Hidden in the opulent suburb of Twickenham, a gothic castle of dreamy spires quietly rests. The beautiful Strawberry Hill House.
You won’t believe it, but it has taken me a little over 2 years to visit this particular piece of Richmond history. It’s not through want of trying, but rather a lack of memory teamed with the house being open to the public. Every single time I’ve found myself with a spare afternoon I either haven’t remembered to think of Strawberry Hill House, or have eagerly jumped onto the website only to discover that it’s a month too early to visit down in the old borough of Surrey. A fail indeed*.
Luckily in March inspiration struck with the inspired combination of Strawberry Hill House actually being open.
With a few hours up my sleeve, I pottered along the Thames riverbanks stopping here and there for a cuppa, watching exhilarated dogs and their owners play fetch, stumbling upon yet more mansion houses and a breathtaking statue garden in Italianate marble. But that’s a tale for another day.
I met with a local friend (unaware of the existence of such a folly, despite living 9there for 10+ years) and once our allocated slot came up, we ventured into one of the most surprising London establishments I’ve visited.
Beginning life in 1698 as a modest house, built by the coachmen of the Earl of Bradford, Strawberry Hill House was transformed into ‘a little Gothic castle’ by Horace Walpole, man of letters and the son of England’s first Prime Minister.
Between 1747 and 1792 Walpole doubled its size, creating Gothic rooms and adding towers and battlements in fulfilment of his dream, but also creating a space of rooms perfect for displaying his antiquities, works of art and curios.
Known as “the plaything of Walpole and his friends, it established a taste for the Gothic: fireplaces and gilded ceilings like medieval tombs and vaults, painted glass with rustic and biblical scenes and heraldry.”
Each new room seemed like walking into a fairytale princess’ room – in fact my friend struggled the whole way round to choose just the one she would have as her bedroom…
I just wanted one and make no apologies for the following statement, but I lusted so hard for Walpole’s Library that it was difficult to tear myself away and investigate any other room.
So many of Walpole’s original design quirks (mostly thanks to a recent £9.8 million restoration) are on display that even without furniture the rooms are rather extraordinary.
Tiles, wallpapering, fireplaces, door handles, furniture, stained glass, animal balustrades, suits of armour, windows,
It made returning home to plain white skimmed plaster rather disappointing.
…just all of it.
The building was so grand – even in it’s own time – that the public paid a nominal fee to quietly parade through the doors. Walpole went so far to print a small booklet to guide visitors around and rented a house across the road to escape the crowds of fascinated guests.
Each intentionally gloomy space leading to a breathtaking room of such gothic opulence that it is hardly believable. Unsurprisingly Medieval tombs, arched doorways, rose windows and carved screens were models for his fireplaces, windows, doors and ceilings, but surprisingly are mostly modelled out of wood, plaster and papier mache.
You must go.
*just so you don’t do ‘an Emma’, Strawberry Hill House is usually open March 1 – November 9th but is regularly hired out for weddings and special occasions, and often closes on rugby match days. Check the Strawberry Hill House website for details.