Travel: Choosing a novel UK break
Wandering around the Lake District's World of Beatrix Potter Attraction, I quickly forget I've ever grown up.
Children and parents are lost in Potter’s delightful imaginary world, so perfectly illustrated in her books. I traipse through a reconstruction of the Peter Rabbit garden with glee, spying Jemima Puddle-Duck and a bronze statue of three children unveiled by Renee Zellweger in 2006.
The Windermere attraction is gearing up to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth with a series of events, including a live-action show of her stories performed during the summer months.
In fact, attractions all over the region have plans to honour the early 20th century children’s author.
Continuing my journey across Lake Windermere, I stop at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead where originals of her intricate watercolour illustrations are on display.
I take time to examine her careful brush strokes and spy some mistakes and corrections. The artwork is wonderfully preserved, especially given much of it was stored in damp basements and next to water heaters for many years.
A display of Benjamin Bunny’s pelt strikes me as somewhat morbid, although it serves as an insight into Potter’s brilliant scientific study of animals, which informed her drawings.
The inspiration for many of her stories was her beloved home Hill Top, in nearby Sawrey. Here I learn some intriguing facts about the author who I had always presumed was a kind old lady, fond of children and animals.
She was in fact a shrewd businesswoman and her books were merely a revenue stream to acquire and maintain a sizeable real estate portfolio in the Lake District. She eventually bequeathed a number of the properties to the National Trust in her will.
Brimming with childish enthusiasm, I recollect the opening illustration in The Tale of Tom Kitten, which sees the protagonist and his friends scampering up the path to the entrance of Hill Top.
Copies of Potter’s stories have been carefully placed around the house, bookmarked at pages where a room or items in it feature. Staff members even explain how The Tale of Samuel Whiskers was the result of Potter’s 23-month battle to eradicate rats from the building.
Returning to the grown-up world, my journey ends at the adjacent Tower Bank Arms, a pub owned by the National Trust but managed independently. The manager gives me a lengthy spiel about the wide range of ales available.
I go for a tipple of the Loweswater Gold, brewed just down the road, before considering my lunch options.
Thankfully, and perhaps not without forethought, rabbit is not on the menu.
... and Charlotte Bronte in Haworth, Yorkshire
Strolling along Haworth’s main street, I stop every few metres for a photograph of the quaint stone shopfronts and postcard-worthy views over the Yorkshire moors. I find it hard to imagine the village was once a crowded industrial town and a cesspool of death and disease during the early 19th century period, when English literature’s great Bronte sisters lived here. At that time, the average age of death was 24.
The girls’ father, Patrick, played a pivotal role in helping clean up the village’s water supply, the main cause of high infant mortality rates, disease and other deaths. But his own children failed to benefit, as they passed away before he was buried in 1861.
His valiant efforts are documented at the Bronte Parsonage, the Bronte’s former family home which is now a museum. I visit to find out more about the tragedy-tinged lives of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell.
The Parsonage illustrates a picture of three women who resisted social convention and expectation to realise their unbridled ambitions. It is 200 years since Charlotte was born, and a special exhibition curated by author Tracy Chevalier aims to further explore that contrast between her constrained life and furious determination.
Some of Charlotte’s books and toys are on display, along with examples of her writing and coded letters which scholars believe were attempts by the sisters to disguise their - often outrageous for the times - work.
Charlotte’s life was especially sad towards the end as she outlived each of her siblings, before dying on March 31, 1855 only nine months after marrying curate Arthur Nicholls. She was pregnant at the time, further adding to the tragedy, although the Victorian pre-nup on display suggests her marriage may not have been the happiest.
Letters she had sent to Constantin Heger, a school master she met in Belgium, reveal to me a heartbreaking insight into her unrequited love for the man, which no doubt fuelled her creative writing.
Much of that prose was created in the dining room at the front of the house, where the sisters would circle the table each night, commenting on each other’s work. Their portable writing tables are on display, along with the chair on which Emily succumbed to illness in 1848, only 12 months after her only novel, Wuthering Heights, was published.
Top Withens in the nearby moors is believed to have inspired Wuthering Heights, although Emily’s descriptions are of a much larger farmhouse than the small stone ruins that remain today.
The walk up there is as enjoyable and atmospheric as it would have been in the mid-1800s, though. Many people congregate around Bronte Falls, a mile from Haworth, where the sisters would picnic during the summer months.
Although sadness and difficulty ultimately helped shape the Bronte’s timeless novels, I take solace in the fact they were able to enjoy some happy times in their lives.
Nichola McAvaney from the Press Association was a guest of Visit England. Tickets to Keighley and Windermere can be booked at on www.trainline.com. Booking in advance with Trainline saves you up to 43% with advance fares versus buying on the day of travel.
Stay at Ponden Hall (www.ponden-hall.co.uk) and The Belsfield (www.lauraashleyhotels.com/thebelsfield).
For more information, go to www.visitengland.com/Literature