Beatrix Potter, born in 1866, is known all over the world as the author and illustrator of some of our most beloved children’s books. We are indebted to her for giving us Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck and countless other adorable childhood friends. Most of Beatrix Potter’s stories are now over a hundred years old, and yet they are timeless. When my three-year-old requests (I mean, demands) a bedtime story, the Flopsy Bunnies remain just as popular a choice as the Gruffalo or the Highway Rat.
Beatrix Potter was a regular visitor to Perthshire, and our local flora and fauna inspired much of her work. A trip to the Beatrix Potter Exhibition, housed in Birnam Arts Centre, is a fun way for both children and adults to find out more about her. It’s just a quick drive north of Perth, or a short walk from Dunkeld and Birnam railway station. I took my mum and my little boy, James, to check it out.
On arrival, James was immediately immersed in Beatrix Potter’s world.On arrival, James was immediately immersed in Beatrix Potter’s world. The exhibition is interactive and this hands-on approach is highly successful in engaging children’s attention. James found the dressing up wardrobe in no time and was soon sauntering around looking very dapper in his blue Peter Rabbit coat, complete with fluffy white tail. He loved carting carrots to and fro in Peter’s wheelbarrow, before diligently applying himself to Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’s pile of laundry, using her old-fashioned iron. Ginger and Pickles’ little shop was an absolute joy – James was totally absorbed playing shopkeeper, cheerfully charging other small children fifty quid for a couple of onions – I suspect I could have left him there all day.
As well as getting to know Beatrix Potter’s colourful characters, the exhibition helps us to get to know Beatrix herself. She was not only a consummate storyteller and artist, but a passionate conservationist and a talented natural scientist, acclaimed for her scientific drawings of fungi. All this would be admirable work for a woman in the 21st century; in the early 1900s, Beatrix Potter was extraordinary. The exhibition encourages children not just to admire Beatrix Potter’s stories, but to inhabit her world. They can make-believe lessons in a Victorian school room, practice their sketching, and even write using her secret code (what child doesn’t love a secret code!)
The exhibition is suitable for all ages. Older children and adults can peruse the wealth of detail about this inspirational woman displayed on information boards. Young children have a wide range of toys to choose from: a mouse house, tea things, a fishing game, jigsaws, soft toys, blocks and, of course, books. If you need a bout of fresh air, just head outside to the adjacent Beatrix Potter Garden. This natural space feels refreshingly wild, and James loved tracking down his favourite characters who were tucked away beside the pond and amongst the greenery.
After our busy morning, Mum, James and I were ready for a bite to eat. The Foyer Café next door to the exhibition is the perfect place for satisfying healthy young appetites. James was spoilt for choice with an enticing children’s menu, and went for a toastie with fruit and crisps. The café takes care to source local produce, with meat, salad leaves and vegetables coming from just down the road in Dunkeld. Bread and cakes are home-made, and the ice-cream is made locally by Stewart Tower Dairy. Mum and I finished with tea and coffee, and James made short work of a blueberry ice-cream for dessert (I felt obliged to sample some, just to make sure it was okay...!)
In the afternoon, the three of us popped back into the exhibition for one last wander around. It’s a safe and compact space, thoughtfully laid out, and James was in no hurry to leave.
A small entrance fee allows you hours of entertainment, and children under three years old are given free entry. While James continued to play happily, I took the opportunity to browse the gift shop, which stocks a wide range of Beatrix Potter merchandise and other goodies. Both the shop and the exhibition space are staffed by volunteers, and the profits from the shop are reinvested in the Birnam Arts Centre.
We finally took our leave, and after an inevitable stop at the playpark just across the road, my sleepy child was thrilled to make the brief journey home by train. I hadn’t realised how easy it is to make this trip by public transport from Perth, and James and I will definitely be paying Jeremy Fisher and his pals another visit.
For more details on the Beatrix Potter Exhibition and Garden check out Birnam Arts Directory Listing here >>>
Diane McLeish is a Perthshire based humanist who specialises in naming days for babies, toddlers and children.
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