Beatrix Potter and other writers of the Lake District
The spectacular natural beauty of Britain’s Lake District has been a source of inspiration for writers long before the creation of the National Park in 1951, or its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017.
The poetry of the Romantic period, lasting roughly from 1800 to 1850, was particularly influenced by the lakes and their setting. Poets including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Ruskin were frequently inspired by their surroundings of lakes, forests and fells (the local term for mountains). It was Wordsworth’s own book, Guide through the District of the Lakes, which instigated the beginnings of tourism to the area, and he is often considered the quintessential Lake District poet.
‘I wander’d lonely as a cloud’
Wordsworth’s evocative words capture the authentic essence of the lakes even today. He said of the fells “in the combinations which they make…and in the beauty and variety of their surfaces and colours, they are surpassed by none”. Born in Cockermouth, he spent his formative years surrounded by the Lake District’s beauty; his name can still be found carved into a desk at Hawkshead Grammar School. He would write many of his most famous poems in his Lakeland homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount.
Located between Ambleside and Grasmere, Rydal Mount enabled the poet to enjoy remarkable views over Lake Windermere, Rydal Water and the surrounding fells as he wrote. However, the most likely setting for his poem ‘Daffodils’ is often thought to be the area between Patterdale and Gowbarrow, by Ullswater.
A lifelong influence
By contrast, John Ruskin was not only a poet of the Romantic Movement, but an all-round polymath, with works as diverse as his Poems and the five volume critique Modern Painters. Though born amid the crowds of faraway London, Ruskin was profoundly affected by the time he spent in the Lake District as a child. He would recall his first memory as being taken to Derwentwater by his nurse.
His love of the natural world continued into adulthood and heavily influenced not only his poetry but also his architecture and his belief in the need for conservation and green space. These beliefs were in turn strong influences to artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement including William Morris.
The Lake District would remain important to Ruskin throughout his life. Heading towards old age, he bought Brantwood, a house close to Coniston Water. As a museum, it retains many of his personal effects. His final resting place is the churchyard of Coniston village.
Rhyme or reason
Like Ruskin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also something of a polymath, though he is now best remembered for his poetry. One of the so-called Lake Poets with his friend Wordsworth, he coined the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’. Coleridge’s most famous works are The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Kubla Khan, composed in a single night.
In 1800 Coleridge settled with his family in Keswick, close to Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage at Grasmere. He engaged in several walking holidays in the area, developing a sense of geography that can be felt throughout his verse. Quite by accident Coleridge is also credited with the first recorded descent of Scafell – England’s second highest mountain – via the Broad Strand route. He had lost his way. His home in the Lake District, Greta Hall, is now a Bed and Breakfast.
Mr. McGregor’s garden
Born at the end of the Romantic era, the much-loved children’s author Beatrix Potter was also heavily influenced by her time in the Lake District. Her illustrated tales of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and friends were born out of family holidays in the lakes.
Potter developed a deep and long-lasting affection for the landscape of the lakes, together with its flora and fauna, an affection which leaps from the pages of her works. Squirrel Nutkin, for instance, goes sailing on Derwentwater, while the village of Hawkshead appears in the less-well-known The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse.
The profits from her books allowed Potter to relocate permanently to the Lake District, buying Hill Top Farm – now carefully maintained as a museum to the author’s phenomenal legacy. A gallery in Hawkshead displays original artworks from her tales, while The Lake District Visitor Centre at Brockhole was the former home to Potter’s cousin Edith. Letters to Edith’s family include an outline for The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher. A trail from Brockhole allows fans to learn more about the landscapes and wildlife that so inspired her.
Taking to the water
No discussion of writers influenced by the Lake District can be complete without mentioning Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome. With the majority of his works for children set within the landscapes of the Lake District, his stories of children sailing the lakes and camping on its islands encompass more than any other the spirit of the lakes.
Ransome learnt to sail on Coniston Water (an activity still possible today), and attended a school in Windermere before he moved to Haverthwaite where he wrote the majority of his books. The fictional Cormorant Island was inspired by Silver Holme Island on Windermere, while he combined the geography of both Windermere and Coniston Water to create the make-believe lake that appears in his writings.
It is perhaps no surprise that a region as beautiful as the Lake District has inspired so many writers over the past two centuries. The landscapes that so influenced these writers remain largely unaltered despite the passage of time, meaning visitors can still share in the views that led to the creation of Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ and Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
For those looking to experience the stunning landscapes that inspired the works of Wordsworth, Potter, and Ransome, check out our collection of England tours.