A guest post by Stephen Sykes of Hill Top, Ealinghearth, Haverthwaite:
There are two farmhouses in the Lake District both called Hill Top and both once owned by famous children’s authors – and just a few miles apart. One, of course was Beatrix Potter’s, and the other was the last home of Arthur Ransome, which my wife and I purchased in 2012.
More recently we acquired the adjacent wonderful ancient woodland of some seven and a half acres. With its precipitous rock faces, mighty oaks, gigantic gnarled yews and dazzling carpets of bluebells in the springtime, Backhouse Brow (as it is known) entirely fulfils The Woodland Trust’s epithet: “home to myth and legend, where folk tales began”.
There are the evocative remains of long-gone human activities too. Coppiced sycamores evidence a traditional form of woodland management historically used in the area to satisfy the insatiable demand for charcoal required to service the long-ago thriving iron industry in Backbarrow, just a half-mile away over the hillside. And within Backhouse Brow can be found numerous archaeological remains left by the charcoal burners and their activities, once a common sight in this area of South Lakeland. Long-disused trackways still clearly make their way up and across the woodland. Levelled spaces – knowns as pitsteads or platforms – for creating kilns or piles to burn charcoal are still in evidence.
Ancient walls in various states of decay both encompass the woodland and subdivide it. And most evocatively of all, there are the more personal remnants of the lives of the charcoal burners themselves. In addition to a much-rusted shovel or two, can be found the tumble-down remains of a circular low stone wall upon which charcoal burners would have erected a shelter, much as Ransome describes in Swallows and Amazons:
At the edge of the wood, not far from the smoking mound, there was a hut shaped like a round tent, but made not of canvas but of larch poles set up on end and all sloping together so that the longer poles crossed each other at the top. On the side of it nearest to the mound there was a doorway covered with a hanging flap made of an old sack.
And indeed only a modest distance from our circular stone base, but at a somewhat higher level, lies the still identifiably levelled ground of a pitstead where a charcoal pile may well once have been tended by the men whose hut lay below. A strategic placing not only high above, but in a position which ensured that smoke was generally carried well away by the prevailing south-westerlies.
Quite separately, in a glade some distance away, there are also the isolated remains of a rather fine stone hearth, presumably used for charcoal burners’ more domestic chores.
So, with extensive coppicing, trackways, pitsteads, the circular stone remnants of a hut and a hearth of particular note, and all adjacent to Hill Top – indeed, all now within Hill Top’s grounds – begs the question: was Ransome aware of any of this? Whilst he would have certainly seen the coppiced trees, probably not the archaeological remains. Despite the central involvement of charcoal burners in his story, he makes only the most fleeting occasional mention of the woodland in his later diaries and there is no mention of his having entered. Nevertheless, it’s rather fitting that in his final years he should have found himself in immediate proximity to this iconic historic activity about which he wrote some three decades earlier in his most famous fictional work.
The Ransomes owned Hill Top from 1960 until 1968 when Evgenia sold the property the year after Arthur died. In fact, following their arrival for the summer in 1963, they never returned to London – Hill Top finally having been supplied with electricity.
You can read more about charcoal burning in the Lake District in relation to ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here.
To read about filming the charcoal burner’s scene in the original film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) please click here.
To rent the converted barn at one end of the farmhouse, which now comprises luxury self-catering holiday accommodation for two couples, please click here
Sophie Neville visited Hill Top with members of The Arthur Ransome Society who admired the astonishing views across Cumbria. “It occurred to me that the fireplace and low stone walls of the charcoal burners’ wigwam, once abandoned, may have made up the basis of the igloo built by the Swallows and Amazons in Winter Holiday, which has a fireplace.”