There is a small lane that winds its way up the hill opposite Beatrix Potter’s house. The view hasn’t changed since Miss Potter sketched it about one hundred years ago. The road winds up past Castle Cottage which was the house Beatrix moved to when she got married. When Beatrix died she left both Hill Top and Castle Cottage to the National Trust.A few years ago the National Trust refurbished Castle Cottage, intending to make it available as a holiday home. Local people objected strongly, they felt that the house should be occupied by a permanent Lake District resident. This meant that a suitable tenant had to be found. Mandy Marshall, an enterprising lady from Manchester had moved to the Lakes several years earlier when her husband got a job in nearby Barrow. They were looking for somewhere to live locally. Mandy loves the Lake District and had recently completed the local ‘blue badge’ tour guide training course for Cumbria. When she spotted that Castle Cottage was available she couldn’t believe her luck. It is difficult being accepted as a National Trust tenant, but after hours of interviewing Mandy and Bill were approved as tenants and moved into Castle Cottage.
In a delightful twist of fate Mandy Marshall had recently started a business making hand bags and accessories using Herdwick wool. Beatrix Potter was a great fan of Herdwick sheep, the characteristic native breed who thrive on the cold, wet and rugged slopes of the English Lake District. I’m sure Beatrix Potter would be delighted to know that an artisan business is being run from Castle Cottage using Herdwick wool. By complete chance, two years ago, my sister gave me a Herdwick handbag for Christmas. I love my Herdwick bag, it is stylish, practical and really useful. In fact my Herdwick handbag has been my loyal companion on frequent trips abroad. I love the idea that the wool from these Lake District sheep is being woven and made into beautiful and practical items right here in Cumbria. I also love the idea that Beatrix Potter played a significant role in the preservation of the Herdwick breed.
Let me tell you how I discovered this original and charming story. In September 2016 I visited Hill Top Farm, Beatrix Potter’s first home in the Lake District, with my mother and daughter. The property is brilliantly managed by a dedicated National Trust team. The house and gardens are all staffed by helpful and informative volunteers. The staff on duty when we visited were Fiona, Sally and Alexandra. They were so welcoming and knew so much about Hill Top and the life of Beatrix Potter that we stayed much longer than we intended. The staff really did enhance our visit to the property. Stood upstairs in Hill Top I started chatting to one of the volunteers about Beatrix Potter and her life. I was told about Beatrix Potter’s marriage to William Heelis and her move across the road to Castle Cottage. The volunteer also told me about the tenant in Castle Cottage today and her Herdwick handbags. I looked down at my own handbag and said, ‘Well I’ve got a Herdwick handbag and I love it, it is hard-wearing, and it looks good’. We laughed together at this coincidence. I made a few notes about Castle Cottage and Herdwick Handbags. I was very curious and I wanted to learn more.
When I got home I googled ‘Herdwick Handbags’ and soon came across Mandy Marshall’s website featuring a selection of bags, i-pad covers, satchels etc. I was so taken with the look of the site and my own fabulous handbag that I e-mailed Mandy asking her if I might be able to visit Castle Cottage with a couple of American friends who would be staying with me a month or so later. Mandy’s response was so positive and welcoming. In late October I was arriving at the Castle Cottage gate with my friends. We were treated to an explanation of the Herdwick Handbag business, offered coffee and florentine biscuits and given a tour of Beatrix Potter’s home. The whole thing was fascinating. Not only were we in Beatrix Potter’s house, but effectively we were enjoying a private tour with an expert local guide. It was a unique behind-the-scenes experience.
I’d like to take my hat off to Mandy Marshall for the dedication and imagination she has shown in developing her business. Mandy has travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles to find the skilled workers needed to create her handbags. She is working with partners in Cornwall, Scotland and locally in Cumbria to create beautiful, hard-wearing, Herdwick bags. When we visited we were made to feel so welcome. It was a treat and a pleasure to be sharing in someone’s vision from inception to fruition. Congratulations to Mandy Marshall for all her hard work. If anyone is looking for a practical handbag that looks good I urge you to consider a Herdwick. This is true artisan wizardry at work.
- To learn more about Herdwick Hand Bags check out: Herdwick Bags and Accessories
- I’ve written about Beatrix Potter in more detail at Beatrix Potter and the Lake District
- For lots more on Herdwick sheep check out: The Herdwick Sheep Blog