17 October 2014

Conservation with Coops!

At the end of last month’s blog post I committed myself to discussing what we get up to when the front door is closed. Pete’s blog may have talked about us having some glorious weather over the last couple of weeks but oh how things have changed. Winter is definitely upon us! We’ve had wind, rain, storms, flooding... more rain.. 

Hummm.... "Indian Summer"

and although it's nearly Halloween and it's quite gloomy inside Hill Top at times, I promise this update won’t be tooo spooky. 
To my knowledge, the majority of historic properties that fall under the National Trust’s care close for one or two days a week during the season and then take one long nap over those chilly winter months. With the houses shut these periods can be a mysterious time for the historic house enthusiasts amongst us. 
Many, many, many, maaaannyy times (mainly from my own family!) I have been asked what we do during the days we are closed and as we are rapidly (a bit too rapidly for me, I mean, where has the year gone?!) approaching the end of the season I figured that this was the perfect time to share with you a little of what we get up to behind closed doors. 

Autumn has officially arrived at Hill Top! :)
My role as a Conservation and Engagement Assistant means a couple of things. The first thing is that I am one of those people you see dotted about a property during your visits who are on hand to ask any number of interesting and unusual questions to (between you and me, we absolutely love those!). The second is that I am also one part of a small team who are tasked with helping to look after the collection, mainly at Hill Top but also over at the Beatrix Potter Gallery and Wray Castle. 
Before I begin to explain a bit about how we care for B’s special things I think I should perhaps tell you some of the issues we face and a few of the aspects that we have to keep an eye on. 
One of the biggest issues is light damage. It’s a gradual thing but it has a cumulative and irreversible effect on objects and collections.  
Check out this wallpaper in Beatrix’s doll’s house. See that darker patch?

Light and dark..
Got any clues what it could be? Beatrix's Hill Top faces south meaning it gets lots of direct sunlight and the dolls house sits in the path of this light in front of the Treasure Room window. The darker area you see in the photograph is where something, perhaps a picture, had been hung on the wall and over the years the sunlight has faded the surrounding areas leaving the hidden part it's original colour. This sort of damage is permanent. 
This process is pretty common in homes, and I imagine you'll all be checking out your own wallpapered walls now (if you have them)! 
Another big (but small) issue we face is pests and periodically, we monitor our carefully laid sticky traps to keep an eye on which species we unwittingly house and how many of each we have – the ideal is none or a very small number! 
Oddly, it isn't the massive, humongous, scary looking ones that you should be concerned about but the teeny tiny 'I almost cannot even see it' ones. 
Pesty pests!
There is no need to fear the long legged things! (I hope that's what people think when they see me!) However, a little critter such as a woodworm beetle can destroy a whole range of objects as they graze their way through lots of damp and delicious wood. Yum! 
On a daily basis physical damage through general wear and tear is a big problem for our collection. Although we can keep tabs on our objects through the season, it's really through our closed periods that we are able to assess the condition that objects are really in. 
How convenient, this leads us nicely on to what we get up to on 'Friday closed days' (the title isn't very snappy I admit!). 

Friday's...they're funny days, full of jobs, tasks, lists and a few unexpected surprises. And although it can look quite quiet from the outside, on the inside it's busy busy. 
These days are like mini winter cleans where we methodically and meticulously remove objects from where they have been sitting through the week and give them (and the surface they were on) a thorough dust. 
Each object and surface is different and unique, so as well as having to be handled carefully they also have many different cleaning requirements. 
I have almost forgotten, there are also a number of tools we can use to keep the property in good health. Pony hair brushes, lint free dusters and a hoover are all the main staples of the daily routine but over winter we bring out a few more things. 

Don't get me wrong, I really do enjoy chatting to our lovely visitors but I love our closed days when we can get going on some behind the scenes work. 
The house is full of interesting bits and pieces (as I am sure you've seen through my posts) that we may not always see but it is at these times that I usually come across them and begin to whittle down what I want to use and include in my monthly post. 
"Hello There!!" 
I was a little stuck on who to include in this section this month but then I spotted him! 

Oh hey, I didn't see you there!
I don't know why I've not really taken much notice of him before, I mean, being from Wales you would think I could sense a sheep at 50 paces!  

He is a little Staffordshire porcelain sheepy with a hollow tree trunk, painted fleece and face all tinted in appropriate colours. From what I've read he dates from about 1835.  
I thought he was quite sweet but on closer inspection I spotted his face and the expression upon it and I don't think 'sweet' really covers it...   

