15 March 2013

Beatrix Potter National Trust Ranger

Beatrix Potter is well known as a children’s author and illustrator but perhaps less well known is the fact that she was also a farmer ,land owner and for a number of years worked for the National Trust  as a voluntary Land Agent . In this role in the 1930’s she helped to look after some of the National Trust property across the South Lakes , including farms , houses and woodlands much of which was either donated or sold to the Trust by Beatrix Potter herself.

Even though she came from a wealthy family and was raised in a luxurious house in London with servants and a governess , she wasn’t frightened of getting her hands dirty and was very actively involved in the day to day decision making that was required to ensure that the Trust owned  property was well looked after.

Beatrix Potter the day before her marriage to William Heelis.

I have  recently had the opportunity to look through some of Beatrix Potters’( or more accurately Mrs Heelis as she was known after marrying in 1913) letters to Bruce Thompson The Trusts’ first Land Agent in the lakes.  A few things leap out from the pages .

 It is quite striking how  things have little changed over the years,  the challenges and issues that the South Lakes Rangers face  today are identical  to those that Beatrix Heelis and Bruce Thompson faced in the 1920’s and 30’s . In one letter  dated Jan 4 1937, written from her home , Castle Cottage in Near Sawrey, she writes at some length advising Mr Thompson on the best type of fencing to use on a wood boundary that floods regularly ‘ It is usual to put round  wire near flood water, because woven wire netting gets clogged with drift ‘  . She then goes on to extol the virtues of ‘Hercules’ netting over the cheaper  ‘Wrylock ‘  co-incidentally  we  still use Rylock netting for most of our fencing jobs these days .

Ranger Team helping to fence a wood with Rylock netting in foreground !

In another letter dated Jan 14 1937 she talks about inspecting  the drainage at Thwaite Farm in Coniston. ‘ There is a fine sewer or main drain from Thwaite. …. Whoever made the drain 80 years ago had lost his level and made a raised step …. We could not remedy it , but I had the sides of the sewer raised , so as to give more head room , and up to date it has answered’

The management of surface water is a constant challenge for our Ranger teams with torrential rain becoming common place damage to paths and fields is something that we deal with on a regular basis . The solution in many cases is to do exactly what Mrs Heelis mentioned in the letter namely to increase the size of the field drain , so that it can take a greater volume of water ; very costly and time consuming but the right decision in the long term.

Yew Tree Farm Coniston

Yew Tree Farm in Coniston is a farm that Mrs Heelis had strong personal connections with and the challenges of finding a suitable new tenant  are mentioned  in one of the  letters . She felt that the existing tenants had not made the most of the farm . ‘ Yew Tree as a farm has a bad name already ……..What it wants is a tenant who would concentrate on the visitor teas.’  Beatrix had helped to set up a tea room on the farm to help bring in extra income at a difficult time for farming.  We as Rangers get involved with the selection of  farm tenants from time to time as an organisation we , like Mrs Heelis , are always looking for people who will run a successful business , look after the land and who are comfortable with the high levels of access on Trust land,  that we encourage.

In other letters she talks of installing benches at Tarn Hows , vandalism by mischievous local boys, woods where timber for fence posts and rails may be sourced from and  writes quite disapprovingly about a new fence that has been erected at Holme Fell . All very familiar issues and decisions that we get involved in today.

Apart from the striking familiarity of the issues discussed , the letters also  reveal something of the character of Beatrix Potter ( Mrs Heelis ).  When asked about their relationship, Bruce Thompson wrote  that he was quite scared of her , and didn’t look forward to their meetings . The letters show that she had strong opinions on things and was obviously very knowledgeable about farming and land management, I get the impression that she didn’t suffer fools gladly . I,m not sure how this fool would have enjoyed working with her !

Paul Farrington
National Trust Ranger ( South Lakes )


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