Beatrix Potter fell in love with the English Lake District when she was a child. When she began to publish her stories for children, along with the charming illustrations she created to accompany them, she finally had money of her own and knew that what she wanted to do with it was purchase land in that part of England. So it was thanks to The Tale of Peter Rabbit that in 1905 she bought Hill Top, a 17th century farmhouse in the tiny village of Near Sawrey.
The house and land were hugely important to Beatrix. She was able to escape the restricted life she led in London, she was able to shop for lovely antiques which were carefully arranged around the house (and often appeared in her illustrations), and she met people in her community and became known as a judge of Herdwick sheep and a strong early supporter of the National Trust. There was little garden there when she bought Hill Top – only a small walled kitchen garden opposite the front door. She rapidly turned into a keen gardener and her diaries and letters often mention details of what she was growing.
A visitor to the Hill Top must walk up the narrow Brathay slate garden path, by beautiful Lakeland dry stone walls. Beatrix loved the path and included it in The Tale of Pigling Bland and The Tale of Tom Kitten. Her preference was for wild and informal gardens, and today the planting continues to honour her tastes. It is a very traditional English country garden, with old-fashioned flowers such as honeysuckle, acanthus, sweet peas, Michaelmas daisies, sweet williams, foxgloves, lavender, lupins, violets, peonies, lamb’s ear and philadelphus. Occasionally she introduced something more exotic, such as rhododendrons and azaleas.
She did not believe that herbs needed an area of their own, but should rather be spread around the garden amongst the flowers and vegetables. Her 1633 edition of Gerard’s Herbal is on display inside the house. She grew feverfew, teasel, tansy, mullein, calendula and soapwort. Adjacent to the garden is an orchard and she had great pleasure in harvesting apples, pears and plums from her fruit trees there. She had a grape vine growing against a warm brick wall. Wild snowdrops grow beneath the fruit trees.
There are four sections to the Hill Top garden – the old kitchen garden, a grassy paddock, the orchard and the flower garden beside the slate pathway. Beatrix considered each planting very carefully, begged cuttings from around the village, ordered plants from nurseries, argued about getting her share of council manure:
“I think I shall attack the county council about manure. I am entitled to all the road sweepings along my piece, and their old man is using it to fill up holes, which is both illegal and nasty”
Especially popular with children who visit is the kitchen garden, where Mr McGregor’s spade and wheelbarrow are set out just as they appear in The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Rhubarb, strawberries, currants, raspberries, carrots, beans, cabbages, lettuces and radishes are grown there. There is a healthy population of local rabbits who come and eat in the garden, just as Peter Rabbit did.
Beatrix Potter left Hill Top and the surrounding lands to the National Trust. The house opened to the public in 1946 and today it is one of the Trust’s most popular properties. Her lovely garden is usually at its best in early July. The gardeners who work there today have a constant challenge in keeping the garden looking beautiful for the more than 100,000 visitors who go there every year. Many of those visitors are Japanese, who are very keen on Beatrix Potter’s works. In 2006 a replica of Hill Top farm and garden was built an hour from Tokyo. But no replica can fully recreate the feel of an English country garden which is what makes Hill Top farm so delightful.