Consumed by grief after the death of her fiance, she bought this as a hideaway. Today, people come here by the busload to pay homage to a woman whose imagination continues to delight children all over the world.
My children needed no encouragement to visit the farmhouse where Beatrix Potter cooked up so many of her plots and the garden in which Mr McGregor supposedly pursued Peter Rabbit and the Flopsy Bunnies.
It can require shameful bribes of ice cream and chocolate to get my lot over the threshold of some of the world’s greatest landmarks. But all three were happily charging ahead as we walked up the path to Hill Top, Potter’s wisteria draped Lake District home.
Inspiring: The Lake District, including Windermere (pictured), has a rich literary heritage
This is a big year for Potter fans, being the 150th anniversary of her birth. Tomorrow is her birthday and there are bring-a-picnic parties planned across the Lake District, including one at Hill Top.
But it’s an important year, too, for the whole area. After last winter’s horrendous floods, everyone is keen to assure visitors that the Lakes are fully restored and open for business.
And the omens are looking good, with a new movie to give the area a lift and a high-profile romance, too. When future royal brother-inlaw James Matthews wanted to pop the question to Pippa Middleton recently, the millionaire hedge funder didn’t take her to the Caribbean. He went down on one knee in the Lake District.
The Gore-Tex hiking brigade are already out in force. But the Lakes have so much more to offer than wonderful walks — no bad thing when you always have at least one reluctant young hiker in your party. You can have a brilliant weekend here without pulling on walking boots at all.
Cherished character: Jemima Puddle Duck
We began our three-night break at the handsome Wordsworth Hotel & Spa in pretty Grasmere, in the southern part of the Lakes. The name is spot on. Our family suite not only overlooked the fells but the churchyard in which William Wordsworth is buried. He is perhaps most famous for his poem, Daffodils — ‘I wander’d lonely as a cloud’ — and the place is full of them in spring. The hotel has a good-size indoor pool and sauna — no bad thing given the temptations in its Signature restaurant and the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop next door.
Round the corner you can catch open-top double-deckers right across the region. Great fun — and, on a sunny day, it’s a lot less stressful than finding somewhere to park in a place like Bowness-on-Windermere.
This is the bustling gateway to the boating paradise immortalised by another local literary giant. As a boy, I was enchanted by Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome’s inter-war tale of childhood adventures in sailing dinghies on a lake closely modelled on Lake Windermere.
The new eagerly anticipated film version comes out next month, much of it shot on nearby Derwent Water. With a ‘Freedom of the Lake’ pass from Windermere Lake Cruises, you can board any of the grand old steamers which chug for miles up and down England’s biggest lake, hopping on and off as you go.
We also took a pretty wooden launch for the short voyage across the middle of the lake to Ferry House. Here you catch the Mountain Goat bus which takes you two miles up the hill to the village of Near Sawrey and Beatrix Potter’s doorstep.
Hill Top has hardly changed since her death in 1943. The entrance hall remains exactly as it appears in The Tale Of Samuel Whiskers; the upstairs ‘Treasure Room’ is full of familiar ceramic figures and curios.
Outside, Mr McGregor’s spade is firmly planted in the vegetable patch. And there are plenty of National Trust guides to show how this house and its contents inspired much of Potter’s work.
Back in Bowness, we followed an excited coach party of Chinese tourists through the World Of Beatrix Potter Attraction, an interactive child-friendly celebration of her life and 23 books. Potter’s international pulling power is not the only reason the locals love her. The J. K. Rowling of her day, she used her hefty royalties to buy up great chunks of the Lake District.
Home sweet home: Hill Top farmhouse, where Potter penned some of her books
She then bequeathed it all in perpetuity to the National Trust, which is repaying the compliment with all sorts of Potter-themed events and celebrations.
On we travelled to the wilder, northern end of the Lakes, where mighty fells like Skiddaw slope down to the shores of Derwent Water. On our final night, we stayed in Clifton at the George and Dragon, a gastro pub-cum-hotel. It’s another excellent standard-bearer for home-grown local produce.
For this is a part of the world now deservedly renowned for its scoff as much as for its scenery. And it’s hard to think of anywhere better when it comes to walking it all off afterwards.