Thursday, 12 February 2009

The Little Old Woman in Clogs

Taken from The Countryman, Winter, 1946.

Beatrix Potter, author of the well-loved Peter Rabbit children's books, was never known by her maiden name in the Lake District, but Mrs Heelis was a name which commanded respect. For nothing but the best in management and stock was tolerated on the fell farms owned by the resolute, strong-willed little woman, who wore clogs and liked old-fashioned ways. She lived in an old oak-beamed, whitewashed cottage, beside the smithy on the west side of Windermere Lake.

(Beatrix potter as a child.)

(Hilltop, Beatrix Potter's home)

Once I went to her to ask if I might lop off the lower branches of a tree where a buzzard had made its nest in a wood on her property near Coniston. 'Yes,' she said, 'you have my permission to try and stop people robbing my buzzard's nest, but the carrior-crows are the worst thieves. last year I saw some crows buffer my poor buzzard off its nest in Troutbeck Park and steal its eggs.' Mrs Heelis strongly believed in the protection of rare birds. She was interested to hear that the peregrines had come back to their eyrie near Coniston, but she had rather mixed feelings about ravens. 'They sometimes kill my newly born lambs, but they are not as bad as those vile carrion-crows.' She told me that one of her earliest girlhood memories of the persecution of rare birds was seeing two hen-harriers on a barn door near Keswick. Harriers are unknown in the Lake District today. 'Last year,', she went on, 'a barn-owl which nested in a barn at the other side of the village lost her mate. The male of a pair which nest in a barn at the back of my cottage mated with the widow as well as with his own wife, but he would not help the widow to feed her young, fetching all his rats and mice to his first wife's brood. The neglected owl could not satisfy the appetites of her young ones by herself, and they all died. I don't know whether the widow has found herself another mate this year, but all the village hopes she will.'

(Garden at her home)

One wet winter's morning Mrs Heelis looked in at the smithy on her way home after visiting a farm. She was clad in an old dress with a sack over her shoulders and was wearing clogs. a tramp who was sheltering there gazed sympathethically at the newcomer, whom he took to be a sister of the road. 'Eh, it's a dirty day for the likes of us to be on the road, missus,' he said. 'If you'd like a cup o' tea and a shilling, just call at the back of the house across the road. The maidservant always gives me something when I calls.'

Mrs Heelis believed in looking into all matters concerning her farms herself, even when well advanced in years. An old Westmorland drainer once told me that she asked him to meet her on one of her farms. They walked up the rough fellside together until they came to a beck, and Jack looked inquiringly at his companion and wondered whether he ought to offer to carry her across. But, as he later told me, 't'owd body slipped off her clogs and paddled through t'beck and niver said owt about it, and it must hev bin gey caald.'

If anyone went against her wishes or annoyed her, she could be severe. A farmer, who lost a horse which had been poisoned through eat yew leaves spreading out of her wood, sent in a claim for its value. It was a justifiable claim, and he received his money, but he also got notice to quit the tenancy of the field where his horse had been grazing. The autocratic little woman had expected the farmer to call and settle the matter in a more neighbourly manner.


granny said...

OOOHHH....More please!!! I just adore Beatrix Potter,Mrs Heelis,thankyou for this most enjoyable post.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting!! I must get my daughter to read it.. we're all fans of her.

Rowan said...

Lovely post, it's nice to read such personal stories about Beatrix Potter, I've been to Hill Top a couple of years ago, the NT have, as usual, removed all its atmosphere but it's still worth seeing as is Mr Heelis' old offices in Hawkshead which is now a Beatric Potter gallery with exhibits of her original artwork. Did a post on my blog iof you're intersted. As granny says 'more please'!

Bovey Belle said...

Hmm - now what have you all started? I've just had an Amazon moment and bought a biography of BP I've wanted for a while now (2nd hand so I don't feel to decadent!) I shall do another post about her next week then. Off to your blog in the morning Rowan : )

nita x said...

i love beatrix potter, that was really interesting :o)

nancy said...

Hugely interesting! I've never known anything about her. Thank you!