Tuesday, January 30, 2007

'Miss Potter' Opens Doors

In an extraordinary effort to meet the demand of Beatrix Potter fans after recent release of the film 'Miss Potter', starring Renée Zellweger, Hill Top, the Lake District home of the author, will be open to the public more than usual this year.

Potter is one of England's most beloved authors, and her popularity brings thousands of visitors to Hill Top every summer. The film is expected to dramatically increase that number, and Lakeland has prepared for 'Potter-mania', establishing Potter highlights throughout the area, not solely at Hill Top. Its a welcome boom, mind you, as, despite Potter's evidenced draw, the Cotsolds have lately had the lion's share of tourists seeking quintessential English countryside.

Hill Top, a 17th-century farmhouse located near Sawry, in Cumbria, was where Potter wrote many of her children's books, and it was the inspiration for numerous illustrations, especially those of Samuel Whiskers, Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddleduck. Mr. McGregor's garden is here, too, still producing the herbs, vegetables and flowers - including gooseberries, rhubarb, roses, and foxgloves - planted by Potter during her years at the cottage, and famously ravaged by a naughty Peter Rabbit.

From the 1880s, the Potter family closed up their London home for annual summer holidays in Scotland, and later England's Lake District, which became their most favorite, and frequented, destination. Despite the accompaniment of a sibling, Beatrix's childhood was a lonely one and typical of the Victorian era, which distanced children from their parents. Out of this loneliness grew a vivid imagination, ignited by the English countryside and forever influencing her life.

In 1905, Potter, then in her late 30s, purchased Hill Top with the royalties from her first few books and a pre-Disney savvy for marketing. She continued to write primarily in London, visiting the farmhouse as often as possible to make sketches of the house and garden, and its myriad of animals. In 1909 Potter purchased a larger, nearby property called Castle Farm, which became her main Lakeland residence, and one she later shared with husband William Heelis, a local solicitor whom she married in 1913 at the age of 47. She retained Hill Top, which remained her greatest source of inspiration, and purchased several other buildings and farms in the area, as well.

Potter died in 1943 and left Hill Top to the National Trust (along with more than a dozen farms, over 4,000 acres, and several flocks of Herdwick sheep), with the stipulation that the cottage be maintained precisely as she left it. The house, which contains a wide range of her possessions, has been open to the public since 1946.

Due to the high number of annual summer visitors to the house, a considerable amount of conservation work is needed during the winter months, when the property is closed. National Trust staff this winter, however, have been feverishly working to complete the necessary work that will enable them to open early this year. For the first time in its storied history, Hill Top will open the first weekend of March. From the end of the month, additional days will be added, and summer hours will also be extended. The garden and gift shop are open daily. An exhibition of Potter's drawings are also on view at the Beatrix Potter Gallery, located in nearby Hawkshead, in the former law office of her husband.


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