Pottering about

The landscape that inspired children's classic stories is still beautiful - despite the tourists

"Beatrix Potter Country", between Windermere and Coniston, today looks just as it does in her books, but with Japanese tourists. Here are the familiar oak and Scots pine woodlands, rounded hills obscured by low cloud, stone walls and moss-covered boulders - places that you see for the first time and realise you have known all your life, an archetypal England that doesn't exist anywhere else, because nowhere else, even 20 miles away, is quite the same.

The territory overlaps and somehow incorporates that of Wordsworth, Thomas De Quincey, Postman Pat, Ruskin, Withnail and I, Malcolm Campbell and Donald Campbell, all of whom, apart from Postman Pat, could have been characters in Beatrix Potter's stories.

Everywhere else in the world, Postman Pat dolls are bought exclusively for children under the age of six, but in Japan the target market is women between the ages of 18 and 22. Maybe there is a subtext that no one else has noticed. You see groups of Japanese tourists dutifully taking photographs outside Dove Cottage. Does anything of Wordsworth survive when translated into Japanese? These visitors should be more at home in Near Sawrey, where the main attractions are the Tower Bank Arms and Potter's old home, Hill Top. Both have hardly changed, but they offer brochures in Japanese.

Bill Bryson, who came this way in his Notes From a Small Island, complained about Potter's "sweet little watercolours and soppy stories", but he missed the point, as do the makers of the new Miss Potter film ("the life of Beatrix Potter is the most enchanting tale of all") and the generations of parents who have read the books with their children in the belief that they are simple, morally instructive tales. The children listening to them know different. In The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, the squirrels gather acorns on an island in Derwentwater (instantly recognisable as you drive past) belonging to an owl called Old Brown, an authority figure. All the other squirrels work hard and pay appropriate respect, but Nutkin does no work, repeatedly insults Old Brown, and ends up getting torn to pieces (you should ignore the cop-out last page in most of Potter's stories). For parents, this is a cautionary tale. For any self-respecting child, Nutkin is a hero and a role model.

"You may go into the field or down the lane, but don't go into Mr McGregor's garden," said Peter Rabbit's mother. The world is divided into people who are content to spend their lives in the field or down the lane and those who have the call to go into Mr McGregor's garden. Life is much easier if you take the first two options: Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail had bread and milk and blackberries for supper, while Peter was put to bed with a dose of camomile tea. But no one remembers Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.

Although never given the credit for it, Mr McGregor was one of the most influential garden designers of the 20th century, as important as Gertrude Jekyll. He pre-dated Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West in combining a formal structure with informal planting: in the illustrations to The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, rhododendrons grow alongside vegetables, sprawling over box hedges.

The Flopsy Bunnies found lettuce leaves "soporific"; De Quincey preferred opium, which he could buy in most of the local shops. It was as readily available then as Kendal mint cake is today. Now it is almost impossible to buy opium anywhere, even for ready money. I'm told that, if you ask nicely, one or two friendly embassies may smuggle some in for you in the diplomatic bag, but don't count on it.

Naturally, parts of the Lake District are damaged. Bowness is a terrible place, full of what Bryson lumped together as "tea towels, tearooms, teapots and endless Beatrix Potter shit". The top attraction in Bowness is the World of Beatrix Potter, where you pay for admission in order to visit an expensive café and an even more expensive gift shop. In between are tableaux of scenes from the books, for which her animal characters appear to have been recreated in an ingenious mixture of plastic, asbestos and partially recycled waste from nearby Sellafield.

What would the Two Bad Mice have made of it? In the book, Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb are initially delighted to find a doll's house, but it is all a fake, so they trash the place, like a rock band at a Holiday Inn. (Strangely, although The Tale of Two Bad Mice was published a hundred years ago, no one seems to have noticed in all that time that the pictures on pages 23 and 24 are printed in the wrong order. Surely, I can't be the only person to have spotted this?)

Yet the odd thing about the Lake District is that it is remarkably easy to avoid the crowds. We stayed away from Bowness and shopped in Grange-over-Sands, which retains an Englishness it is hard to find outside certain Himalayan hill stations. Its small food shops are of a quality that is rare, possibly unheard of, anywhere else in England, with few of the dreary chain stores that have ruined so many market towns.

Even in Sawrey, peace and quiet is just a few yards away. Bryson wandered up "a little-known track to a tarn on some high ground" and had the distinct feeling that he was "the first visitor to venture there in years". By coincidence, we took the same route and saw only three other people all afternoon.

This is Moss Eccles Tarn, where Jeremy Fisher went fishing for minnows and caught more than he bargained for. Potter often came here with her husband when she had given up writing books and had reinvented herself as a hill farmer in tweed skirts and seriously sensible shoes.

My earliest memory of Beatrix Potter is of sitting on a train and watching my sister, then aged about four, reading Jemima Puddle-Duck. She could not actually read, but she knew how long to look at the words before turning the page, a feat that greatly impressed strangers on trains. She came from a family much like Potter's and showed some talent as an artist when young, but she was born 80 years later, when girls could have proper careers, and gave up art after O-level. Funnily enough, she is also likely to end her days caring for sheep on some rainswept moor.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change