My wanderings around Britain usually spring from something I’ve studied or learned about as a professional. Not every destination draws me in with thoughts of flopsy bunnies, hedgehog washerwomen or determined woodmice with slightly obsessive compulsive cleaning habits.
But the world – and characters – created by Beatrix Potter has captivated millions, and I couldn’t help but visit Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey while wandering about the Lake District. Plus, her home from 1905 to 1913 (purchased with the proceeds from her first book) is billed as vernacular dwelling common for the area, so I was eager to see the inside.
Though I grew weary of references to “floating lonely as a cloud,” the Lake District rightfully captivated the Romantic poets, as the landscape belies description. Rolling, verdant green hills, crossed by meandering stone fences, and accented by more sheep than one could hope to count – and then you must consider the sweeping and dramatic views toward one body of water or another! The predominant construction material in the Lake District is stone – stone houses, stone barns, stone walls…
Walking from Hawkshead to Near Sawrey was a short two miles along the main road (there are waypaths from the Windermere ferry, if you come that way). Even if Hill Top Farm, left to the National Trust by Potter upon her death in 1943, hadn’t become a shrine among tourist attractions in the area, visiting any of these smaller Cumbria villages is worthwhile. Near Sawrey and Far Sawrey date from at least the 14th century, and are primarily residential, though both villages have a (all-important!) pub, and Far Sawrey contains the parish church, a hotel and village shop. Plus, who can resist the lure of villages named Near and Far?
My home state of Kentucky is largely rural, and still boasts numerous hamlets, crossroad communities and villages, and comparing these spots of rural habitation with their English counterparts is a fascinating exercise. (The English villages, by and far, have weathered the passage of time much better.) Near Sawrey is primarily a farming village, surrounded by farmland and with three farms within the village: Hill Top, Belle Green Farm and Esthwaite Farm. Farming is a theme that resonated greatly with Potter later in her life, despite growing up in a wealthy family in London. Her introduction to the Lake District came about indirectly from the three month summer vacations the family took in nearby Scotland.
Hill Top dates from the late 17th or early 18th century, and like most historic houses, has numerous alterations, including an addition built for Potter in 1906. The stone house is two stories high, with Potter’s 1906 front gable addition on the left side of the façade. The interior of the house is very traditional, on the hall parlor plan, where you enter directly into a large room, with a smaller room off to the right. The narrow and winding stair to access the upper story dates from the 17th century. The house (no photographs allowed inside) is a comfortable space, despite the press of tourists – when gifted to the National Trust in 1943, Potter stipulated that it remain exactly the way she left it, furniture, china, and all. And despite the timed entry, and the overwhelming touristy feel of it all – it does feel as though the house’s owner has just stepped out for a while, maybe to work in the garden.
Although I haven’t seen the movie Miss Potter (starring Renee Zellwegger), Potter’s life wasn’t entirely hers to dictate, no matter her success as author. She was the principal caretaker for her parents, and though she was eventually able to move them to the Lake District, she still only spent about four days a week at Hill Top.
Artist, author, farmer and – preservationist? In her later years, Potter not only became a well-known and respected breeder of Herdwick sheep, but also bought up land around Sawrey, not only to increase the size of her own farm, but to also save old buildings and small farms from demolition or development. Hill Top was left to the National Trust, but so were 14 other farms, 4,000 acres of land – and all of her sheep. Hill Top remains a working farm today.
There are so many splendors in the Lake District – I feel as if I could devote the rest of my life writing about it, as well as hunting out its marvelous nooks and crannies. Hill Top is small, busy and overrun with tourists – but if you have the patience, there is much more behind the story than just the bunnies and the mice. And though I saw plenty of the former munching contently in the garden, there was no sign of mice…