Oh, Girlfriends! We made it! Finally, to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm, a place I’ve dreamed of visiting for years. I brought my camera, my sketch pad and my journal and now I want to take you on the tour!
We started out from the little town of Ambleside in the Lake District where we’d rented a flat ~ Hill Top Farm was in Near Sawrey, about a half-hour drive. Here’s the music that was playing in the car as we drove along the narrow winding lanes . . .
Good thing a picture is worth a thousand words, because I don’t think a thousand words could ever tell the beauty of the Lake District! This photo (above) is taken just around the corner from our flat in Ambleside, and that’s just the beginning.
Here’s a view of some of the countryside you see between villages. The town names around the Lake District are familiar to me, although we’d never been here before, the village names ring out in my mind like a fairy story: Ambleside, Grasmere, Keswick, Near Sawrey; I’ve been reading about them in stories about Beatrix Potter all my life. It was startling to those names on actual road signs.
We didn’t plan to go to Beatrix Potter’s house the day we did. Although we’d traveled across the ocean to do this, the way it happened turned out to be kind of a surprise. It was the Queen’s Jubilee holiday weekend all over England and just like our Fourth of July, people were off work; kids were out of school, the Lake District was crowded with families, cars, hikers, bikers, and caravans. So our plan was for us to wait to see the house until later in the week, when the crowds went back home. But, we thought, it might be smart to just drive by Hill Top to get the lay of the land. . .
As it turned out, it was the only sunny day we had the whole week we were there ~ a perfect day to go out and explore. By the time we got to Near Sawrey, home of Hill Top, it was after lunch . . . way too late to even hope to get into the house. Because friends had told us before leaving for England, “Forget about getting in unless you arrive first thing in the morning. You have to be there early to get tickets. Visits to Hill Top are timed; its just a little house and they only let in a few people at a time. You’ll probably have to get your tickets, drive away, and come back later. There will be a line.” That was OK with us, we didn’t care because we had a week; we’ll go, we thought, leisurely, when the minibreak people go home. We just wanted to know how to do it, so we’d be ready when the time came; where to park, how the tickets work, etc. I didn’t expect to get Hill Top all to myself, but I was definitely willing to give it my best.
Signposts point the way to Windermere, to Wray Castle (the first place Beatrix’s parents rented for her childhood holidays where she fell in love with the Lake District); this way to Hawkshead, now to Sawrey. Such familiar names. We must be getting close. My heart is beating. There’s a bunny!
It’s hilly and green with cottages and farm houses, and it feels like a fairy tale. Suddenly we round a bend. A big green sign says “Hill Top.” What? Already? Is this it? We’re there? It’s the car park (British for parking lot) for her house! There’s a parking attendant right there, and the very first spot, the first one, is empty. He’s waving us into it with a big smile on his face. But we are confused. Joe leans out the window to ask, “Is there ROOM inside the house?” Because we know there can’t be.
“Oh yes,” he says, with a lilt, and his rosy cheeks get plumper with his smile, “Just right!” We look at each other. OKaaaay, we say, thinking should we? It was a definite change of plans. What are we thinking? YES, of COURSE WE SHOULD!! Let’s GO!
We get out of the car. My eyes are darting everywhere. I am scanning the rooftops of Near Sawrey. I’m thinking, This doesn’t LOOK like it. I thought somehow I would recognize it, why, I do not know. Maybe we’re in the wrong place (I’m fretting a little because this is too easy). But we see a sign that says, “Tickets.” Inside the little stone house we get a guide book along with our tickets for the 1:40 house entry. It is now 1:20. Heart is doing back flips.
We’re told to walk along the lane, through the village, around a bend and “Look for a little green gate.” Now we are the ones whose footsteps scrape the pebbles along the narrow road where Beatrix once walked, past the little tea rooms with their flower boxes overflowing, beside a meadow under the bright blue sky and puffy white clouds, to the picket fence gate that says, “entrance.” We stop. Give heart a rest.
Big deep breath, and then, go. Up Beatrix Potter’s very own narrow stone steps, s l o w l y, savoring every bit of it, along a little path, past a fenced and hedged meadow with buttercups, lambs kicking up their heels (all white and one little black one).
Under a tree with a huge twisted trunk, we see . . .
. . . two bunnies grazing on buttercups (See them? The second one is just off to the left of the crook in the tree); of course there were bunnies! There had to be bunnies! A discussion ensues, like Morning Science, I ask Joe, “Do you think they’re trained to stay there?” He says, laughing,” I think they can’t get out!” pointing down at the chicken wire encircling the pen.
Up a long stone path we went, where clumps of old-fashioned perennials ran all over each other, blurring together like a green watercolor.
I took this little video so you can feel it along with me! And there it was, the house itself, Hill Top. Beatrix wrote,
“As nearly perfect a little place as I ever lived in.”
Sweet as pie, exactly as I have dreamed it, her real house, real to touch, two-story, grey rock with dark green trim around all the windows and doors and along the roof line, dripping with white wisteria.
The front wall was covered in rambling roses and festooned with Union Jack bunting (like all the rest of England during the Jubilee).
