When I feel like stepping out of my head for awhile, I head outside. My brain quietens down while walking, and what else does an unemployed person have but time. I have lived in the Lake District for two years but have never visited Beatrix Potter’s house.
An unpopular opinion but I never liked her stories as a child. The books weren’t widely available in Finland but the animation series was shown on telly. I think I only watched one full episode, finding it too scary.
The only part I liked was the beginning where Miss Potter was sitting on a flower-filled field painting and had to come back to her house when it started raining. Her house looked so cosy with the fireplace crackling, tea steaming in the delicate porcelain cup and her pet rabbit on the table helping her to write stories.
I was so young that I couldn’t read the subtitles but the imagery left a permanent imprint in my memory. I was excited that Miss Potter lived alone. How lovely would it be to have such a cosy house of my own with so many animals! This was one of the images that subconsciously inspired me as I got more and more interested in British culture.
Little did young Ida know that she would be living among those exact fields almost two decades later.
Now I was going to visit that house.
The way to Potter’s house, Hill Top, isn’t a straight tarmac way from the ferry to the front door. It’s a public pathway that lowers and rises through forests, grasslands and even through grazing land with cows. It feels much longer than the announced 2.5 miles. No wonder so many opt for the bus.
Still, I feel they are missing out. As I walk, the only sounds are the birds, hum of trees and small stones scraping against the bottoms of my shoes. I sing the title song from the programme. I watched the intro years later, when I didn’t need subtitles anymore. Miss Potter was writing a letter to a boy who was poorly and made up a story to cheer him up.
I think about ten-year-old Jess, a girl whose battle with Neuroblastoma I followed on twitter. She passed away last Friday.
Jess’s biggest dream was to have Katy Perry dedicate ‘Roar’ to her, her favourite song. Perry did just that at her latest concert to O2. Jess was too ill to attend at that point but many people, myself included, reached out to Perry to get her attention. I’m glad Jess got that at least.
This would be a nice place to bring a child. It’s like out of a storybook.
The house isn’t as isolated as I expected. It’s in a small village and not even on the edge of it. The house itself is so small that you need to attend at a time slot marked on your ticket but the gardens are free to roam in the meantime. I look at the trees where apples are ripening and I wonder how many years’ imprisonment do you get for eating one. People take pictures of watering cans and wheelbarrows placed in the vegetable garden.
I wonder what Potter, who I understand was quite a reclusive character, would have thought about all these people wandering around her vegetable patch. Maybe she had taken after local farmers and had a shotgun next to where you put the brolly to dry.
As I’m not a fan of her books, I can’t appreciate all the fine nuances. The offerings of the gift shop go straight over my head. Still when my slot comes, I step straight in to the cosy front room of my childhood. Even the fire is there.
I get an overwhelming sense of familiarity and for one small moment I’m alone as the rain pours outside. There are wild flowers on the table, tea is being poured and I can hear scraping of an ink pen against paper.
That’s the only room I really like. Otherwise I feel like I’m intruding. It’s weird to be in someone’s house uninvited, regardless of the fact that the resident has left decades ago. I got to walk through my favourite room twice. I ask a lady working at the door has she seen ghosts. She says there are no ghosts, but apparently things move around and they don’t know who’s doing it.
To me it’s pretty obvious.
The smell of smoke lingers long after I’ve left the garden. I can smell it very strongly for several minutes. Maybe it’s Miss Potter’s greeting.
I’m glad I got to see that room.
I walk a couple of more miles to the village of Hawkshead. At a bus stop I recognise a girl from Hill Top. I held the garden gate open for her.
I recognise her in more than one sense. I am one hundred percent certain she’s Finnish.
I couldn’t tell you why. It’s the way a dog can differentiate between another dog, a human and a cat. I just know.
My first clue are the earrings. They pink plastic roses, I had a pair from the same series. I could name the store where she bought them.
The second clue is her clothing. Finns bundle up more than the weather requires. She’s the only person wearing a long coat and a thin scarf. People have found this perplexing, we out of all people should be used to cold weather, but it’s about being prepared more than anything.
The biggest giveaway is the shoes. They look like converses but are not, they’re cheap knockoff ones. It’s really rare to see Brits wearing them but I can’t think of many who didn’t when I was in high school.
Of course I can’t say my observations are correct for certain because I don’t ask.
It’s not just because that’s not the Finnish way. Silence is an integral part of my native culture, and if Finns hate anything, it’s talking to strangers. You’d think that meeting them abroad would be enough of an excuse but that’s where my personality comes in.
I’ve never had any particular interest in conversing with other Finns. I only hung out with Brits in university and have gone on to pursue things most foreigners just don’t tend to do, like become a journalist in my second language.
What would I talk to them about? I’d find out they’re on holiday, and I’d tell them I live here. A few minutes of useless chitchat. Just the fact that we share a native language doesn’t mean we have anything to talk about.
Besides, I’m more interested in keeping that distance. She sits next to me and every once in a while I glance for more signs that I’m right. We have the same coloured hair, not quite blond but not really brunette either. Mine just has a reddish hue because of years of living in houses with copper pipes.
We also have the same eyes. 89% of the Finnish population have light-coloured eyes, light blue, green or grey. There are more blue-eyed people than in any other country in the world. Mine and the bus girl’s are of the bluish light green local women’s weeklies refer to as ‘water green.’
It’s not just the clothing or the eyes though. It’s also the gestures, which are familiar in a way that would be impossible to explain to a foreigner. A sort of subtle certainty, despite being out of her familiar surroundings. Lets get this sorted.
Had I seen her in a coffee shop, I would’ve given her the ultimate test. A tray of dirty dishes. I bet you a hundred quid she would’ve started looking around for a trolley where to put them and would’ve stood there in inner turmoil when not finding one. Finnish cafes don’t have table service and customers are expected to take their dishes over to an assigned spot as they exit the premises. So is the Nordic hospitality.
I’ve been here for too long. I just leave them.
A quick glance at her phone screen to see the language settings confirms it. I was right.
Besides, there was no need for us to talk. We were both just visitors to Miss Potter’s garden.