Strawberry Hill - One Man's Gothic Obsession

  • 01 of 05

    How a Suburban Villa Became One Man's Castle

    Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham
    © Ferne Arfin

    Strawberry Hill is a wonder of 18th-century eccentricity. But the bigger wonder is that this mini-Gothic Revival castle is in the middle of a suburban London neighborhood. 

    "It will look, I fear, a little like arrogance in a private man to give a printed description of his villa and collection, in which almost everything is diminutive...

    "...But I do not mean to defend by argument a small capricious house. It was built to please my own taste, and in sole degree to realize my own vision."

    Thus begins the small guidebook, "A DESCRIPTION OF THE VILLA OF Mr. HORACE WALPOLE AT Strawberry-Hill near Twickenham, Middlesex." The guidebook, given to visitors as their admission ticket, was written by Walpole himself to describe the eccentric little castle he had created and that you can visit on the western edge of London.

    Plan a visit to Strawberry Hill

    Horace Walpole was a classic 18th-century figure - the dilettante. Born the third son of Britain's first Prime Minister, he was wealthy and well educated. Although he was an MP (serving several different constituencies in Parliament from 1741 to 1768) he had enough leisure time to indulge his passions for art, travel and collecting, history, criticism, and writing. His novel, The Castle of Otranto - inspired by a dream he had while staying at Strawberry Hill - is considered the first Gothic novel ever written.

    Strawberry Hill, the house he built in stages between 1749 and 1776, was created to display his many and varied collections and as a summer escape beside the Thames. Some of the objects, paintings, and bits of ephemera Walpole collected had more curiosity than intrinsic value, but many items in his antiquarian collections were rare and valuable.

    The collections were sold off in a well documented "Great Sale" in the mid -19th century. They went to museum and private buyers all over Europe and North America. Today, all that remains to be seen is the fairy-tale, jewel box of a house he built to house them. It's believed to be one of the earliest examples of the Gothic Revival style, decades ahead of fashion. And it is also one of the few domestic buildings with interiors and exteriors in that style.

    If you are curious to see the objects that made Strawberry Hill House an important visitor attraction in Walpole's lifetime, visit the website of the Lewis Walpole Library of Yale University.

    They've been tracking down and photographing as many of the objects as they can through known owners and matching their catalog of images with Walpole's own catalog of his possessions. The inventory of thousands of images is fascinating.

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  • 02 of 05

    The Long Gallery

    The Gallery at Strawberry Hill
    © Ferne Arfin

    The Gallery at Strawberry Hill, one of its great staterooms, dazzles with crimson damask walls, opulent gilding and gilding over mirrors. The ceiling was modeled after a side aisle in Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey.

    In a house already dripping with gilt decoration, this room is the standout, having more gold than any other in the house. Walpole was reported to have said of it, "I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence." 

    In 2002, a trust was formed to lease the house from its owner, the adjacent St Mary's University, and to restore it. The task was made considerably easier by the fact that Strawberry Hill is one of the most extensively documented houses in Britain. Besides Walpole's inventories and the illustrated guidebooks he wrote for visitors, he wrote hundreds of letters describing his acquisitions and their placement in the various rooms.

    In 2010, after a two-year, £9 million restoration program funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Strawberry Hill was opened to the public. Included in the restoration was the weaving of new Norwich damask for the walls and the fresh gilding of all the gold decoration.

    In its heyday, this room displayed portraits by Lely, Giorgione, Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyke, Joshua Reynolds and many others. The little guidebook given to visitors has a contemporary print showing how they were displayed. For today's visitor, a combination of reproductions, prints, and original paintings are positioned as they might have been in the 1700s. The room also contained porcelains and a French ormolu and japanned cabinet commissioned by Walpole, now in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.​


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  • 03 of 05

    The Finest 18th Century Craftsman Copying Medieval Artisans

    Fireplace at Strawberry Hill House
    © Ferne Arfin

    Walpole's interest was primarily the Medieval period. That is why at Strawberry Hill, both interiors and exteriors, were designed in the Gothic Revival style. But he also employed the finest contemporary designers, builders, and craftsmen of his day to copy examples of the style he admired but could not actually own.

    The chimneypiece in the Round Drawing Room, pictured here, was designed by Robert Adam, one of the Adam brothers, famous Scots architects and designers. The design is after the 13th-century tomb of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey.

    The patterns and pictures meant to resemble a mosaic of colored stones is actually marble inlaid with scagliola, a polished combination of pigments, glue, and plaster of Paris. During restoration, many original features - including handpainted wallpapers in some of the rooms - emerged from under layers of paint and grime.​

    An original Adam design for the chimneypiece is now kept at Sir John Soane's Museum in London.

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  • 04 of 05

    The Tribune - A Room for Treasures

    Tribune Ceiling at Strawberry Hill
    © Ferne Arfin

    Walpole's most valued treasures were kept in the room he called The Tribune. It's a small, square chamber with semi-circular niches on each side. The gilded ceiling pictured here was inspired by the famous Chapter House of York Minster. 

    The yellow glass star in the center of the ceiling was meant, according to Walpole's own guide to the house, to throw "a golden gloom all over the room." That, together with stained glass windows was intended to create the "solemn air of a rich chapel."

