22 August 2016

70 years of opening at Hill Top

We're looking back to the 1940's to when Hill Top first opened to visitors:

Seventy years ago on July 7th, Hill Top opened to the public for the first time, after being left to the National Trust by Beatrix Potter.
Hill Top with the Coniston fells beyond

Beatrix wrote in her will:

That the rooms and the furnishings used by me at Hill Top farmhouse may be kept in their present condition and not let to a tenant and it is my wish that any other objects of interest belonging to me in any other of my cottages and farmhouses may be preserved therein.”

In 1944, whilst Britain was still at war and houses were not to be left empty, Ethel Hartley came to stay and created a notebook based on her conversations with William Heelis.

She wrote in her ‘Notebook of Ideas’ “It is a joyous task to be asked to live in Hill Top & in its atmosphere of peace & quiet, to listen: think: suggest: & help to plan for the day when the Beatrix Potter memorial can be completed.”

Beatrix and William discussed at some length how the house could be opened as a place of pilgrimage for those enjoyed the little books, and as an interesting example of Lakeland vernacular architecture.  Surviving his wife by only eighteen months, William was unable to put into action some of the plans they had discussed, some of which seem quite radical – for example, opening a Peter Rabbit tea garden, encouraging the Girl Guides to put on plays during the summer; and opening a shop: "Peter Rabbit books could be on sale, with postcards, calendars etc. All these would make money and go toward the upkeep” 

In 1946, the house did open to the public – with an entrance fee of one shilling. Mrs Susan Ludbrook was the first custodian and only member of staff.  It immediately became a popular destination leading Bruce Thompson to admit to Time Magazine in 1946:

“We need to be careful what we do about Hill Top’s propaganda: in the first seven weeks we have already had 1,200 visitors!”

In the early 1980’s the custodian was joined by a “houseman” and a couple of part time assistants. In 1992 the role of volunteer room-guide was introduced and we still have one or two of these original volunteers helping us!

We continue to evolve and adapt the needs of the house for the benefit of our visitors, using modern conservation techniques to monitor and protect its precious objects,  so Hill Top might remain a must see destination for visitors to the Lake District for the next seventy years.
Detail from the bedroom at Hill Top

“It was never intended to be just merely a lovely, old period farmhouse. It was essentially & will always remain Beatrix Potter's house. She loved pretty things & simple things, & odd things. In Hill Top she wanted to find a home for them all.” (Ethel Hartley)

As well as celebrating this special anniversary in 2016 we're also marking the milestone of Beatrix Potter's 150th Birthday. Find out more about the celebrations here and join in the fun! 

Words by Jane Watson