The Ransomes at Hill Top
It's an odd coincidence that two of the 20th century's most famous children's authors should both have lived in houses called Hill Top, barely six miles apart as the crow, or even pigeon, flies. Both house names are unconcatenated (“Hill Top”, not “Hilltop”) and both date from the late 17th century. Both authors were born well beyond the hills and lakes of what was then the non-
Of course, Beatrix Potter didn't actually live full time at her Hill Top. But then, by and large, neither did Arthur Ransome at his. Until she married William Heelis in 1913, she preferred to live for most of the year in London, SW5 with her parents. Until 1963 (exactly 50 years later), the Ransomes spent winters at their flat near Putney Bridge, SW6, less than two miles distant from the Potters' home, again with reference to that pigeon.
And exactly 50 years after the Ransomes first wintered at Hill Top, my wife and I moved in permanently, having bought the house in January 2012 and then spent alternate weeks commuting between between Cumbria and Kent where we had lived for many years.
Rather like the Ransomes before us, for nearly two years we have been renovating Hill Top, it having been a boarding kennels in more recent decades, with enormous, gloomy outbuildings dominating and encroaching on the wonderful house. Only after visiting the Brotherton Library at Leeds University and searching through the photographs in the Arthur Ransome Special Collection did we realize the scale of construction works undertaken by Arthur and Evgenia half a century ago. In the Collection there are over a hundred and twenty images, mainly poor quality black and white snapshots, of Hill Top and the Ransomes. But, astonishingly, also a number of rather good colour pictures of the house and its owners, seemingly overlooked by previous casual researchers. Time has taken its toll of the quality and following the digitization of the images, much processing was necessary to remove blemishes, adjust for camera tilt and correct the colour balance, but what they reveal is astonishing. Besides capturing the Ransomes in colour, they additionally record the external transformation of Hill Top into the home the Ransomes designed with architect and close friend Janet Gnosspelius. A transformation not only in physical appearance, but from fuzzy greys and whites into glorious Kodachrome – rather like the sepia Dorothy Gale opening the front door of her Kansas farmhouse and suddenly entering the Technicolor Land of Oz. It is a jarring reminder that while the Swallows and Amazons world of Arthur Ransome remains securely locked in a largely inter-
All previously published photographs of the Ransomes have remained staunchly monochromatic and defiantly ensured a satisfyingly comfortable “bygone” feel, even when taken in the early 1960s. Colour immediately changes that perception and propels the Ransomes into the “modern era”.
The Ransomes first rented Hill Top during the summer of 1956 and, seemingly at Evgenia's insistence, finally bought the house in 1960. Considerations for purchase began the previous year but there was a problem in securing ownership of the private water supply. Plans were quickly drawn up for improvements to suit the Ransomes, as until then the house had relatively modest, not to say primitive, living accommodation, having been originally built as a “long house”, a sort of combined farmhouse and barn. Internal modifications were substantial, as evidenced by the drawings of Janet, who died in 2010 and was a regular visitor to Hill Top. Structural modifications were immense, as evidenced by the photographs. In fact it is only when one sees these images that one realises the true magnitude of the works required to convert a humble summer retreat into a proper household.
The original staircase as indicated on the plans, in the present lounge, was done away with and a new one created between the sitting room (the present hall) and a newly created garage in the centre of the house. Above the garage was to be Arthur's grand new study. To achieve this change, from what was essentially a barn with commensurately large doors, required the effective removal of the entire centre of the house and rebuilding according to plan. Well, actually not according to plan. For whilst the black and white snapshots catalogue the astonishing scale of works necessary to transform the house, the works deviated from the plans and a large part of the barn structure at the rear, which was due to be left incorporated into the final design, was in fact demolished in its entirety. Perhaps the condition of the building was questionable.
Of the new staircase, Genia noted in her diary:
Tuesday 30 May 1961: The joiners brought the staircase -
Wednesday 31 May 1961: By chipping off a bit of partition blocks they made the staircase fit in width but now it seems to be too long.
These entries solve a minor puzzle. The staircase exhibits slight asymmetry left and right. It is set more into the one wall compared to the other, a previously unaccountable curiosity. However, her comment about the length is unfathomable!