    A pair of grated doors guards the entrance to the Tribune, much like the gate on a bank vault. Most visitors gained a glimpse of this room through the grates. Only the most important guests were invited into the Tribune to examine the treasures at close hand. That included opening the rosewood cabinet, designed by Walpole himself, which held a priceless collection of miniatures and valuables. Today the cabinet can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) though, sadly, its contents have been scattered.

    The collections at the V&A also include miniatures by English and French artists, a remarkable carved "cravat" made by the 17th and early 18th-century woodcarver, Grinling Gibbons (have a look), and an assortment of decorative silver, gilt and enameled objects. 

    A beautiful crystal scepter mounted with gold, enamel, and pearls is kept at the British Museum. And, if you head for Glasgow, stop at the Burrell Collection, in the center of Pollock Park, to see if you can find the champlevé enamel on a copper casket or "chasse" that is a model of the shrine of Thomas à Becket.

    Lots More to See

    In addition to the rooms described so far, Strawberry Hill is a fascinating maze. From the gloomy hall, with its Gothic staircase, lit from above by four skylights, a path through the house leads to many more rooms, including:

    • Discovery Room, formerly the Yellow Bedroom, this room is arranged to show the history of the house through various layers of wall coverings and finishes, all the way up to the 1970s ceiling installed by St. Mary's University.
    • Great Parlour, once the dining room. In it, you can see reproductions of the original black Gothic chairs - now held by the British Museum - and the first of many impressive chimneypieces.
    • Breakfast Room, restored to its early 20th-century style.
    • Green Closet, once Walpole's study.
    • Blue Bedchamber, with a copy of Sir Robert Walpole's bed and a family portrait, made for this room and on loan from the National Gallery.  The remarkable gilt frame is a computer printed reproduction.
    • Library, with books arranged within Gothic arches.
    • The Holbein Chamber once contained Walpole's collection of Holbein drawings. Its massive chimneypiece is modeled after an archbishop's tomb at Canterbury Cathedral.
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  • 05 of 05

    Plan a Visit

    Moroccan lamb flatbread with hummus
    © Ferne Arfin

    Strawberry Hill is within the suburban edges of West London in Twickenham, a part of Richmond. It's about seven and a half miles from Central London and makes an excellent half day trip. Combine it with another Richmond attraction and you have a full day out in the country that's still reachable with London's public transportation.

    • Where: Strawberry Hill, 268 Waldegrave Road, Twickenham, TW1 4ST
    • When: Because restoration of Strawberry Hill remains a work in progress, hours vary from year to year. In 2016, from March 1 to November 1 the house is closed Thursdays and Fridays. Opening hours are noon to 5:30 pm Saturday and Sunday and from 1:40 to 5:30 pm Monday to Wednesday.
      From December 3 to 11, the house is only open Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5:30 pm,
      Last admission to the house is at 4 pm.
    • Admission:
      • General adult admission is £12 or £10.80 without "Gift Aid". Children under 16 are admitted free. Early-bird guided tours cost slightly more.
      • Strawberry Hill is a London partner of the National Trust so Trust members are admitted for half price.
      • Gift Aid is a British program for charitable donation via the tax system. British taxpayers can opt to pay a small top up to the admission fee and that sum is matched by the government. If you aren't a British taxpayer, always ask to pay the amount "without Gift Aid" if that is an option.
    • Café: The Cloister Coffee House, on the ground level, is open from 10 am to 6 pm so it makes a handy place to have some lunch before the afternoon opening of the house. The menu is a cut above the usual tea-cakes-and-boring-sandwiches fare at most heritage attractions. Choices, which occasionally change, include lovely filled flatbreads, soups, salads and more ambitious hot courses as well as stuffed baguettes, very nice cakes, and afternoon teas.
    • How to Get There:  Public transportation is the easiest way to get to Strawberry Hill. The No.33 bus from Hammersmith Broadway Station (on the District and Piccadilly Lines) takes 45 minutes to Waldegrave Road. Or cut the time by a few minutes by taking the District Line from any London stop to Richmond and then catching the 33 bus for a further 20 minutes.
    • Visit the website for more information.

    Stay near Strawberry Hill to Save a Bundle

    This southwestern corner of London, along the Thames, was a Royal playground (in fact, it's officially, the Royal Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames) from the late 15th century when Henry VII built a palace in the area. Richmond Park was set aside for Royal hunts by the doomed King Charles I in the mid 17th century.

    Where Royals went, fashionable society followed. So the area within two or three miles of Strawberry Hill is rich with beautiful historic houses and parks, among them Ham HouseHampton Court Palace, and Marble Hill House

    Staying nearby puts you in the middle of Tudor, Georgian and Regency London and within easy reach of all of London's main attractions via public transportation. It also means that you'll likely spend a great deal less on your hotel bills for some very charming local accommodations - the Alexander Pope, within walking distance of Strawberry Hill, for example. Besides being rich in history this area is rich in B&Bs, charming small boutique hotels, and converted pub hotels. It's not unusual to spend £80 or £90 on rooms that will easily set you back £130 or more in central London. Aim your hotel search for Richmond, Twickenham, Ham or Hampton Wick and you may be surprised by the attractive bargains on offer. 

    One word of advice though. If you do stay in this area, make sure your accommodations are close to a London Underground or Overground station or on a bus route.​

    Read guest reviews and find the best value deal for the Alexander Pope on TripAdvisor.