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Hill Top, Chapel Hill, Ambleside.

Hill Top gable end

During 2014 this early nineteenth century gem at the heart of historic Ambleside was unbelievably at risk of demolition for replacement with a 64 bedroom budget hotel. A well-coordinated and articulate local campaign group (Future Ambleside) was established to save the building and in late 2014 English Heritage intervened and agreed that the building should be retained. With the option of demolition removed, and to the great relief of the community, Whitbread/Premier Inns threw in the towel.

Below is a report produced by the Armitt on the historic context of Hill Top and the associated conservation area.

HILL TOP HOUSE, AMBLESIDE
BACKGROUND

(c) Mr Nick J. Chaloner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation The Road to the Fells by Percy Horton 1948 (Hill Top at the back).

Hill Top lies within the area of the earliest (post-Roman) settlement of Ambleside on the brow of a small promontory between Stock Ghyll and Scandale Beck. This Anglo Norse settlement (as suggested by place name evidence), probably dating from the 10th century, lies within the immediate area of Howhead approximately 50m south east of Hill Top.
By the 12th century Ambleside was serving as the administrative centre for the northern part of the extensive estates owned by the Cistercian Abbey of Furness.

On Dissolution in 1532 the monastic wool monopoly was broken, and the town began to develop. From the 16th century wool processing became Ambleside’s major industry.
The development of the use of water power had begun as early as the 14th century in Ambleside with a corn-grinding mill on Stock Ghyll. A fulling mill is recorded in 1453 close to Stock Ghyll Falls; this site was worked until the early 19th century. By the early 16th century, five mills were supported by the Stock and by the 19th century, nine mills had been powered by it.

There is evidence that a chapel existed on the site of the present St Anne’s (now St Anne’s Court) from about 1550. This lies approximately 50m to the east of Hill Top. At that time the manorial and parish boundary, running along Stock Ghyll, divided inhabitants of the settlement between those ‘above Stock’ (in the Parish of Grasmere) and those ‘below Stock’.
Subsequent developments most notably the growth of tourism through the 19th and 20th centuries and the mid-18th century construction of the Kendal to Keswick turnpike moved the focus of the town further east (Below Stock) towards the Market Place. Initially the town served as a crossing of trade routes for packhorses. These roads needed little width and routes were constrained by bridges or fords and the steepness of inclines. A pack horse route north to Keswick went via Nook End whilst the route westwards went via Stony Bridge to the ford at Miller Bridge. Nook Lane was also the start of the old ‘Corpse Road’, (St Anne’s being a chapel of ease for St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere, before the creation of Ambleside parish). Rydal Road was built as a turnpike to bypass North Road in 1833, even at this early date recognised to be too narrow for the volume of traffic.

It is clear that in a settlement such as Ambleside, which has a history of small-scale industry and manufacturing, there is a strong probability of archaeological deposits underlying many of the dwell-ings and former mills of the conservation area and many of the buildings within the conservation area are themselves of archaeological interest.

Hill Top lies within the area of the earliest (post-Roman) settlement of Ambleside on the brow of a small promontory between Stock Ghyll and Scandale Beck. This Anglo Norse settlement (as suggested by place name evidence), probably dating from the 10th century, lies within the immediate area of Howhead approximately 50m south east of Hill Top.
By the 12th century Ambleside was serving as the administrative centre for the northern part of the extensive estates owned by the Cistercian Abbey of Furness. In addition the extensive grounds surrounding Hill Top House, one of the very few open areas within the conservation area, has further largely undisturbed archaeological potential.

Outside the conservation area it might be said that the town is somewhat deficient in early buildings. In 1820 William Green the artist and friend of Wordsworth set about his series of etchings entitled ‘Buildings of Ambleside’. Even at this early date he was aware that the old Ambleside of somewhat shambolic 17th century and earlier buildings was fast disappearing. Green made it his task to record these buildings with exacting detail, for which we are now most grateful. These buildings included Ambleside Hall, demolished in 1833 to build Rydal Road.

AREA CHARACTERIZATION

This area of Ambleside centred on Hill Top and the conservation area is characterized by the some-what haphazard and intimate arrangement of cottages, former farm buildings, substantial ‘polite’ houses of the late 18th/early 19th century and a considerable number of historically important buildings. These are clustered in islands formed by a network of streets, narrow lanes, ginnels and back lanes.

The built form primarily comprises of short rows and terraces, with small gardens squeezed into the angles between buildings. Open space is mostly to be found at road junctions or around the area’s two significant detached buildings, St Anne’s Court (the former St Anne’s Church) and Hill Top. How Head is possibly the most significant building in the area, forming the north-east half of one of the ‘islands’. This former manor house and part school, much extended, sub-divided and adapted, has typical Lakeland vernacular form and details. Its location, fronting the street on three of its sides, has a dominant influence on the local townscape. Opposite, St Anne’s Chapel, with its tower somewhat crowded by large conifers, is a local landmark occupying the crown of the hill.

