Wray Castle, the National Trust, and Peter Rabbit (Background: Claife)

Wray Castle

Without Wray Castle we might not have had the National Trust – or Peter Rabbit                                                                                                    

Wray Castle, the mock gothic pile on the west shores of Windermere, played a crucial role in the history of the National Trust and in the life of one of the nation’s most famous storytellers, Beatrix Potter.

Back in 1836 Dr James Dawson, a retired surgeon from Liverpool, and his wife Margaret (née Preston), acquired Low Wray Farm. In around 1840 he began work on a fantasy Gothic Revival castle, replete with towers, arrow slits and a portcullis. On his death in 1875, the estate, which included the castle and adjoining High Wray farm, plus 830 acres, was inherited by his nephew, Edward Preston Rawnsley.

Seven years later, in 1882, a family from London arrived at Wray Castle to take their first summer holiday in the Lake District.  The family was the well-to-do Potters, and their daughter – then aged 16 – Beatrix, a withdrawn child with a passion for wildlife and art.  During her first family visit, Beatrix met Hardwicke Rawnsley, who had become vicar of Wray in 1877 at the invitation of his cousin Edward. Hardwicke, a prolific author, became an enormous influence on the young Beatrix, encouraging her to draw and write, and introducing her work to London publishers, while enthusing her with his unbridled passion for preserving the Lake District landscape.

In 1895, Rawnsley – by now a Canon of Carlisle Cathedral – with Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter, founded the National Trust to "promote the permanent preservation for the benefit of the Nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest". In 1929, after having passed through several hands, Wray Castle was gifted to the National Trust.

Miss Potter, meanwhile, had become a famous author, had moved to the area and had married local solicitor William Heelis, going on in 1905 to purchase Hill Top farm at Near Sawrey – just three miles from Wray Castle. She was a donor to and supporter of the new Trust from the start, and on her death in 1943 left nearly all of her property, including Hill Top Farm, to the charity.  In all, Mr & Mrs Heelis presented the National Trust with some 4,000 acres of land.

Without that chance meeting at Wray Castle between young Beatrix and the lively vicar, would Peter Rabbit ever have been published? And would the National Trust be the charity it is today?

Further Reading: Jamie Lund, ‘A History of the Wray Castle Estate, Claife’, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, vol 2 (2002), pp231-252.

Text by Bill Shannon

Photo of Wray Castle By User:James@hopgrove, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50878297