Only two more minutes before we could go in, I’m checking out every detail of the outside of the house, looking for clues! I smell the roses, then peek around a gate, seeing that one of her side windows was lined with the same Beatrix Potter People I’ve had on my kitchen shelf since I was in my twenties. (I wrote about that BP awakening in my journal ~ it’s too long to put here.) It’s really her house! So excited!
A dream is a wish your heart makes . . .
In through the front door we went. (More MUSICA?) They didn’t allow photos to be taken inside the house so this is where I pulled out the piece of paper I keep in my purse for sketching emergencies. I stood still in her rooms, writing and drawing, because I know you’re going to want to see it in our journal and I wanted to “remember” as much as possible.
Here are some of the squiggles and descriptions I jotted down in the house, and here’s one of the pages I’m translating into the diary. I can faithfully report that Beatrix is alive and well and still living in the house. Her spirit is fully there, in her very own straw hat that hangs next to the fireplace in the kitchen, her worn clogs at the foot an old Chippendale chair, in all the little bits and pieces of her life displayed in hutches and cabinets all through the house. Views from her upstairs windows remain unchanged because the village is unchanged. Looking through the same panes of leaded glass she looked through, I was touched knowing I was seeing what she saw, rooftops and fields, green hills, wildflowers and hedges, her view of the place she loved most.
Her childhood dolls were still there; and standing by her draped 16th century carved walnut bed, seeing the embroidery she did for it herself, I felt her presence in the nicest possible way. Everything is in soft warm colors, she loved this house the way Joe and I love ours . . . she treasured old things like we do, did most of her furniture shopping at auctions. There are antique hutches with flowered teacups and teapots, one of them is shaped like a pink crown; there were layers of thick flowered carpets — and lots of wonderful art on the walls. Paintings, watercolors and oils, mostly images taken from nature. The green and white floral wallpaper in the kitchen went up and covered the ceiling too. Everything in the house belonged to Beatrix. Most of the things in her dollhouse, the furniture and the miniature food, were bought for her by the first love of her life and publisher of her “Little bunny books,” Norman Warne.
We stayed in the uncrowded house, soaking it in, for two glorious hours, peppering the lovely National Trust person (Jenny Akester) upstairs with our questions (both the ones we thought of ourselves and the ones you were whispering in our ears). Jenny was gracious enough to share her wealth of Beatrix Potter knowledge with two (maybe thousand, including you dear readers) pilgrims from America.
Here’s what I didn’t know. If you’ve all seen Miss Potter, which you would love, you know that Beatrix was in love with Norman Warne. Against her parents wishes, they became engaged (she was thirty-nine, but there were many constrictions for women in those days and she was a dutiful daughter). A month later, while Beatrix was away with her parents on holiday in the Lake District, Norman fell ill, and died. Can you imagine? Shock. Something changed in her, and that very same year, 1905, she took her first step toward independence from her parents, and bought Hill Top Farm (many think owning a bit of the Lake District was a dream for both she and Norman). But despite what I thought to be true, she never lived at Hill Top full time. I didn’t know that, I thought she moved to Hill Top and lived there the rest of her life. Instead, it became her getaway ~ she continued to live with her parents in London, but she visited her house often. She decorated Hill Top, furnished it, turned it into a working farm, raised sheep, planted the garden, painted there, embroidered things for it, loved it dearly, but she didn’t live there. In 1908, she met the man she was to spend the rest of her life with, William Heelis, tall and handsome and five years her junior, who was a local solicitor from nearby Hawkshead (where we also went and visited his offices which have been turned into an adorable little museum). William had been helping Beatrix with her real estate purchases in the Lake District (she was busily using her “Little Book” money to buy up old Lakeland farms to save them for posterity). They fell in love, the old-fashioned slow way, and she married him (against her parents’ wishes) five years later (in 1913 when Beatrix was 47) and that’s when she moved permanently to Near Sawrey and into Castle Cottage with William where they lived together for thirty happy years.
William and Mrs. Heelis, as she was known from that time on, moved into Castle Cottage (that’s it above) just across the meadow from Hill Top. Hill Top, it seems to me, represented a dream for Beatrix — she decorated it all her life, even bequeathing certain personal items to it after her death, to be left on permanent view for the public to the National Trust. Beatrix died in 1943. William died with a broken heart, eighteen months later in 1945. And that’s just part of what we learned at Hill Top Farm.
We walked out the front door, eyes blinking in the sunshine (they keep the house dark, to protect the things inside, but also, that’s how it would have been in Beatrix’s day, she never put in electricity), completely fulfilled and happy, back along the garden path, into the gift shop of course.
I bought a couple of little things for my Peter Rabbit Room at home, just a little door hanger with a drawing that says, “Peter Rabbit’s Room” on it, and a perfect little coaster for next to the bed. There was an expensive limited edition of her book Peter Rabbit in there (those little lavender things in the very back on the left, behind that girl’s head, see them?), a first-time ever reprint of the one Beatrix paid to have published herself; and only 1000 made. I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. Don’t I have enough? I thought, erroneously, still reeling, brainless, from the wonderful visit. I will have to see if I dream about it, I thought . . . I’m coming back anyway. We have a whole week here! There is no saying goodbye. Not yet anyway.
TO BE CONTINUED . . . see Part. 2