But oddly for such a house was the lack of an upstairs bathroom. This new facility was placed downstairs in an old single storey “lean to” which was extended to create a small “kitchenette”. So small, it was not even worthy of the term “kitchen”. Sad to say that this construction was not in a good state by the time we bought the house, and was demolished to make way for a sun room which takes advantage of the stupendous view. Nevertheless, a part of the new structure (a utility room) purposefully reflects the shape and footprint of the old kitchenette.
Although substantial works were completed during 1961, it took until November 1963 before AR noted in his diary a most momentous happening:
Monday 18 November 1963: Electricity (G[enia] going to be there to see it flash on.) Did it? (NB Thank J[anet Gnosspelius] for chocolates).
Tuesday 19 November 1963: Electricity at Hill Top. (Light only).
Another momentous happening three days later failed to rouse the merest hint of a mention as not even the assassination of President Kennedy caused AR to step for a moment beyond his rigorously personal (sometimes enigmatically brief) realm of entries:
Friday 22 November 1963: Dorothy Wordsworth.
Saturday 23 November 1963: G[enia] fetching me at 1.30, unless there is a muddle due to my stupidity.
And whilst Kodachrome does indeed hurl the Ransomes into the more contemporary world, it is equally clear from the images that opulence was not on the Ransomes' agenda. Whilst AR was meticulous in listing his not inconsiderable income, the photographs evidence a rather Spartan, even austere lifestyle, perhaps somewhat at odds with someone who revelled in zealous attendance within the opulent surroundings of the Garrick Club every Thursday when resident in London, unfailingly diarized along with a note of those dining with him. Distempered walls seemingly devoid of pictures (I refer here to Hill Top, not the Garrick). Wicker chairs of a kind which one would generally expect in a conservatory. A simple side table and bookcase. An old clock and two ceramic cats adorning the mantel shelf of the range in the sitting room. In his study, he works on his typewriter not at a desk, but at a large table covered with an even larger cloth. And there are noticeably no curtains at the window, the view from which looks out over the beautiful Rusland Valley, though in his day a view partially obscured by a massive oak tree growing in Hill Top's paddock across the road. In fact, until recent years, there were numerous trees which defended Hill Top from its rightful view, positioned as it is some two hundred feet above the valley floor below. Nowadays it commands an unparalleled panorama from the mountains in the north-
It has to be admitted that the present range in the hall, though similar, is not the one the Ransomes sat by. It was installed only in relatively recent years to recreate the look evident in the well-
And then there is the garden. Here the colour photographs show a country garden worthy of the name and it is this look which has inspired us to look to regaining some feel for this former colourful setting of the Ransomes' day. Evgenia clearly took a pride in this aspect and we are determined to return Hill Top to its former floral glory.
And what of “the bottles”? I am told there is a story that AR simply hurled his empty medicine bottles from the house … but to where and is this true? It seems very unlikely. And yet … about a year ago we acquired some adjacent woodland to the south-
Finally, mention must be made of the colour of Hill Top. When we bought the house, the external walls were a dingy cream. The colour photographs following the Ransome's work show a newly rendered house (though with a stone barn end) painted brilliant white. The sight of the renovated Hill Top, positively gleaming in the glorious sunshine of half a century ago, immediately determined that we had to return Hill Top to its rightful colour! And this involves one final nice coincidence. Perhaps Carl Jung might even have cited syncronicity. Our decorator who returned Hill Top to white was local man Tim Kirk. Long forgotten by Tim until reminded by his brother now in Australia, he had, in fact, once visited Hill Top as a 10 year-
And should there be any doubt, AR's diary entry for Friday 15 September 1961 states: Dickson finishing the staircase & putting up curtain rods. In workroom & downstairs. Nice 'yarn' with Janet (telephone) about her cats. Shifted to new bedroom which is very pleasant. Dickson & Kirk the painter have at last gone & Genia has her house!!!
How fortunate we are to own the home of a well-
The house has been considerably but very sympathetically extended in more recent years and we have also undertaken our own major works. However, the front elevation remains recognizably the Hill Top of the Ransomes and it was their vision of half a century ago which first transformed this wonderful example of a long house, dating from 1680, into the essence of the home which we now enjoy.
Based on a short article for Mixed Moss, Journal of the Arthur Ransome Society © Stephen Sykes 2014