Nailed the model pose. A natural in front of the camera!
I can't quite decide what to make of it. It's quizzical, happy but also a tad judgmental I feel.. I don't know what he is trying to express with that look but if he goes missing one day you'll know where to come. I've not long moved house and I think he would go rather well in my lounge! (Not really, but one can dream haha.)  
I really enjoy my job, it's so varied and on a regular basis I encounter so many different tasks. A few of these include winding the beautiful clocks and carefully brushing dust off delicate plates. Not forgetting those hard to reach areas which require me to get on my tummy to wiggle under the bed! 
Not forgetting those more unglamorous jobs, bins.. toilets.. you get the picture. 
Generally we try to focus on one room each week and give it a more in depth clean which means we take the objects off surfaces to clean off the dust (and believe it or not some dead fly juice as was found on ceramics in the kitchen recently), dust the surface itself and place it all back. This rotation also gives us a fantastic opportunity to check for any new damage or problems that aren't always visible on a quick morning clean. 
It is this 'getting up close and personal' aspect of the job which is one thing I love which I hope comes across in my regular posts :) 
It's not always straightforward, Friday is the only day we close so as you can imagine all the tasks and odd jobs are often squeezed into that day, so it can be pretty busy and a little hectic but no less enjoyable. 
So if this is how we roll on Fridays, what is our winter clean like? To be honest it's much the same, we still clean Beatrix's beautiful belongings but instead of putting them back some get taken down and are given a little rest before the beginning of next season. Oooh we also have those little extras, carefully cleaning the slate floor in the kitchen with a barely damp cloth. 
I'm conscious that this doesn't sound all that enjoyable but I promise you that it is! Well, at least to me. I do hope that I've managed to give you a little insight into what happens when the lights are off (...who am I kidding, there are no lights, it's just that dark). I understand it can be frustrating when you're looking for something to do on those not so nice winter days but I can promise we're not resting on our laurels, but working hard to prepare the house for another great season :) 
The doors may soon be closing but never fear this blog will continue, next month I'll be back! Hopefully with a few more objects which I will have searched out during the first stages of our winter clean :) 
Until then, that's me over and out for another month. Have a wonderful Halloween with lots of spooky fun! 
Ta ta for now, 
Words and pictures by Natalie :) 

26 September 2014


In my last blog post I rather gloomily predicted that summer was over and that the September heatwave some had predicted wouldn't appear. Well I was wrong, it did! For the first three weeks of September the Lake District has basked in warm dry weather and even on my annual fortnight in the Outer Hebrides we saw lots of sunshine and only half a day of rain.

The term 'Indian Summer' which I have bandied about in previous posts thinking it meant a warm and sunny September is actually much more specific than that. A true Indian Summer happens between the end of September and mid-November but only after the first damaging frost of Autumn which is known as a 'Squaw Winter' (but only if it's followed by an Indian Summer). Yes, the Indian bit doesn't refer to the sub-continent of India but to North American Indians and a little research discovers that nobody really knows why!
Anyhow, this week the papers were predicting more warm weather for the rest of September and well into October, I live in hope!

In the garden the warm weather has prolonged the season somewhat. The soapwort and pot marigolds I wrote about last month are still flowering happily and the runner beans are still cropping with no early frost to kill them off. It's been a bumper year for Autumn fruiting raspberries and even the tomatoes in my greenhouse at home have decided to ripen!

Autumn raspberries

I'd be lying if I said that the garden was full of flower at this time of year and, to be honest, like many of the Hill Top staff, it's looking just a little tired. But there are still flowers to be found. The Michaelmas Daisies, true to their name, are in full bloom and according to this old verse they should flower until the feast of St Simon and St Jude on October 28th. I don't think ours will last that long though.

The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds, 
Bloom for St Michael's valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.

Michaelmas Daisies

Also flowering at this time of year is Schizostylis coccinea, the Kaffir Lily or Crimson Flag Lily. It originates in South Africa but is quite hardy at Hill Top and carries on flowering until the first really hard frosts of winter. Unfortunately the flowers always seem to face south (perhaps they are pining for South Africa), and having planted them on the 'wrong' side of the path they face away from our visitors. I'll move some to the other side of the path this winter!


As well as flowers, the autumn colours are just beginning to show including the Crimson Glory Vine (Vitis cognetiae) which grows on the back wall of the Tower Bank Arms which borders Hill Top garden.

Crimson Glory Vine
It's a great thing for covering an ugly wall but beware, it grows up to twenty feet in a year and would completely engulf the pub if not pruned hard back to a framework of main branches every winter. Sadly ours never produces any grapes, but it more than makes up for it with a brilliant display of colour in late September and October.
There are other little gems to be seen in the garden such as these seed heads of Campanula latifolia which I deliberately didn't cut back after they had finished flowering to provide seeds for birds and just to look pretty.

Campanula seed heads

For my musical link this time I could have gone for 'Summer's Almost Gone' by The Doors (too depressing) or 'Indian Summer' by Stereophonics (too awful) but I've decided to go with this, sorry about the advert at the start but enjoy the dancing!

See you in the Autumn.

Words and pictures by Pete the Gardener

5 September 2014

The Hill Top 5

From Tony Blackburn to Fearne Cotton, whatever age bracket you fall into I am sure that you remember listening to one music countdown or another, therefore I am sure the format of this month's 'Behind the Scenes' blog should be fairly familiar - No need to panic just yet, Pete. I'm not going to include any musical links in my post.

