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Heritage: Cracking the Code

11:12 18 October 2010

Photograph Courtesy of Torquay Museum

Photograph Courtesy of Torquay Museum

Often funny, but not always complimentary, Beatrix Potter's intimate, and often coded accounts of her visits to Devon are examined by Jacqueline Sarsby

Beatrix Potters little Peter Rabbit books have delighted children for a hundred years, and are known in a host of languages to millions of readers around the world. Many people, if they have seen the film Beatrix Potter, may visualise the young Beatrix Potter in London, or holidaying, sketch-book and watercolour box in hand, in the Lake District. But she also knew Devon very well and was a frequent visitor, with her parents, to the county.

She set The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930) in Devon, using sketches that she had made many years before, and she also wrote about her experiences in various parts of the county, in a secret, coded journal and in letters to family and friends. These have been published, so we have access to her accounts of visiting Devon in the 1880s and 90s. What brought her to Devon?

The Potters left London essentially to be out of the way. Each spring, Beatrix and her parents would leave their home in Bolton Gardens, Kensington, for two or three weeks while the servants got on with the spring-cleaning. It was the familys habit to take the train to the seaside, often making for the Westcountry, where the climate was warmer than the East Coast. Rupert Potter, Beatrixs father, was an accomplished photographer, so photographs exist of these jaunts: Beatrix was equally an enthusiast, but most of her photographs have disappeared.

The age of the cavern is so vast that it passes the comprehension of an ordinary mind

In March 1893, they arrived in Torquay, and Beatrix persuaded her father to accompany her on a visit to Kents Hole (Kents Cavern as we now know it). Rupert photographed her outside the door of the cavern, and she wrote about the visit in her journal. Nowadays one is struck by the beautiful situation of the cave, the entrance hall among echiums and roses above a sheer drop to an orchard in the valley below. In 1893, Beatrix could imagine no more unlikely or unromantic situation for a cavern. She was already writing in a grumpy mood and she described it as halfway up a tangled bluff, with villas and gardens overhanging the top of a muddy orchard and some filthy dirty cows in the ravine below Cows, of course, do not look well in muddy fields after winter rains, but she was soon extremely interested in what she saw within the cave.

The Potters visited the cavern almost 13 years after William Pengellys excavations had ceased and the cave was available for casual visitors once again. They found the guide outside sawing planks: this must have been Francis Howe, who was the custodian of the cave and also a carpenter, and who, later still, became the owner.

Beatrix implored him to take a good supply of matches, and noticed a quantity of gingerbeer in a nice cool place, also an umbrella stand. She did not go into details about the contents of the cave because it was well described in a pamphlet, but we can be sure that she saw, by candle-light, the extraordinary chambers full of many-coloured stalactites and stalagmites, and certainly the skull of a cave-bear embedded in the low roof. What impressed her more than anything was the arrival of another party, including two children and a naughty spaniel, which disappeared at one point, and was presently heard to sneeze feebly in the hyenas den. She hoped that it did not come to a bad end, falling through into a lower cavern. The age of the cavern, she finally wrote, in a rather better humour, is so vast that it passes the comprehension of an ordinary mind.

The previous April, 1892, the Potters travelled from Teignmouth to Exeter, seeing at Star Cross fishermen dragging heavy seine nets, and women gathering cockles, bare-legged with their skirts pinned up like trousers. Beatrix was very fond of Exeter, admiring the excellent shops in the High Street, but finding the lower parts of the town somewhat squalid.

I regret to state they light bonfires in the Close on the 5th November. The Exeter rabble are notorious

She was never afraid to praise or criticise in her journal, and she wrote: The Cathedral Towers rise solemn and peacefully, casting a shadow of respectable antiquity over the bustling town. (I regret to state they light bonfires in the Close on the 5th November, the Exeter rabble are notorious). In the Close are many gabled old houses, with quaint sundials and carving. We strolled about peeping down the entries into little pebbled garden courts, a patch of sunlight framed in an ancient doorway. She saw flower-women everywhere selling Lent-lilies (or wild daffodils), and pear trees white as snow in the Deanery garden, the lilac touched with green, and the air full of the smell of hyacinths. It was a beautiful moment of the spring.

Round about this time, Beatrix was sketching the masted ships and harbours of the Devon towns and villages they were visiting, and in 1893 she started a first draft of the story which was to become The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. In this story, Robinson lives on a farm called Piggery Porcombe with two aunts whose cosy thatched cottage was in an orchard at the top of a steep red Devonshire lane. The aunts send him off across the fields with a basket full of eggs, daffodils and cauliflowers to sell in the market at Stymouth. On the way, he rests beside a hedge where the loveliness of Devon is all around him: Yellow pussy willow catkins were in flower above his head; there were primroses in hundreds on the bank, and a warm smell of moss and grass and steaming moist red earth.

In 1941, Beatrix explained that Stymouth was Sidmouth. The book begins with a description of the Sidmouth herring fleet coming in, and horses and carts driven into the shallow water at low tide to collect the catch off the boats. But the book also brings together sketches made in many places (not all in Devon) including Teignmouth for the sketches of tall-masted shipping and Lyme Regis in Dorset for the bustling market scenes.

In September 1930, Frederick Warne published the story with a print run of 5,000 copies, reprinting again in December and again in March 1931; it was also published separately in America. Beatrixs long-remembered and long-cherished experiences of childhood holidays in Devon finally came to fruition, providing the setting for the last of her books to be published by Frederick Warne in her lifetime.

The Tale of Little Pig Robinson by Beatrix Potter, Beatrix Potters Letters selected and introduced by Judy Taylor, and The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897 transcribed from her code writing by Leslie Linder, are all published by Frederick Warne. Quotations are by permission of Frederick Warne and Co.


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