When I was little, my best friend and I used to sneak into construction sites in new housing developments and imagine what we would do with the houses if they were ours. This should explain a lot about the next few posts where I obsess over historic English Country Houses.
Over the last few weekends, I’ve embarked on a tour of estates that are easily reachable from London (and open – seeing as most large estates are closed over the winter months until March 29th). The first of these was Strawberry Hill House (it was the name… how can you not want to explore a place called Strawberry Hill?)
I took the train from Waterloo down to Strawberry Hill and exited into what looked like suburban London (just outside Twickenham to be precise). After navigating a few tree-lined streets of brick houses – I had obviously found the place. It never fails to surprise me how some European landmarks have stood the test of time as the world grows up literally all around them. This was certainly one of those cases.
The story behind the house involves an English Prime Minister’s son and his fondness for Gothic architecture. Horace Walpole, a bit annoyed at modern trends having strayed away from the gothic style, set about rebuilding a house on the sight in 1749 and continued changes until 1776. He used the house as a sort of treasure trove for objects he collected over 4 years of travel across Europe and wanted the rooms to change along with the feeling for the objects he brought back.
I usually like to wander around a site and take it all in for myself. I have a tendency to avoid tour guides. Maybe its that I’m getting a bit older or maybe its a bit of English charm, but in the UK, I am loving stories guides have to tell in places like this. And Strawberry Hill honestly has some of the best. Every room had a guide with an additional story to tell and a flair for telling it.
My favorite tale was that one of the maids of the House figured out that she could earn a little extra money by charging interested tourists who wanted to see the house for little glimpses inside. It got so popular at one stage that items were being stolen or broken. Walpole eventually found out and decided to open the house regularly to the public, even writing an extensive guide book to the collections to be found inside. But the smart man had a plan. He purchased a smaller house across the street and would escape there when the crowds came – so he could watch the circus at his house go by in peace and quiet.
True story, I had such a lovely time listening to the stories at Strawberry Hill that I didn’t even make it to the last wing of the house (I entered quite late in the afternoon, but still.) A bomb apparently fell on the house during the War – did not get to see the room where that happened. And I wanted to hear more about Walpole’s collections – many of which are apparently now in the V&A.
I got one recommendation from a guide – so well embellished – that it determined my following day’s activity: a trip to Richmond and a visit to Ham House. Next time on the blog.
Strawberry Hill House is open March 1 – November 9th but is regularly hired out for weddings and special occasions.
Check out their website before you go to be safe.