Week off (Monday): Strawberry Hill House
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Strawberry Hill House is amazing. More good news, it's in London, near Twickenham. Further good news, it's only a short walk from Strawberry Hill station and thus very accessible. The bad news is that the house closes for the winter at the end of next week. Further bad news, it doesn't open on Thursdays and Fridays, and is also closed this weekend and next Saturday for fear of rugby crowds. Worse news, there isn't a hill, and there never were any strawberries. But if you pick your time and get here soon, this architectural treasure is yours to explore. [6 photos]
Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was the youngest son of Britain's first Prime Minister. Shorn of the need to support himself financially, Horace threw himself into the creation of an ostentatious country seat and filling it with treasures. He began with a cottage in meadows by the Thames, extending outwards and upwards to create a turreted fairytale castle, deliberately rallying against the fashionable building styles of the day. Instead he brought together influences from medieval Europe and Norman England, independently kicking off the architectural trend that would become Gothic revival. Never intended as a main residence, Horace used the ornate interior as a flamboyant summerhouse, and in particular for the exhibition of his collection of artworks. Visitors came from far and wide to be shown round, but only from the 1st of May to the 1st of October, and strictly no children allowed.
Horace never married (cue all the usual rumours), and after his death the house eventually fell into the hands of an owner with a gambling addiction, who sold off the entire collection in what became known as The Grand Sale. In the 1920s ownership transferred to St Mary's University, based nextdoor, and most of the meadows between the house and the river were taken over by housing. Dereliction beckoned, but a charitable trust saved the property in conjunction with a multi-million pound lottery grant, and it reopened to the public (for the first time in a couple of centuries) in 2010. They've done a fantastic job, including thisyear the restoration of several upper rooms to extend the visitor experience even further. Restoring the collection is proving a rather tougher challenge, with most of Horace's artefacts now in the hands of private collectors, but it's hoped to reverse the Grand Sale in part, temporarily, in time for the 300th anniversary of his birth.
The building looks amazing set amongst riverside suburbia, with chimneys and crenellations, and an exterior painted the colour of wedding cake icing. Entrance is via the gardens, up one side, where admittance is carefully regulated to avoid overwhelming the house. But on a dull October weekday there's no danger of that, so I was whisked round to the front door for an opening chat from two of the guides and to start my self-guided tour. Blimey. Once inside, every twist and turn brings a new room that makes you gasp, as the full extent of Horace's structural exhibitionism becomes clear. The entrance hall, for example, is hung with wallpaper based on a prince's tomb, lit by a single candle in a gaudy lantern, and features antelopes at every corner of the rising balustrade, because why not.
Rooms lead off the main staircase in an asymmetric manner, with doorways leading perhaps to a bedchamber, parlour or study. Amongst the detail to look out for are numerous stained glass windows (with panes imported from the Low Countries), properly reconstructed period wallpaper (don't touch, it moults) and floorboards that grow narrower from one side of a room to another (to maintain an illusion of distance). And in the top bedroom Horace had a dream which led to him writing The Castle of Otranto, generally regarded as the first gothic novel, precisely 250 years ago. None of the rooms is labelled, neither is there any signage, all the better to maintain the period fabric of the house, Instead you get a guidebook to help you round, half reproduction from the 18th century, and a publication of great beauty. But there seemed no time to read it, so I found the correct route extremely hard to follow, and hence lived in perpetual fear of accidentally missing some key room out.
The library is a room of beauty, with a large painted ceiling designed to overemphasise Walpole ancestry, whilst in the Breakfast Room a group of local ladies were hard at work sewing a quilt for the four poster across the landing. My prize for the most amazing ceiling went to the fan vaulting in The Gallery, for the most striking skylight to the yellow petalled glass illuminating Horace's inner sanctum, and for the most impressive fireplace to the inlaid marble in the Round Drawing Room. I was also taken by Laura Ford'ssculptures liberally scattered throughout the building, for this season only, adding a layer of quirk to what might otherwise have been mostly empty rooms. But in the end I decided it was the army of volunteer guides who really made the place, all of them warm, welcoming and well-read, and more than willing to share their enthusiasm for the building and its heritage.
Some housekeeping. Admission is £10.80, although that's halved if you can wave a valid National Trust membership card. Don't forget to look round the garden, or you'll miss the shell bench and the chapel. Yes there's a cafe, and rather a swish one, on the ground floor overlooking the terrace. Don't come in the morning, or before 1.40pm on a weekday. Allow at least ninety minutes, or more probably more. It's probably best to visit on a sunny day, rather than under overcast skies providing minimal illumination. Bring a camera. If you miss visiting in the next couple of weeks you'll have to wait until March (or one of the first two weekends in December). Or else, as my guides kept hinting, come back for the tercentenary in 2017 when there might be a lot more of 'the collection' to see. But do come, because basically wow.