Strawberry Hill. Even the name conjures visions of pastoral idylls, perhaps a water-colour of mature trees with the promise of a gently-flowing river just over that grassy knoll. Well, the reality isn’t that far from the pastel dream and there is a House that is at the very centre of the quintessentially English scene.
Strawberry Hill House is commonly known as Strawberry Hill. It’s easily accessible from Central London by train to Strawberry Hill Station in West London. It was once owned by the writer, collector and historian Horace Walpole, the youngest son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. This magnificent castle, house, villa is classically beautiful and architecturally noteworthy, and might easily have been lost to the nation had it not been for the determination of local enthusiasts over a couple of decades, and a healthy injection of cash from the Heritage Lottery Fund and others.
The completion of the second stage of the award-winning restoration of this Gothic villa was marked by the opening to the public, in March 2015, of an additional five private rooms which are on display for the first time since the 18th century. It was the culmination of a project that utilised the skills of craftsmen and women who painstakingly restored or reproduced wallpaper, paint, hangings and mouldings. The end result of their labours is an authentic insight into one man’s fancy, one writer’s vision.
The house was transformed into that which we see today, from a much more modest building. Horace described it as a ‘little gothic castle’ which he opened to visitors – but only four per day and no children at that time. He likely had a low opinion of humanity in general and once wrote: ‘Nine-tenths of the people were created so you would want to be with the other tenth’.
The original building, really just a couple of cottages by all accounts, was called Chopp’d Straw Hall in 1747. It was one of the last remaining sites available on the Thames in Twickenham, which was considered a fashionable out-of-town address at the time. Walpole had a dream and chose to create his own castle using the architecture of Gothic cathedrals as his model. Chimney pieces mimic those found at Hampton Court, fireplaces replicate cathedral altars, and other features are taken from tombs and monuments. A visit to Strawberry Hill offers a trip around some of the most renowned Gothic architecture in Europe, and all in the space of a few rooms. This neo-Gothic extravaganza started an architectural trend which continued into the Victorian era. The rooms here are not, at least as yet, over-furnished and so the visitor has the opportunity to drink in the fabric of the building.
The house was not only Walpole’s home but his literary inspiration. It’s said that he woke from a dream and imagined a giant armoured hand on the staircase near his bedroom and it was this vision of horror that inspired what is considered to be the first classic Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. To strike a topical note, in Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard III (1768), Walpole defends King Richard III against the commonly-held belief that he was responsible for the murder of the Princes in the Tower. That aforementioned monarch has enjoyed renewed fame as the King in the Car Park after his body was recently discovered in Leicester.
Strawberry Hill is Britain’s finest example of Georgian Gothic Revival architecture. The newly restored rooms include Walpole’s private apartment: his Bedchamber, the Plaid Bedchamber and Dressing Room, the Breakfast Room and Green Closet, and the Red Bedchamber. Strawberry Hill is one of the best-documented houses in Britain. Horace Walpole was a prolific writer and justifiably proud of his home. He left not only his Description of Strawberry Hill but constantly mentioned Strawberry Hill in letters: “…the room where we always live, hung with a blue and white paper in stripes adorned with festoons, and a thousand plump chairs, couches and luxurious settees covered with linen of the same pattern, and with a bow-window commanding the prospect, and gloomed with limes that shade half each window, already darkened with painted glass in chiaroscuro, set in deep blue glass.” Now one can see the described paper and appreciate the stained glass at the windows.
Strawberry Hill is unique and marvellous. The restoration has been thorough and sympathetic. Rooms have been taken back to their original with hand-made wallpaper and paint with natural pigments. The rooms portray both cosy domesticity and extravagant entertaining. The view to the river is now blocked by 1930s housing, the tranquillity of the grounds is periodically disturbed by over-flying planes, but, with a little imagination, we are transported to a gentler time. Strawberry Hill enchants and charms. “My buildings, like my writings are of paper, and will blow away ten years after I am dead” wrote Horace Walpole, The RT Hon. the Earl of Orford. Both house and literature live on.
Strawberry Hill House
268 Waldegrave Road
Opening times and dates:
Saturday and Sunday 12:00 noon until 16:00
Monday – Wednesday 13:40-16:00
Re-opens 1 March 2015 until 1 November 2015
Tickets: £10.80; concessions £5.40.
Entry includes booklet.
For booking information please visit here
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018