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Although I had often heard of Strawberry Hill house, near Richmond, it was not until I heard an enthusiastic report on Radio 4 singing the praises of the new renovation, that I decided to arrange a visit. The house has been variously described as a fairytale castle, a gothic fantasy and one of England's most elegant and eccentric ancient buildings. It has just re-opened in April 2011, after a fantastic and lengthy renovation which was mainly due to a 9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2005.
Strawberry Hill is an amazing example of extravagant Georgian folly. It was built in 1698 as a fairly ordinary and modest house but was transformed by Horace Walpole into a 'little gothic castle' in the mid 1700s. The house was just originally just two old cottages, and over the years Walpole extended it to create a maze of corridors and rooms, trying to take people on a journey as they wandered through the house.
Horace Walpole was a man of letters and the son of England's first Prime Minister. He worked on his project between 1747 and 1792, doubling its size, adding towers and battlements, sourcing ancient stained glass from the far reaches of Europe, and generally creating a dream house full of strangely shaped rooms, unique features and technology, and beautiful detail.
During Walpole's lifetime, his newly created 'castle' became a popular tourist site, not only for its amazing architecture but also for the works of art and curios inside the house. Walpole was a compulsive collector and the contents of the house were remarkable and unusual.
In 1923 the estate was bought by the Catholic Education Council and the castle became the home of the Vincentian Fathers who founded the adjoining St Mary's College. However, after decades of neglect, the house was in danger of irreversible structural damage by the 1990s.
The house had featured in BBC2's Restoration programme in 2004, a grey and delipidated building and a far cry from the white and sparkling castle it is today. It had been declared by English Heritage as a building at risk and included in the 2004 World Monuments Fund Watch list of the world's 100 Most Endangered Sites.
Saved by money raised by The Strawberry Hill Trust, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, a £9 million repair and restoration has transformed the building during a renovation project that lasted two years and included painstaking conservation of the renaissance glass.
Every aspect of its restoration was the result of in-depth research. Architects have studied plans and detailed descriptions left by its creator Horace Walpole to get it looking exactly how it was.
Strawberry Hill House fronts straight onto a rather busy road, and took me by surprise. Walking through a small and unimposing door in the high white walls, I was lead straight into the shop / ticket sales desk, where two very friendly ladies welcomed me and checked my ticket. We had booked online tickets for the tour as we had heard that the timed entrance sometimes got rather busy. Although it did not seem that busy, we were still glad that we didn't have to wait around, as there is not a great deal to see outside the house.
We had two young children with us, and they were encouraged to buy a quiz sheet each for £1. At the end of this they could claim a chocolate reward if it was all filled in. They were told to look around them carefully and ask the guides if there was anything they could not find.
We were initially shown into a small room with benches, where we could watch a short DVD about the history of the house, whilst putting on the compulsory protective footwear (to protect the delicate old floors).
When we emerged, we were taken into the Hall where we were offered an audio tour each, played via a small iPod shuffle. I declined this offer, opting instead to use the small paper guidebook that I was given on entry. This book is an edited version of Horace Walpole's own 'Description' of the house, but with modern comments to describe subsequent developments. I was very pleased that I had gone for this option, as I heard several people complaining that the iPod shuffle didn't work properly. I was more than happy to speak to the friendly volunteer guides who sat in almost every room in the house, and were full of interesting information.
The tour started off with some of the plainer and less impressive rooms in the house. Each room was devoid of furniture, but this only highlighted the ornate fireplaces and carved woodwork - as well as the magnificent stained glass windows that every room has. This first part of the house feels very much like a work in progress - with the highest floor still not finished or opened to the public. This contains Walpole's bedrooms and the guide informed us that if further funding was found, these rooms would be completed.
Most of the rooms had a flat screen monitor, showing a rotating montage of photographs from museums and libraries around the world to give each visitor an idea of what the room looked like and how it had changed through the ages.
As we progressed through the house, the rooms became more highly decorated and much more ornate. Although it is not possible to mention all of them, I will list some of the most impressive.
The gallery is the most outrageous and impressive room. 56 feet long and 17 feet high, the white and gold ceiling and wall decorations twinkle and take your breath away. One side of the gallery is filled with recesses, all finished with gold and glass. Walpole said of this state room; "I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence". I have never seen anything as magical.
~~The Round Drawing Room~~
The round shape of this room was very attractive. A huge and ornate1766 Robert Adam fireplace dominates the walls, which are decorated in green with gilt inlays. The lovely semicircular windows are opened by sliding the entire window sideways into a recess in the wall; yet another of Walpole's clever inventions, the shutters are also opened and closed in a similar way - sliding sideways into hidden recesses.
This was the room in which Walpole kept his treasures, having a gated door like a bank vault. I loved the shape of this room; square with semicircular recesses in the middle of each side. The roof was arched and the sections looked like ribs or the slatted inside of a boat; a star shaped stained glass window in the roof which was painted green with a gold inlay. This room had an amazing atmosphere and felt really special.
The impression of a work in progress is carried on in the gardens, which are obviously fairly newly planted with small young trees and seeded grass and will eventually mirror Walpole's own informal design.
The gardens will be beautiful in a couple of years, and even now they are pleasant places to sit. One of the more unusual features is a recreation of Walpole's Sea Shell bench. At present looking far too new and white, the original bench was designed by Walpole as a garden seat carved to resemble a large Rococo style sea shell.
There is a small café at the end of the tour. Not large, this café is located in the cloister of the house, with glass walls filing in the gothic arches that lead to the garden, giving a feeling of actually sitting in the open air. The café serves alcoholic drinks and good coffee, as well as cream teas.
The toilets were at the end of the tour, on the ground floor. They were very modern and very clean.
The house is fully accessible to disabled visitors via a new lift that was installed as part of the restoration.
Visitors are admitted in small groups every 20 minutes on a timed entry system.
I loved my visit to Strawberry Hill House. It was fascinating in its opulence and unlike any house I had visited before. The apparent random scattering of rooms and corridors really reminded me of the way that Walpole had constructed it bit by bit, without a plan - purely acting on instinct and a love of beauty. It definitely felt like a work of passion and love, and I look forward to returning to see it when more money has been raised and the whole renovation is complete.
The house is open from 2nd April to 2nd November
Saturday and Sunday -12.00 to 4.20pm
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday - 2pm to 4.20pm
Thursday, Friday -Closed
Adult £8, concessions £7, children £5. Family ticket £20