And here we go for another visit just over 30 minutes from central London to get to know a “house” full of history and curiosities like so many we found in England, and the choice of the time was Strawberry Hill House.
Why did we choose this place to visit and share here with you?
Undoubtedly this place has everything to draw attention, starting with the revived Gothic (Georgian) architecture, continuing with the story of its creator, Horace Walpole, and without forgetting the interior, which has different rooms, different stories and details. Strawberry Hill House is sure to be one of those places you don’t know what to expect when you visit, but it will surely surprise and delight your eyes.
Born in 1717, Horace Walpole was the first to buy the property and build the house that became known as Strawberry Hill.
Walpole, known for his contributions to literature, art and architecture in the 18th century, acquired the property in 1747. One of the only ones available on the banks of the River Thames in the fashionable Twickenham region. At the time it was still called “Chopp’d Straw Hall” – and it had only two cottages.
But his vision was to build a “little gothic castle.” And his dream became a reality that allowed us to know a unique space. With domes and towers, Walpole turned his fascination with the Middle Ages into something palpable.
Built as a summer residence (remembering that it took around 3 hours to get from central London at the time to Strawberry), the house soon became a tourist attraction, and Walpole himself opened the house for visitation – with four daily guided tours with the carer of the house. Children were not allowed however.
Horace Walpole was a public figure, son of the first Prime Minister to the United Kingdom, he also used the house to entertain ambassadors, royalty and the English aristocracy.
The architectural style of the residence, Gothic Revival, was popularised by Horace Walpole during the 17th and 18th centuries. And from the first step inside the house, a certain discomfort is almost inevitable – precisely Walpole’s goal.
The house is almost completely painted white on the outside. Its opulence is striking. The entry used for visitors today is not the same as at the time. However, we could see a little of what the visitors’ experience would be like – thanks to the exceptional work of the house guides. They literally carry visitors through time.
Upon entering the house, the main hall was dark. With just one candle in the chandelier in the center of the stairs leading to the upper floors, the illusion is in the the wallpaper – which was a (rather expensive) innovation – that simulated columns and stone ceilings. An interesting detail about this is the restoration, which the process does not allow to use technology to restore these wallpapers. Everything we see today was handmade, as it was then.
One word that Horace created to describe the feel of his house (which didn’t catch up) at the time was gloomth – a combination of gloom and warmth.
He chose to build the interior of the house in wood rather than stone, as was common in medieval castles. Despite his passion for architecture, he opted for a space warmer than the chill of the stones.
In addition to the entrance hall, on this first floor we also find the room used for public functions and dinners. The table was brought in as needed, leaving the ample open space. In this room we also see a large window that at the time would give a view of the river Thames. However, over time, this view was covered by changes in regional geography.
Another striking detail of the residence, and again linked to the Middle Ages. are the stained glass windows. Walpole decorated most of the windows with stained glass that depicted various stories, or religious images.
On the next floor we find rooms where Walpole spent his summer and rooms for visitors. Walpole’s bedroom contains a replica of the bed used by his father – the first Prime Minister – as they had no specific details about the bed. And even the bed was known as a “campaign bed”, because it was collapsible and allowed to be taken along the campaign trail.
In the bedroom you also find portraits of two of his best friends – John Chute and Richard Bentley. The three together were responsible for the architecture and design of the house, and declared themselves the “Committee of Taste”.
Another important room in the residence is the breakfast room. In addition to the beautiful view of the garden (which at the time was also the river), the room has details that have marked the different generations and residents of the house over the years – especially the new wallpapers and ceiling details in papier-mâches.
The library is also spectacular. Mainly because Horace was an avid reader and writer, so his library was very well organised – and extremely functional. On top of each shelf is a letter of the alphabet, each dedicated to a theme. He recorded the exact shelf and position of each book.
But the room that truly overwhelmed us in the house was undoubtedly the gallery. A long room with its ceiling inspired by Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. The brightest space during the day, the corridor leading to that space was, by contrast, one of the darkest of the residence at the time. When the visitor finally found the door to this room, the light coming from the huge windows and mirros on the other side caused the discomfort Walpole wanted.
At the end of it is the room with one of the most beautiful stained glass windows of the house – ideal space for beautiful photos.
The residence also has a large and wonderful garden, and a small romantic garden beside the house that was inspired by William Kent, and following the English landscaping movement of the period.
When Horace died in 1797, having no children, he left the residence for his cousin’s daughter, a renowned sculpture, Anne Seymour Damer. In 1811 it passed to Walpole’s niece, Elizabeth Waldegrave – and then to her grandson, John Waldegrave.
He passed away suddenly, and left the house to his brother George. When he died, the house passed to his widow, Lady Frances Waldegrave, who turned her life’s mission the maintenance of Strawberry Hill. She turned the house into her permanent residence.
Before opening to the public in 2010, it underwent a long restoration that allows us to witness today all its exuberance. It has a huge collection of arts and antiques. Walpole even wrote a complete description of the house and all its assets (“A Description of The Villa of Horace Walpole”). He published two editions through the press company he founded in his own home – Strawberry Hill Press.
And speaking of Horace Walpole, we could not fail to mention his immense contribution to literature. “The Castle of Otranto” is still considered to be the first book of the Gothic genre – and inspired by Strawberry Hill House. He hid the fact that he was the writer for years, since at the time, writing prose was not very “gentlemen-like”. Just poetry.
The book, however, though not very well known, inspired great writers in history such as Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker.
Being able to explore a little more than just London’s tourist center is always a great option as it gives you a different experience and a panorama of the city and culture. If you are visiting London or live here, put Strawberry Hill House on your route. You will not regret it.
With trains running all the time (usually every 30 minutes) from Waterloo, in just 35 minutes you arrive at Strawberry Hill and another 8 minutes on foot in a very charming neighbourhood you get to the house.
(The photos in the post are mine and Leo Melo.)