Stone boundary walls are a feature of the area. Because of the steep slope of the land and low height of many buildings, roofs, gables and chimneystacks are prominent features, creating a lively roof-scape. From the highest part of the conservation area, there are good views across these rooftops to distant fells and the lower Rothay valley.
The area is primarily residential, including holiday accommodation, but there is also a car workshop and two pubs.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND AND DESCRIPTION

One of the earliest references to ‘the estate at Hill Top’ appears in a document of 1802 relating to land previously occupied by Bernard Grigg and his wife under the ownership of Lord Lowther and at this date transferred to William Harrison.
‘All the estate at Hill Top above Stock in Ambleside consisting of several closes, inclosures, lands and houses following viz to Bung How, Rigg, Low Rigg; a large dwelling house with a garden and orchard, barn, stable and cowhouse right under the roof of the houses over against said Dwelling House, Two dwelling houses with orchard, gardens, and cowhouse, maltkiln, a parrock, a fieldhouse called Hall Rigg and six fell grasses in Ambleside….’

From the late 18th century land within this area was being purchased by the locally important Harrison family, by this date substantial landholders. An undated property tax assessment entitled ‘Measurements for Mr Harrison’s new house at Hill Top’ (WD BH A1105) provides a measured description of the house with a main block (main house), two flanking wings one containing the kitchen and barn to the rear.

Defining the area of the Hill Top estate at this time is limited by the lack of any cartographic information; however other ‘estates’ ‘above Stock’ are mentioned at this time: Howhead and The Oaks (to the east) and Greenbank to the north west which clearly limit the area to that bounded by Smithy Brow/ Chapel Hill to the south . The boundary with Greenbank is uncertain but it is fairly likely to have corresponded to Nook Lane.

Our first depiction of the house is found in William Green’s 1821 etching of ‘Ambleside from the Butts’ which shows a two storey, south west facing building otherwise obscured by trees. The first edition Ordnance Survey map (1856) provides a very useful indication of the extent of the house and gardens, clearly much extended since William Green’s day. The main additions include a large extension to the south east of the main house and a range of presumably service buildings extending to the rear to form a substantial gentleman’s residence. The grounds have been landscaped with terracing to the north and mature trees around the boundary.

os Ordnance Survey first edition map of 1856

During the late 18th/ early 19th century this area of ‘Old Ambleside’ was central to the life of the village. Two services were held at St. Anne’s on a Sunday, beside it at Walton Mount was Dr. Scambler’s surgery and below was the carpenter who made coffins, together with wood stores, stables, peat house and a long row of communal latrines. The area was also busy with school children. The Kelsick Free Grammar School had been established in 1723 through the Will of John Kelsick and by the opening of the 19th century a number of private schools had been established all clustered in the area of St.Anne’s Church and down the slope towards the Green.

The Wordsworth’s amongst others had been instrumental in establishing a school for girls at the ‘newly built’ Hill Top House. From 1814 it was run by Miss Fletcher who styled herself ‘a romantic Governess’. It was attended by Dora Wordsworth and Sarah Coleridge as boarders, as well as the daughters of other notable local families. However due to Miss Fletcher being rather deaf it was not a great success and was taken over in 1818 by Miss Dowling, a former private governess and friend of Sara Hutchinson. An advertisement appeared on the front page of the Westmorland Gazette of the 28th July 1815 advising readers that having just successfully completed ‘the Education of the Daughters of a Nobleman’ Miss Dowling had been ‘induced to commence a boarding school for young ladies’. The terms for boarding and tuition ‘(inclusive of the French and English languages, taught grammatically) – History, Chronology, Geography, the Globes and Needlework’ were fifty guineas per annum. Dora Wordsworth flourished at Hill Top and records that it was one of the few happy times in her life.

It appears also that the Coleridge boys, Hartley and Derwent were sent to Miss Dowling for a short period. However their disruptive behaviour, which was considered to be a result of parental neglect, resulted in their expulsion whereupon they were sent to Mr Dawes for lessons next door at Kelsick Grammar School. Also, adjacent to Hill Top, was Dr Scamblers house Walton Mount where he would entertain the two Williams, Wordsworth and Green, to a drink and game of cards.

Pigot’s Directory of 1829 records that the school continued to be run by Miss Dowling but now with the support of her sisters. It was still in 1859 listed as Miss Dowling’s Academy for Girls but by 1876 it had become a lodging house in the possession of William Garnett, land surveyor. From the outset of the 20th century it operated as small private hotel.
In 1951 Hill Top had once again reverted to educational purposes when it was purchased from Mrs Earnshaw for £8000 by the Parents National Education Union School in Ambleside, part of the college established by the pioneering educationalist Charlotte Mason.

SUMMARY

58_5082 The demolition of buildings in Church Street. Garside c. 1880’s. © Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

Hill Top is a substantial Georgian house set in its own grounds, occupying a commanding position within the historic core of the town. It also lies within a designated conservation area and has been identified by the Lake District National Park as a building of ‘special interest’. Its relatively undisturbed grounds have the potential for archaeological deposits relating to the earliest post–Roman settlement of the town. The conservation area itself, with its many Listed Buildings, is characterized by a hugger-mugger informality reflecting the gradual and piecemeal development of the area from its c. 10th century origins through to the 19th century.

The immediate area and Hill Top House itself can also claim literary and artistic associations through the Wordsworths, Coleridges and William Green and later through its association with the Parents National Education Union and their pioneering founder Charlotte Mason.

The house itself, its location and its associations, should quite reasonably ensure that it receives protection and recognition as an important element of Ambleside’s cultural heritage. Any development around this building should be subject to the most vigorous monitoring, as would be expected and required in a conservation area. The purpose of this report is to inform the important debate on why Hill Top is of special interest in itself, and the consequential impact on the Conservation Area of its removal.

Deborah Walsh
Curator
The Armitt Museum and Library
Ambleside
July 2014