Beatrix Potter in Cornwall

“Down the wooded lanes, around the twisting of the Helford Creek. Between the bank smothered in primroses, up again along a steep hill with the sun slanting through the blackthorns, passed a great old walled farm with high closed gateway, and a white cat basking in the sunset at a barn door high up in the wall. Then a fine view of brilliant sea, and back into Falmouth past the Swan Pool.” – Beatrix Potter, March 1892.

The famous children’s writer Beatrix Potter first visited Cornwall for an Easter holiday with her family in March 1892. Miss. Potter recorded all her observations from their visit – the places, people and wildlife – in her coded journal. This diary, which Beatrix kept between the ages of 15 and 30, was written in a code of her own invention. And that code was finally cracked by Leslie Linder in the 1960s. The following extracts about the Potter’s time in Cornwall are taken from Linder’s transcription.

At the time of Beatrix Potter’s first holiday in Cornwall she was just 26 years old and still unknown. It was a sunny spring day when the family arrived by train onto the platform of Falmouth station. In fact, the weather that year had been unseasonably warm and dry and the Potters had sunshine every day of their twelve day visit.

Beatrix’s writing show that she was quickly captivated by the hustle and bustle of the busy town of Falmouth and the beauty of the surrounding countryside.

“The spring growth is far more advanced here, green leaves burst on Hawthorn and some Sycamores, where in London are bare sticks . . . we never before had such a glory for weather, cloudless days, burning sun and the air so pure that it transmits every smell within twenty yards, from wall-flowers to fish and manure.”

During their holiday the Potter family took a horse and cart with a local driver to many of Cornwall’s most popular tourist spots. They spent days out on the Lizard and at Land’s End, visited the numerous formal gardens in the area, as well as hunting for cowrie shells on Castle Beach. The long drive to the Lizard “took place as usual in cloudless sunshine” and Potter comments that the dust coating the hedges made them look as if they were “powdered with snow”.

The family also admired the nearby churches at Mabe, Constantine, St Gluvias and Mylor. They hired boats to take them across to St Mawes (for a rather boisterous sounding market day), up the Carrick Roads and for sightseeing trips around the harbour. Beatrix mentions that it is her first time in a boat on the sea and seems quite proud that she enjoyed it so much without being seasick!

“The harbour is certainly a great attraction at Falmouth, each voyage more beautiful than the last . . . one pleasing feature of the landscape is the number and tameness of the birds, a heron, numerous gulls, cormorants, sea ducks and guillemots and one flock of wild geese . . . the cormorants fish inside the harbour alongside the boats, where there was also a porpoise one day.”

Potter even compares the Carrick Roads to her beloved Lake District, saying that the river was as smooth as Lake Windermere but more beautiful!

The tone of the journal gives the impression that Beatrix is very fond of the Cornish, although she seems to find them naïve, a little unsophisticated . . . oh and their language “most unintelligible”. But for me it is her vivid impressions of Falmouth more than a hundred years ago that are often the most entertaining and amusing to read. She paints us a fascinating picture of a vibrant, multicultural port, full of character and everyday hilarity. She writes:

“[It] is cosmopolitan, one sees five languages on the window of the barber’s shop. Everything has a nautical flavour, the baker sells sea bread, the grocer calls himself a ship’s chandler, the ironmonger’s window is full of binnacles, pulleys and lanterns, sail cloth is the leading article in the drapers and in one shop they announce fresh water on sale. Also, every mortal shop sells Valencia oranges, such bad ones too.”

Potter comments that she is often stared at in the street in a way that the foreign sailors are not, but she says that as a rule she finds the people polite and friendly. Her wonderful descriptions of the town’s intriguing inhabitants are delightful and certainly bring the streets that we know today to life.

“This is a quiet, well-conducted town, which is remarkable owing to the number of British and foreign seamen loitering about . . . They loll about the main street spitting on the pavement, their only objectionable habit; shake hands with one another in an elaborate manner . . . some of them are very picturesque. I saw one leaning against a post on the quay for hours in a scarlet woollen cap, bright blue jersey and great sea-boots, others with sashes round their middles, and one old Frenchmen in sabots [wooden clogs].”

She also paid a visit to the famous Burton’s Old Curiosity Shop. Beatrix was a keen amateur archaeologist and concluded that the shop was in ‘the great part absolute rubbish’. She describes Mr Burton as “a stout grey old gentleman in spectacles reading a paper” who took little interest in her. Potter did make a purchase however. She bought herself “a white pot-head of bone which was one of the few English curios of any antiquity, excepting a man-trap and sundry small cannon-balls”.

burton's old curiosity shop

Her account of the town’s policemen is particularly enjoyable. Potter tells us that Falmouth has just three and that they can be seen either at the barbers or in “a hutch” at the back of Custom House. Their tiny building apparently had a huge flag pole and a very small garden. The officers themselves she describes thus:

“They are the most odd specimens, just ordinary natives dressed up in blue clothes and all seem to have bunions, or very mis-fitting boots. They are on friendly conversational terms with the other sailors and I have seen one of them having eggs at a Butchers.”

It was during her stay at The Falmouth Hotel that Potter sent her earliest known illustrated letter to four year old Noel Moore. The letter contains delightful pen and ink images of ships in the harbour, a steam train, and cats, dogs, chickens and two tame seagulls that she had seen in the hotel gardens.

It’s said that after her holiday in Cornwall Beatrix began work on The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. Her first book wasn’t published until 1901. She returned to Falmouth to see more of Cornwall the following year and then again 1894.

Further Reading:

Virginia Woolf in Cornwall

Sherlock Holmes in Cornwall – The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

Gyllyngdune Gardens & Falmouth’s Shell House

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