Instead of counting down musical entries I am going to count down the top 5 items that the public and our lovely visitors ask about on a daily and weekly basis.
The ones that you will read about are all contenders for the top spot but only one can win the coveted position. Are we ready? Here we go!

At 5 is a firm favourite.
It's the bittern! This fellow has taken up an elevated position and stands upon the aptly named 'Bittern Bureau' – a coincidence? I think not!

He is often mistaken for a heron but this guess isn't too far off, both are after all, wading birds. It's widely accepted that Beatrix had a passion for natural history so I don't think it's too odd that she had this little chap at Hill Top. Where she got it from however or from whom, well, that is another matter entirely.

What lovely long legs you have...

Holding strong at 4 are the set of 5 oil paintings that are hung in the New Room, painted by Bertram Potter (Beatrix's younger and rather talented brother) which were given to her as gifts.

From looking at them I bet you can guess what the comment we receive most often is, “Oh my gosh! Aren't they dark!” And yes, they are pretty dark, and to be honest they aren't my most favourite things in the house ('Crikey' you're thinking, one thing she doesn't want to take home!) B must have liked them and perhaps even had a little pride in the fact that her little brother had such a love for art. 
If I had to choose the one that I liked the best, it would have to be this one entitled 'Scene in a Pine Forest with a Stream' – err... catchy title, eh?!

Just look at the size of these whoppers!

Totally overshadowed by Beatrix, Bertram wasn't a terribly famous artist and these aren't his best work. Like Beatrix, he had an immaculate eye for detail, something I hope you'll take my word for.

Number 3 on our countdown is something that I haven't been asked much about this season although I'm sure that my colleagues might have had a different experience and disagree with me.
Here they are, essentially pieces of wood held onto the underneath of a beam with a bracket.

Just hanging around

One rather hilarious suggestion I've received for their use is for exercise, namely pull ups! Can you imagine B doing them? I won't tell you what other bits of furniture that people have suggested could be used as workout equipment but there have been a fair few.

So what are these things? In fact, the truth is far less amusing but no less interesting. They are shelf supports and in another life they would have held up planks of wood. Upon these you would have been able to store things, or perhaps you would have out  food up there to cool after cooking. We like to joke that we keep our choccy biscuits up there away from potential critters!

I'm going to take a small intermission at this point to introduce this month's..
“Hello there!”
There is a poodle in the Sitting Room cabinet who is so. Weird. I'm sorry to say it but I think it is, I don't even know why I like it (but I do :) )... And he's rude, look at this, he's turned his back to us.

Does my bum look big like this?

To be fair it's not totally his fault, he spins around in the cabinet because of the vibrations from the floor caused by all our visitors feet.
He is made of porcelain, is in the style of Chamberlain of Worcester and dates back to the early 19th Century.
He's just one of the doggy ornaments, figures and pictures in Hill Top. B had several dogs herself throughout her lifetime, perhaps they came second to her beloved rabbits? See how many you can spot on your next visit to Hill Top!

Back on with the chart!
Climbing high at 2 are the plates on the kitchen wall.

How similar the subject matter is to Beatrix's. In spite of the similarities, they were not painted by her but her father Rupert Potter – it seems art was a family affair.
By all accounts he was quite the talented amateur artist and had a great enthusiasm for art and photography. I like to think that B got some of her natural talent from him as well as her love for painting animals, although there is no denying that her work is much finer.

These pretty plates have been transfer printed and given to Beatrix as presents during her childhood, hanging on her wall in Bolton Gardens, her childhood home, it is no wonder that they have a special place in her first and favourite Lake District home.

Soo.. before we find out what the most asked about object at Hill Top is, here are numbers 5 – 2.
At 5, it's the long legged Bittern.
At 4 are the enormous paintings in the New Room.
3's just hanging around, it's the shelf supports.
2 are Rupert's plates that have pride of place on the kitchen wall.

On today's countdown the number one spot goes to.. (drum roll please)

The clockwork roasting jack!
Hanging next to the range this beautiful brass object gets a lot of attention on any given day at Hill Top. This interesting machine rotates the meat roasting from it's hook and aims to cook it evenly on all sides by rotating clockwise and then anticlockwise and so on.

I've heard it called a bottle jack, I don't know how true this is as my dad hasn't heard of it before (and he is the go to man when talking antiques!) but it's said the name comes from it's shape – like a wine bottle.

Unlike many people, I originally thought that it's hook was for cheese (don't ask me why I thought this, to this day I still don't know what was going through my mind) but my friend and colleague, Jane, pointed out that this was ludicrous resulting in a little light teasing every so often.
Unfortunately we don't have the key so we do not know how it runs or if it even still turns.

In spite of this, I think it's totally gorgeous and would have it in a second!

Wow, what a range of objects in our countdown and this week's blog.
You never know, the top 5 might move around a little bit by next year, it's all up to you, our visitors :)

As always I hope you have enjoyed reading this broadcast, come back next month for more 'Behind the Scenes' action where I will be talking about what we actually do when we are closed on a Friday and over winter :)

Ta ta for now

Words and pictures by Natalie :)
(With a little antique advice from my Dad)