably after killing it. As for the boiled squirrel, Potter supposedly ordered a gamekeeper to shoot one from the trees to provide a model for the character of Squirrel Nutkin.
"Even Peter Rabbit . . . was put to death by Potter using chloroform," the story said.
The British tabloids, seeing the most celebrated boiled bunny since "Fatal Attraction," hopped to it. "Skeleton in the Closet," declared one; "Peter Rabbit Died for Beatrix Potter's Tale!" blared another. A third jokingly announced discovery of an unpublished work -- "The Beatrix Potter Cookbook."
For generations of readers lulled to sleep by Potter's bunny-friendly tales, it was a hare-raising thought. It's easy to see why Beatrix Potter was drawn to the Lake District.
The 885-square-mile area about 250 miles northwest of London comprises 16 major lakes and a population of 40,000 in pastoral villages scattered like rabbit warrens across an area one-quarter the size of Yellowstone. Encompassing the Cumbrian Mountain range and the picturesque lakeside villages of Ullswater, Grasmere, Ambleside and Windermere, it embraces a history of Norse settlers, crofters, preachers, painters and poets.
It's also the only apparent reason Browning -- or anyone -- ever wished to be in England in April. In early spring, its rolling hills, valleys and narrow country lanes are dotted with daffodils while the rest of England is still a dreary gray. Summer and fall are even more glorious. The Romantic poets rhapsodized famously about the Lake District's grandeur.
Potter was enchanted, too. In 1905, with a small inheritance and the proceeds of her first "Peter Rabbit" success, the 39-year-old writer moved there from London, purchasing Hill Top, a small cottage in Far Sawrey. She would use it as a base for subsequent stories and paintings. When she married in 1913, she moved into a larger cottage across the lane, but she walked over to Hill Top every morning and continued to write her stories there for 40 more years.
Rarely venturing beyond the Lake District again, Potter -- known to her neighbors as "Mrs. Heelis" -- proved an equally successful farmer, sheep-raiser and conservationist. On her death in 1943, she left nearly 5,000 acres to Britain's National Trust. These, along with property donated by her husband, led to the long-term development of Lake District National Park. Arguably, its heart is at Hill Top.
Approached by ferry from the town of Bowness or along winding lanes from nearby Coniston and Hawkshead, Hill Top is half hidden from the roadside. "There's no brown Tourist Board sign for Hill Top," admits administrator Michael Hemmings. "Never has been, never will be. Anyone who wants to find it, though, can."
And every year, upward of 80,000 visitors do. Hill Top outdraws Wordsworth's nearby Dove Cottage and vies regularly with the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth as England's second-most-visited literary site (after Stratford-upon-Avon).
If you've ever read a Beatrix Potter book, a trip to Hill Top is a return visit: You've already seen its half-acre grounds and rhubarb patch, already admired its cottage rooms. Surrounded by a tidy working farm, the gray two-story cottage resembles a hundred familiar watercolor drawings. When you finally see the real thing, complete with a neighbor's cat stretching lazily on the garden's low stone wall, the effect is striking.
The furnishings within, left intact as Potter wished, reflect the simplicity of her country life. Her broad-brimmed straw sunbonnet hangs over the hearth rug; her clumpy garden clogs rest on the well-scrubbed pine floor, beside the mouse hole featured in "Roly-Poly Pudding." The great grandfather clock depicted in "Tabitha Twitchitt" ticks steadily from a stairwell landing.
As a plump bumblebee bumps against a pane, I haltingly bring up the potboiling issue. But my guide is not fazed. "It's been represented quite out of proportion, really," Hemmings says, laughing. "Potter was a dedicated Victorian woman and the Victorians were great naturalists, weren't they?"
The squirrel incident, he says, was not unusual for its time. "When Potter was a child on holiday, a local gamekeeper found a dead squirrel and she asked him to boil it down so she could study it."
I gulp. "And that . . . would have been Squirrel Nutkin?"
"Well," he says, grinning. "Probably."
The "scandal," he says, hasn't hurt Hill Top's attendance figures. "And, in some respects, it's afforded us the opportunity to talk about other aspects of her life. The naturalist. The conservationist. Not just the woman who painted little bunny rabbits."
The daughter of a London attorney, Potter initially hoped for a career in the sciences. A self-educated biologist whose artistic skills were developed through meticulous studies of fungi, animals and plants, she turned to children's publishing by accident -- and only after a groundbreaking paper she'd submitted on mycological research was dismissed as nonsense by London's males-only Linnean Society in 1897. But mycology's loss became literature's lucky rabbit foot. A decade after Potter turned her talents to Peter Rabbit and Co., her books were selling in the millions. Although she enjoyed international popularity in her lifetime, she shunned celebrity. Her death was reported worldwide and with sad editorials.
