Leeds businessman breathes new life into landscape that inspired Beatrix Potter

FAR from the tourist trail, hidden away down a winding country lane deep in the heart of the Lake District, lies the inspiration for some of literature’s most loved children’s characters.

David Seymour  with his daughter Jenny, who now takes care of the daily running of the estate. 
Photo: Andrew McCaren/AM images
David Seymour with his daughter Jenny, who now takes care of the daily running of the estate. Photo: Andrew McCaren/AM images

The unassuming entrance to the Grade-II listed Lingholm has given away nothing of its connection to Beatrix Potter - until now. After years in obscurity, the 34-acre estate next to Derwentwater has been lovingly restored by its owner, a Leeds businessman, and its literary past revealed.

Lingholm was the holiday retreat for Potter and her family for nine summers from 1885, its kitchen garden the inspiration for Mr McGregor’s garden in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and the grounds were those in the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin who “lived in a wood at the edge of a lake”.

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Potter wrote Squirrel Nutkin’s story at the house between 1901 and 1903. The woods and shore line which inspired it have, with the help of the estates first full time gardener in 20 years, been cleared of overgrowth and are now awash with rhododendrons, azaleas and specimen trees.

Potter's sketches of her own rabbit, many drawn at Lingholm, formed the basis of Peter Rabbit

Mr McGregor’s garden too, has been uncovered. The area where Peter lost his coat to the gardener was entirely overgrown with Leylandii and conifer trees when David Seymour acquired the estate. However, after felling 200 tonnes of wood, three sides of the original octagon walled garden were found, and work began to rebuild the walls on the exact same site as the original.

Work will be complete in time for next year’s 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth, and Mr Seymour is working with the National Trust and Lake District National Park to open a new footpath from the Cumbrian way to lead through the estate enabling visitors to enjoy the surroundings that were once so inspirational to Potter.

Mr Seymour, along with wife Jane and daughter Jenny, acquired Lingholm after selling his Leeds-based company Everbuild, which had an annual turn over of £60 million, to the Swiss company Sika in 2013.

The businessman, a fan of Potter since childhood, brought the estate for £6.5m and plans to spend several million more creating the Lingholm the author would recognise.

Beatrix Potter at age 32 with her brother Walter in 1898 at Lingholm. Photo: Andrew McCaren/AM images

“It’s a bit of a lunatic thing to do but it’s a passion,’ he said. “Most people know of Beatrix Potter’s connection with the Lake District – she lived and farmed here for a large part of her life – but unless you’re an enthusiast, you wouldn’t know Lingholm.”

Images of Lingholm are littered through Potter’s sketchbooks, include one of Peter, her pet rabbit, lying in front of an ornate fireplace in the grandly decorated house. Much renovation work has already been completed, but there is still more to do - all with highest sensibilities.

“We’re not going to make it a Peter Rabbit adventureland and have people dressed up and jumping around in rabbit costumes,” Mr Seymour said. “The house deserves to be loved and we just want to put it in an historical context.”

Unfortunately for Peter Rabbit and his pals, the lettuces, radishes and other vegetables in the 21st century garden will be protected by far more than Mr McGregor’s Victorian wicket gate and a furious scowl.

 “There’s a rabbit-proof fence all around the outer garden,” Mr Seymour revealed. “There are hundreds of rabbits around but we’re hoping we’ll be able to keep the little things out.”

Varied history of estate

Lingholm was built by prominent Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse in 1877.

The estate was sold around 1900 for financial reasons to Col. George Kemp, who later became the First Baron of Rochdale. The Baron significantly remodelled the house adding a huge hall built between 1902 to 1904.

The first Lord Rochdale was a knowledgeable antiques collector and installed features in the house that are now listed, such as the Spanish leather wall paper that is embossed and gold leafed and dates back to the 1600s.

During the first world war Lingholm was used as a military hospital, and in the second world war as a school for children evacuated from the North East.