Like millions of other children around the world, the illustrated tales of Beatrix Potter were among my earliest reading materials.
On my first (and only) holiday in England’s Lake District a few years ago, I was looking forward to visiting the farmhouse and gardens which feature prominently in six of her books.
Sadly, the place was awash with coach-trip passengers and other day-trippers all with the same idea. On a hot and sunny day, it was too much of an ordeal to join the lengthy queue for admission.
The farmhouse is so well hidden from the road that it was only by looking at booklets in the local tourism office that I got even a sense of what I’d missed.
Hilltop is a traditionally-built stone and slate-roofed farmhouse that dates from the seventeenth century with an extension built by Potter for her farm manager and his family.
Beatrix Potter bought the estate as a 34-acre working farm in 1905, using the proceeds from her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Only a year earlier, her fiancé Norman Warne had died as a result of leukaemia. She sought solace in the Lake District, a place she knew and loved from many childhood holidays.
She continued to live in London initially because, as a single woman she was expected to care for her ageing parents. Nevertheless she visited Hilltop as often as possible, sketching the house and garden, the surrounding countryside and animals for her new books.
From 1909 Beatrix Potter began to buy other property in and around the nearby village of Sawrey, including Castle Farm and Castle Cottage. Her intention was to prevent the land becoming developed for commercial purposes.
In 1913, aged 47, she married William Heelis, a local solicitor, and moved permanently to Castle Cottage which was bigger and more convenient than Hill Top. They made this their permanent home, Beatrix spending less time on writing and more on farming, eventually becoming an expert breeder in Herdwicks (an indigenous Cumbrian sheep).
She retained a strong attachment to her first house, keeping both a study and a studio within the farmhouse until her death in 1943. In her will she bequeathed the estate to the National Trust, with the stipulation that nothing was to be moved or altered and no-one would ever live in the house. Hill Top she said should be “presented to my visitors as if I had just gone out and they had just missed me.”
Changes were however required, particularly in the garden. An apple tree and a wisteria over the garden shed, both planted by the author, had survived. But other parts of the garden had to be restored using letters, photographs and diary entries to indicate the types of plants she had grown and where she had placed them. Inside the house, wallpaper has been replaced and a rug re-woven to match illustrations in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.
If I’d been able to get inside, according to the National Trust I’d have discovered “a time-capsule of her life” where artefacts are arranged adjacent to the illustration in which they appear in her books. Every room contains a reference to a picture in one of the six books she wrote while living in Lakeland: The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan, The Tale of Tom Kitten, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding.
It sounds a magical place to visit. Unfortunately that’s not possible at the moment. Like most of the National Trust properties, the house is closed because of Covid-19 restrictions although the garden and tea-shop are open. I’ll just have to be patient a little while longer.