31 October 2014

Pumpkins and penny sweets.

Pumpkins can be fickle creatures at Hill Top, some years they grow like Topsy and threaten to take over the whole garden and other years they seem to just sit and sulk for weeks before reluctantly producing a few bowling ball sized fruits. This year hasn't been great, I only managed to produce two decent sized pumpkins, one of which was snaffled by Jess for the Wray Castle halloween shop display and another smaller one which I've left 'on display' in the garden too long and is slowly being eaten by slugs.

This years pumpkins - must try harder next year.

The pumpkins I grow at Hill Top are the French heirloom variety 'Rouge Vif d'Etampes which are yellowy orange 'cinderella' type and in a good year will produce 4 or 5 large fruits per plant. 
I usually sow the seeds in the greenhouse in May and plant the seedlings out in mid June but they can also be sown in late April directly in the soil. Either way it's a good idea to make a planting pocket by digging a hole about 30cm square and filling it with a mixture of compost or well-rotted manure and soil. Add some general purpose fertiliser too if you've got some. If you've grown plants in the greenhouse, make sure you harden them off before planting them out.
Once they're established, it's just a matter of feeding every couple of weeks with a high potash fertilizer once the fruits appear and making sure they have plenty of water. 
If you don't have a garden you can even grow pumpkins in a growbag.

Spooky spider's web!

The association between halloween and pumpkins and the rise of 'trick or treating' is, like Miley Cyrus, a recent (and some would say unwelcome) American import. When I was growing up in the 1960's only the really well-off kids had pumpkins, we had to make do with the more traditional hollowed out turnip (I'm not joking here - anyone under 40, ask your parents)! If you've ever tried hollowing out a turnip you can imagine the number of cuts and stab wounds which resulted from the combination of small children, sharp knives and rock hard root vegetables - never was the Blue Peter advice 'get a grown-up to help you' more appropriate!
Having hollowed out our turnips and bandaged our fingers, a string handle was attached, a candle placed inside and the turnip lid put on. This was invariably followed by the acrid smell of burning turnip as the flame from your Mum's 'power cut candle'  slowly cooked the turnip lid (tea lights hadn't been invented in the '60s kids).
The more entrepreneurial children would then set off around the estate stopping at houses and reciting the enchanting verse

"The sky is blue
 The grass is green
 Can you spare a penny for Halloween"

The 24p profit from an evening trudging round in the drizzle was spent the next day on Curly Wurlys, Black Jacks and white mice (again - under 40's- ask your parents) or sometimes a box of bangers to be let off well before bonfire night (don't do it kids, it's not big or clever).

Autumn colours

Anyway, I digress! Elsewhere in the garden the Autumn colours are in full swing. The Crimson Glory vine on the pub wall has been...er...glorious, as have the deciduous azaleas. The Eucryphia and the Enkianthus are just colouring up now but the Wisteria on the house is staying steadfastly green, probably kept warm by the warmth from the south facing wall.
Flower-wise, the Michaelmas daisies have given up and the soapwort is all but over. Rose 'Felicia' is still bravely flowering as are the Evening Primroses and the Pot Marigolds. My runner beans, still not killed off by frost, were blown over in the tail end of hurricane Gonzalo.

Hill Top house closes on Sunday, although the garden and shop are open right through to Christmas eve, so with fewer visitors around, the hard work of cutting back the borders, lifting and dividing perennials and digging over the vegetable garden can begin. My fingers are crossed for a nice dry, frosty winter.

With all this talk of Halloween my musical link this week had to have a spooky theme so I could have gone for 'Walking With a Ghost' by The White Stripes or 'Ghost Train' by Elvis Costello or even the very obscure 'Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead by XTC but in the end I couldn't decide between the old school Halloween-ness of this or the rather tenuous Trick or Treatiness of this (skip the advert).

Happy Halloween and see you next time.

Words and pictures by Pete the Gardener

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