Two miles west of Hill Top, swans trumpet undisturbed along the shoreline outside Hawkshead. Postcard pretty and pedestrian friendly, the quaint village is the home of the National Trust's collection of Potter watercolors and drawings.
In the town center, a sign above an entrance to the Beatrix Potter Gallery reads "Bend or Bump." These aren't Potter character names, but rather warnings to visitors of even average height. The renovated garret attracts 40,000 to 50,000 annually, according to custodian Fiona Clark. "And if you're asking about the Boiled Squirrel joke here," she says, narrowing an eye, "I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. "We've treated it pretty much as a joke because that's what it is and there's been no reaction among visitors.
"The Victorians were great scientists," Clark goes on, "and the story about her and the squirrel, well, it's nothing new. She'd written it in her diaries and it's all been published long ago in biographies of her."
Indeed, a look around the gallery confirms that Potter's interests were scientific and thoroughly documented long ago. An inveterate diarist, she kept meticulous notes and sketches throughout her lifetime. Many are displayed here.
Perhaps even more convincing are Potter's drawings of foxes, toads and disagreeable badgers on exhibit here. In all her books, Potter's cuddly hero rabbits and hens are represented in soft, childlike watercolors. The villains, however, are considerably less ethereal in line and form. Sharply drawn, they slyly disrupt the peace and harmony of Lakeland. They mislead the gullible, and scheme to lure the innocent toward rabbit-pie fates. Potter portrays these animals in city clothes. Paints them as "slickers," if you will.
They're the types, in general, who couldn't tell a goose from a gander and wouldn't recognize a duck unless it was sauced a l'orange. The kind who'd probably figure that Potter wrote simple tales for the rest of us dumb bunnies.
Just the types, come to think of it, who'd try making a rabbit stew out of a few old bones -- if they thought it would sell newspapers. Peter Mikelbank is a freelance writer based in Paris. CAPTION: Details: Peter Rabbit Land PETER RABBIT SITES: Hill Top (Near Sawrey, Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 0LF, telephone 011-441-5394-36269) and the Beatrix Potter Gallery (The Square, Hawkshead, Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 0NS, telephone 011-441-5394-36355) are 10 minutes apart. Both are easily reached by car ferry from Bowness on Lake Windermere's eastern shore. Ferries generally run every 20 minutes from 7 a.m to 10 p.m.; the fare is about $2.50 each way. Hill Top is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; consider arriving in the middle of the day, since parking is limited. Admission is about $5.75. The house is closed Thursdays and Fridays. The Potter Gallery is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Admission is about $4.25. Both are open April through October, and provide limited access for the disabled. 1/4 WHEN TO GO: Consider visiting in spring or fall; July and August are peak tourist season, complete with traffic jams and fully booked hotels. 1/4 WHAT TO DO: A lake steamer cruise and a ride on one of the steam-engine railways still running lakeside through the Lake District National Park is a must. And Wordsworth's Dove Cottage (Town End, Grasmere, Cumbria LA22 9SH, telephone 011-441-5394-35544) is a fitting introduction to Lake District romance. The cottage is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed late January to early February); admission is about $6.80. 1/4 WHAT NOT TO DO: Unless it's raining, avoid "The World of Beatrix Potter" in Bowness. Yes, it's the champion Lake District attraction, with nearly 250,000 annual visitors; but isn't going indoors -- in this glorious countryside -- for Disneylike re-creations hauling coals well beyond Newcastle? 1/4 WHERE TO STAY: The modern country house hotel tradition was born in the Lake District 50 years ago with the legendary Sharrow Bay (Lake Ullswater, Penrith, Cumbria, CA10 2LZ, 011-441-7684-86301). It's still in business, and still a tremendous splurge with rooms at $225 per person per night, including breakfast and dinner. Equally superb: the Holbeck Ghyll (Holbeck Lane, Windermere, Cumbria LA23 1LU, telephone 1-800-525-4800), the Lake District's most romantic hotel. Designed in art nouveau style by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it offers 14 rooms with unsurpassed hilltop views, exceptional cuisine and afternoon teas on its lawns. Rooms start at about $127 per person per night, double, including a four-course dinner and breakfast. The best budget hotel in the area may be Ivy House (Main Street, Hawkshead, Near Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 0NS, telephone 011-441-5394-36204), with rooms starting at $66 per person per night, including dinner and breakfast; breakfast only is about $47 per person per night. 1/4 INFORMATION: British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Seventh Floor, New York, N.Y. 10176, 1-800-GO2-BRITAIN (1-800-462-2748), http://www.bta.org.uk. CAPTION: London's Daily Mail was among the British tabloids that hopped right on the boiled bunny story. CAPTION: Beatrix Potter's Hill Top as it looks today. She used the Lake District cottage for inspiration while writing and illustrating her "Peter Rabbit" tales.