Meet the man who restored Beatrix Potter's garden at Hill Top
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 August 2018
Pete Tasker has celebrated 30 years with the National Trust.
Like a latter day Mr McGregor, Pete Tasker spent many years trying to turn back the tide of rabbits munching their way through Beatrix Potter’s lovely Hill Top garden in the old Lancashire village of Near Sawrey.
‘We’ve had tremendous numbers of rabbits in the past,’ he says ‘and they would always find their way into the vegetable patch, which caused me to tear my hair out on more than one occasion! The visitors all thought we’d put them there on purpose.’
Pete, who is celebrating 30 years as senior gardener for the National Trust at Hill Top, now has some respite as rabbit numbers have declined, allowing him more time to concentrate on restoring what is one of Britain’s most famous gardens.
He grew up in the industrial North East and the highlight of every summer was a two week family holiday to Seascale. ‘My dad would rent a house and we’d alternate between beach days and walking on the fells. Those were great times. I loved the Lakes.’
When his sister was appointed head gardener at Brockhole near Windermere he quit his job at Kew to start a garden design business nearby. It didn’t quite work that way. While serving his notice a job came up with the National Trust – in the heart of the Lake District and complete with a house – and his life took a different direction. ‘When I started at Hill Top there were more plants in the garden that shouldn’t have been there, and my aim from the start was to try to mirror Beatrix’s planting choice and style,’ he says.
‘There wasn’t much of Beatrix’s original planting left, although we think the apple tree in the orchard and the wisteria over the garden shed are two of her contributions which remain. One bonus of being here for so long is piecing together the various clues Beatrix left behind, alongside building up my own record of what’s here today.’
The trust has a fantastic collection of Beatrix’s letters, photos and diary entries, providing much information about the types of plants she grew and where she put them. The illustrations in some of her tales have left clues too, as she used the garden in her sketches for The Tale of Tom Kitten and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.
‘I try to garden as organically as possible so I don’t use any artificial fertilisers or pesticides, and only weed killer sparingly,’ he says. ‘I use manure and straw from the farm next door for our strawberries, and collect twigs and branches to use as sweet pea wigwams from the local woods, just as Beatrix would have done 100 years ago. This means we have lots of bugs, birds and bees, which I positively encourage.
‘It’s always in the back of my mind, how Beatrix would have approached a certain problem such as the troublesome Enchanter’s nightshade, of which Beatrix said “it isn’t a nightshade and it isn’t at all enchanting, but apart from that I suppose it’s quite a good name.” It’s interesting to think that this particular weed has been growing at Hill Top since Beatrix’s time. How I wish she’d managed to get rid of it when she was here!
‘Growing produce organically means we get more pests like slugs and snails, which love our damp climate, and have to be either picked off by hand or given a treatment with a natural nematode predator or eco-friendly slug pellets. All but the most persistent weeds are pulled up by hand or dug out with a hoe.’
Other challenges come on two legs. ‘The sheer number of people coming through the garden can be difficult,’ says Pete. ‘Some days we can get 1,000 visitors through what must be one of the smallest gardens in the National Trust’s care. When I started in 1988 there were around 60,000 visitors a year, and now it’s closer to 160,000.
‘There tends to be a surge in visitors after a popular film or TV adaptation, and we hope to see lots this year as a result of the new Peter Rabbit film.’
Despite the high volume of visitors, Pete enjoys meeting people. ‘It’s very different from other National Trust gardens, but Beatrix lived here and designed it herself, and, just like the house, it’s easy to imagine her here, tending to the various fruits, flowers and vegetables.
‘Beatrix would use what she grew to supplement her kitchen; strawberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, cabbages, onions, rhubarb, artichokes, lettuce, potatoes – it was a proper farm garden.
‘She’d make her own jams, pies and cakes from each harvest. I love the authenticity of it, being able to pick and eat the fruit, showing visitors what’s here and why it’s still important today.’
Top for visitors
Hill Top really brings to life the wonderful world of Beatrix Potter and, as well as the garden, the house is pretty much as she left it. The lovely cottage garden is described as a ‘haphazard mix of flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables’. Beatrix bought it in 1905 with proceeds from her first book, the Tale of Peter Rabbit, and she used Hill Top and the surrounding countryside as inspiration for many subsequent books.
Top Hill is at Near Sawrey, Hawkshead, LA22 0LF. To find out more go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top