Animal antics

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Known for her charming stories about Peter Rabbit and friends, Beatrix Potter was also an environmentalist and farmer. Jessie Anderson finds out more

Since 1902, when Frederick Warne first published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, generations of children have taken the engagingly naughty rabbit to their hearts.

A great part of the appeal of Peter Rabbit and the other 22 books from Beatrix Potter lies in the accompanying illustrations, redolent of the atmosphere of the countryside she so loved.

Now, visitors to The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction at Bowness-on-Windermere are drawn inside the three-dimensional pages of the books and can experience the stories in a new and vivid way.

The attraction first opened in 1991, but this year, after having been closed for three months to undergo a pound;2 million refurbishment, a livelier, interactive "world" welcomes the visitor, not simply as an observer but as a participant in the well-loved stories and also in the other equally important life of Beatrix Potter-cum-Mrs Heelis, the dedicated countrywoman, Lakeland farmer and landowner.

Beatrix Potter grew up in London. But from frequent holidays in Scotland and the Lake District, she brought home newts, caterpillars, mice and rabbits which her long-suffering governess allowed her to keep in her schoolroom. The tale of Peter evolved from her pet rabbit, and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, who celebrates her 100th birthday this year, was inspired by a pet hedgehog.

Richard Foster, the attraction's general managereducation officer sees its message as "all about the power of the imagination and how people have the ability to transform the most mundane objects and experiences into something magical".

To convey this concept to visiting school groups, the centre has dispensed with the usual fact sheets. Instead, an "educational facilitator", Judith Notley, a local actress and trained teacher, appears in the character of the author and takes the children into Beatrix Potter's world. She discusses with them the influences behind the stories and encourages them to use an object or event from their own experience to create their own story.

School groups can engage in creative writing, art and drama in the indoor Peter Rabbit Tea Garden. Most of the work is geared towards key stages 1 and 2, and teachers are invited to make a preliminary visit to see what the attraction offers and to discuss the theme they wish to develop. As Richard says, the school visit "can be the fulfilment of a project or the springboard for future work".

Subjects studied may include art, creative writing, history, Victorian childhood, and science and technology. The latter may be stimulated initially by the replica of the Victorian theatrical device, "Pepper's Ghost", and end with a glimpse behind the scenes at the modern technology which makes the Attraction work. They can also discover something of Potter's work as a serious botanical artist and her later dedication to farming and land conservation.

The children have freedom to explore the completely new main exhibition where, for the first time, all 23 of Potter's published works have been brought to life. A film tells how the stories came about and giant plasma screen videos enable pupils to visit the places which inspired the author.

There are also evocative aromas to enliven the scenes - sun-warmed tomatoes in the greenhouse, moss and pine in Peter Rabbit's home, fresh baking in Mrs Tiggy-Winkle's kitchen, and so on - the "smells" suggestions all contributed by pupils.

Groups coming from a distance may want to explore other places of interest knowing that the attraction offers a complete package of day tours which could include a steam train trip, a visit to an aquarium, a cruise on Lake Windermere, and many other possibilities to suit specific requests.

For opening times and prices, tel: 015394 88444;

Open daily except Christmas Day. Summer: 10am-5.30pm; winter: 10am-4.30pm.

School group rates: adults pound;4.50, children pound;3.50; one adult free for every 10 children

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