When I woke up this morning I was all set for a marathon as I had scheduled three properties in one day, the first time I had attempted such a feat of daring! As it was, I was all finished by mid-afternoon so it was less of a marathon and more of a whistle-stop whizz around the Hawkshead and Coniston area.
It was also the day that I threw myself whole-heartedly into the world of Beatrix Potter at last. Having dipped into a little Potter history at Wray Castle and found little tendrils of her influence creeping into Townend, I now opened myself up to the Potter experience in a big way.
I started at Hill Top in the village of Near Sawrey, south of Hawkshead, which was the first farm that Beatrix Potter acquired in the Lake District back in 1905, purchasing it as a holiday home and rural bolthole (she never lived there permanently). By the time she died in 1943, she had accrued an estate comprising 4,000 acres of land and 15 farms, all of which was bequeathed to the National Trust after the death of her husband, William Heelis, which occurred two years later. But it all started at Hill Top and the house was still full of her personal belongings when the Trust inherited. Although Beatrix never owned a stately home or a dramatic landscape garden, she made a significant contribution to the National Trust, not only with all that Lake District land but also by leaving a lot of her original drawings, diaries and letters to the Trust, meaning that the NT is pretty much the caretaker of her life.
So, let’s get back to my visit. Having been warned that the car park was very small I got there well before the 10am opening time for the shop and garden and was just the second car in (there’s always at least one earlier bird!). I then compared holiday notes with a nice couple from Manchester while waiting for the ticket office to open… which it finally did at 10.15!
Walking up to the house, I noticed a little rabbit grazing in the field alongside the path, which seemed completely appropriate, although I didn’t stop to ask if his name was Peter (or Flopsy or Mopsy or Cottontail)! I was in the first batch of timed tickets so I pretty much went straight in, after listening to a little introduction by an enthusiastic volunteer outside. He warned us that the swallows were in and out of the kitchen all day so not to be alarmed if they flitted past our heads. Sure enough, one little fella was backwards and forwards all the time I was there, in through the front door and onto the top of the dresser and then out again when the volunteer shooed him away, no doubt afraid that he might leave little unwanted presents. Considering whose house this once was, it was really nice that nature was still finding its way in. The Trust couldn’t have planned it better if they’d tried.
I would strongly recommend that you buy a guidebook if you’re visiting Hill Top as there isn’t a great deal of information available inside the house (although the volunteers were a typically helpful and passionate bunch). While some visitors might be interested in seeing the many items that once belonged to Potter, all still in their places, the most interesting thing for me was the fact that Potter used many scenes from the house in her illustrations. The guidebook is, therefore, crucial as it highlights some of these instances, showing a photo of the actual location and comparing it with Potter’s artwork from specific stories. I think more could have been done to accentuate this aspect inside the house. There were a few of the familiar little books lying around, open to the relevant pages but not enough explanation as to why that page was showing. I suppose one of the problems with including more prominent information boards to draw your attention to these things is the lack of space inside the house, which is fairly small and very full of visitors. Eight people are allowed to enter every five minutes but by the time I came out it was already getting a little claustrophobic in there. The high visitor numbers also stymied my photography opportunities and I’ve had to use a restricted photo of just the main frontage of the house, which I took just after I arrived. When I came out, every photo I took featured at least five to ten random folks waiting outside for their ticket time.
There is a small shop on the site but refreshments are limited to a freezer of ice creams so if you need something more substantial you will have to visit the pub or the nearby hotel, which claims to have a tearoom with views of Esthwaite Water. I didn’t check it out but you’re welcome to take their word for it!
All in all, I was in and out of Hill Top within about half an hour and quickly heading off for my next stop, leaving my parking space free for the next poor soul who was staring in panic at the crammed car park. There was an attendant helping to direct the cars but I can imagine at the height of the season, there is a risk that you just won’t get a space at all. You have been warned.
Highlights: Comparing real locations with Beatrix Potter’s illustrations
NT Connections: Through Beatrix Potter, Hill Top is connected to Wray Castle, the Beatrix Potter Gallery and Melford Hall