Beatrix Potter: Her Lakeland Years by W R Mitchell Great Northern, £15

Her beautifully-illustrated animal tales, bringing to life the likes of Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher and Mrs Tiggywinkle, have enchanted children – and adults – for generations.

But what was she really like?

In this book, former Telegraph & Argus columnist Bill Mitchell tells the compelling story of the real Beatrix Potter, based on interviews with those who knew her.

In May, Bill was honoured at the 2010 Yorkshire Rural Awards for his outstanding contribution to journalism.

He has recorded Yorkshire history, heritage and wildlife for more than 60 years and also edited Cumbria magazine. His interviews about Beatrix Potter, spread over his 40 years with the magazine, recall memories dating back to the time when Beatrix, a Londoner by birth, bought Hill Top farm at Sawrey in the Lake District, where she spent the last 40 years of her life.

She was already acclaimed for her Peter Rabbit books when she arrived in Lakeland and married William Heelis, a Hawkshead solicitor. Her literary success allowed her to buy more than 4,000 acres of land which, on her death in 1943, was bequeathed to the National Trust as her legacy to the Lake District.

Bill reveals a little-known aspect of Beatrix’s life and times and unearths the essence of her as a person, not just a world-renowned children’s author. The book sheds light on her passion for Lakeland and her keen interest in farming and conservation and her drawings and paintings.

The book is beautifully illustrated with lovely photographs and drawings of Beatrix, from a young woman to old age, and archive and contemporary photos of her beloved landscapes. Pride of place is given to her beloved Herdwick sheep.

Described as both “a funny old woman, grunting with disapproval” and “awe-inspiring and sweetly pretty”, Beatrix prompted varying recollections by those who knew her. They appear as quaint characters in the book, allowing the reader to get to know the real Beatrix and her often fragile relations with local people.

Bill writes: “Her life in Lakeland had been neatly divided into two parts – a shy spinster, writer and artist who made birds and animals loveable to children by dressing them up in clothes to engage in novel antics, and the redoubtable Mrs Heelis, farmer and conservationist, keen to ensure by her purchases that Lakeland would keep its green and pleasant landscape.”

Tommy Stoddart recalls driving young sheep long distances from fell farms to winter grazings. It was a massive operation, with about 600 sheep transferred in two trips by two men with two or three dogs. The drovers would often come under the “steady gaze of Beatrix”.

“If you were on t’road wi t’sheep Mrs Heelis passed you three or four times to see that all was going well,” recalls Tommy. “If there was a lame dog she’d pick it up, take it home and fetch you another dog. Mind you, if you were lame she wouldn’t do owt.”

As well as providing a fascinating insight into Beatrix Potter’s life and personality, the book offers a useful Lakeland Haunts section as a handy guide for anyone wishing to visit her former home and surrounding areas.