Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top
Generations of children have grown up with Beatrix Potter’s famous characters. Even now, 150 years after her birth, one of her books is sold every 15 seconds. Claire Masset takes a tour of Hill Top, the Lake District farmhouse that Beatrix loved.
For a small Lake District farmhouse, Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top packs a big emotional punch.
‘The connection people feel with this place is very strong,’ says House Steward Catherine Pritchard, who has been known to hand out restorative cups of tea to overwhelmed visitors moved to tears by their experience. ‘They can really get quite emotional.’
Here at Hill Top, and at many other Trust places, Beatrix’s birthday on 28 July will be a fun-filled day of celebrations. Beatrix Potter’s little animal tales are deeply loved by readers, and Hill Top was more than just a house to her. It was the place where she could be herself, the place where she wrote 13 of her 23 books and where many of her most famous scenes are set. Today, it remains her personal museum, furnished and untenanted – just as she asked for it to be when she left it to the National Trust in 1943.
A special place
Hill Top was never a traditional home for Beatrix. It was more a life-sized doll’s-house that she filled with treasured objects – apt for a woman who herself admitted that she ‘never grew up’. She never lived here full time, though. When she married local solicitor William Heelis in 1913, she bought Castle Cottage, a larger home over the road, in which to enjoy married life. She invited family, friends and guests to Hill Top, but the house was always entirely her own. As such, it is the most personal monument there is of one of the last century’s greatest illustrators and storytellers.
Hill Top unleashed Beatrix from the shackles of her middle-class Victorian upbringing. Like many children of her class, Beatrix, born in 1866, suffered a cloistered childhood. Tucked away in the third-floor nursery of 2 Bolton Gardens, London, she grew up with only her brother Bertram for close company. Her mother discouraged friendships with other children, saying Beatrix and Bertram would ‘catch germs’.
As she grew up, Beatrix was increasingly left to her own devices. Art and observing nature were her solace. She later wrote in one of her letters:
" It is all the same, drawing, painting, modelling, the irresistible urge to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye."
Holidays provided an escape from London, her ‘unloved birthplace’. Every summer the family rented a house in Scotland or the Lakes. Here, among the fields and woods, Beatrix was happy. ‘I do not remember a time when I did not try to invent pictures and make for myself a fairyland among ... all the thousands of objects of the countryside.’
She later realised: ‘My brother and I were born in London, but our descent, our interest and our joy were in the north country.’ In July 1896, when Beatrix was 30, the Potters stayed in Near Sawrey. ‘It is as nearly perfect a little place as I have ever lived in,’ she wrote in her journal of that year.
Nine years later she bought Hill Top, in the same village, using the royalties she’d earned from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She had found her home – far, far away from London. The working farm, with its farmhouse, farm buildings and orchard, brought her lasting happiness.
Most of Hill Top’s rooms are small, so it is open to visitors by timed ticket. Beatrix compared the house to an overcoat – at once comfortable and comforting. ‘Her house was like her,’ says Catherine. ‘Practical, unpretentious, a bit of a survivor.’
As you walk through the Entrance Hall, simplicity is everywhere – in the quiet beauty of the stove, the oak furniture and the stone-flagged floor. In contrast, Beatrix’s sophisticated parlour is a surprise. The elegant furniture blends with wood-panelled walls and, along with a marble chimneypiece, are reminders of her middle-class upbringing.
Every painting, piece of furniture and antique in the house meant something to her. Trophies for sheep-breeding jostle alongside photographs of Beatrix at agricultural shows – for she was passionate about farming, particularly Herdwick sheep.
‘I am the chair at the Herdwick Breeders’ Association meetings,’ she once wrote to a friend. ‘You would laugh to see me, amongst the other farmers – usually in a tavern (!) after a sheep fair.’
Upstairs, in the largest room, Beatrix wrote letters and composed her little books. She called it her library. Here, with a view over the glorious Lake District landscape, she wrote the stories that have been passed down through generations ever since.
An impressive legacy
Hill Top’s half-acre cottage garden still reflects Beatrix’s own informal, higgledy-piggledy style. There’s a small vegetable garden opposite the house, and you can see the rhubarb patch where Jemima Puddle-Duck famously tried to hide her eggs.
The farm at Hill Top is much as it was, too. ‘We don’t do anything differently,’ says Gary Dixon, the tenant farmer who cares for it. ‘We’re still farming traditionally.’
In return for all the inspiration the landscape gave to Beatrix, she fiercely protected it. She used the money from her books to buy more farms and land under threat of development. She worked closely with the Trust to help preserve the Lakes. Her contribution to the Trust is so valued that its head office is named Heelis, her married name, in her honour.
Today, 150 years since her birth, Beatrix ’s books are still delighting millions. In the Lake District, the land she passed on to the Trust is still being cared for as she had wished. It is, however, in her unassuming little farmhouse that Beatrix’s spirit shines the brightest.
This article first appeared in the National Trust Magazine summer 2016 issue.