Isn’t it curious how zombies, vampires and the undead play such a big role in today’s popular culture? With most of them springing from literature, it’s remarkable to learn that the first ever horror story was penned down in a peculiar London ‘castle’ in the 1760s already. Once the home of the eccentric Horace Walpole, it is now possible for the general public to visit Strawberry Hill House, the birthplace of Gothic literature.
Strawberry Hill House: the most curious ‘castle’ in London
The first ever Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), was written by Horace Walpole. He was a British author, politician and collector, and coincidentally also the son of Britain’s first Prime Minister.
As a huge admire of Gothic architecture, Walpole set out to build his very own Gothic ‘castle’ in Twickenham in 1747. Like today, Twickenham was a very popular area by the river Thames in West London.
It was there that Walpole transformed a few former ordinary cottages into the famous Strawberry Hill House. It’s an understatement to say that it was an unusual building for the area.
While the surrounding houses were built according to Classic traditions, Strawberry Hill House was heavily influenced by Gothic cathedrals. It features winding staircases, turrets, stained-glass windows, elaborately decorated ceilings, dramatic chimney pieces, big doors and grand rooms.
One can only imagine what Walpole’s neighbours thought of this extraordinary building. Judging from the house and his legacy, Walpole must have been the Liberace of his time.
Even in Walpole’s days, Strawberry Hill was a popular attraction curious visitors were eager to pay an entrance fee for. Fortunately, the house now admits more than four visitors a day and even admits children, unlike in Walpole’s days.
I visited Strawberry Hill on a glorious summer’s day 2015. Yet, I’m curious to experience the house during the dark ‘haunted’ months of the year, or Halloween even.
Related article: Extravagant historical London homes you must visit
The start of Gothic literatue
Walpole’s eccentric home would inspire him to write his decisive short novel The Castle of Otranto. And in its turn, this piece of bloodcurdling Gothic literature was the inspiration for iconic horror books such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
What is Gothic literature exactly?
In literature, ‘the Gothic’ stands for the ‘novel of horror’ genre. At the time, it was often criticised or even dismissed for its sensationalism, flat characters, overly melodramatic qualities and utterly predictable plots.
Having read English literature at Uni, I still have my notes of the day we discussed we discussed ‘The Gothic’ in general and Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in particular in class. (It was on 16 November 1998 to be exact in in professor Peter de Voogd’s class ‘Hypertext’ at Utrecht University.)
It was in this class that I first heard the fine verb ‘to swoon’ in the professor’s great line that I’ve never forgotten ever since:
In gothic novels women don’t faint, but they swoon”
Smelling salts were always at hand to help return the fainted ladies back to consciousness.
From my uni notes that November day:
Gothic and Classic distinguish styles and tendencies in art and literature. The Gothic originally referred to the Germanic tribe of the Goths, but gradually became to denote ‘medieval’, especially in architecture. Gothic implies vital, primitive but irregular work, with the qualities of the barbarian North. Classic implies lucid, rational and idealised work as in the sunlit civilisations of Greece and Rome.
Imagine how exciting it was for me to visit the house that had influenced this literature genre 17 years later after that class!
Remaining original details of Strawberry Hill House
You enter the house via the Hall where you see the dramatic staircase with a balustrade decorated with antelopes holding shields. (As antelopes are known for.) You can see restored sections of the original wallpaper painted with Gothic arches.
The design was inspired by prince Arthur’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral. The Gothic lantern in the well of the staircase is the only light point in the hall.
Strawberry Hill is home to dramatic stained-glass windows
Judging from the windows, it’s clear Walpole was a fan of cathedral-style windows. During your visit to Strawberry Hill House, it will take you a while to count all the stained-glass windows in the house.
There are even a few stained-glass window panes in the house with Old Dutch texts. You can see one of them on the left below.
Dazzling golden decorations
Strawberry Hill isn’t an old dark damp castle. As you can see there’s lots of light pouring in from the many windows. Furthermore, the excessive use of gold-coloured paint certainly brightens up the place. The dramatic ceiling of the Gallery Room in the photo below is a perfect example of this.
The library at Strawberry Hill House is the first and most famous Gothic library. Walpole took inspiration from St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey for the chimney and arched bookcases.
In the photo below you see the Round Room, quite a spectacular space to see in real life.
The Holbein Chamber in the photo below is part of the house that was originally used for socialising and entertaining guests rather than private use. The ceiling is based on the Queen’s dressing room at Windsor Castle. The fireplace is based on an Archbishop’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.
Writing and press printing
The room in the photo below was right next to Walpole’s bedchamber where he one night woke up from a dream and imagined he saw a giant armoured fist on the staircase. This was the inspiration for his gothic novel The Castle of Otranto.
In 1757 Walpole founded the Strawberry Hill Press, which is the most famous early private press in England. Here he produced books, pamphlets and other work.
He didn’t press The Castle of Otranto here as that was printed in London. However, he did press his book Description of Strawberry Hill here in 1784. This visitor’s guide book serves as the basis for the booklet you receive when you visit the house now.
Strawberry Hill House Garden
When Walpole created his landscaped gardens in 1747 he had a beautiful view from there over the river Thames. Nowadays that view is interrupted by other houses and woodland, but it’s still a lovely and tranquil green space. The Strawberry Hill House Trust encourages visitors to spend some time in the gardens as well when visiting the house.
During your visit you will see lots of contemporary art throughout the house. These are either commissioned artworks or works made by visiting schools.
When I visited the house, there were some artworks by Laura Ford on display. In the photos below you her installation Glory Glory. The featured sinister figure, dressed in a white mask, army hat and life jacket, forms a strangs contrast to the white teddy bear it’s holding.
The giant-sized cat-like creatures are bronze sculptures called Days of Judgment.
Is Strawberry Hill House worth visiting?
There are many more rooms and details to discover than I captured here in the photos. And the stories behind the design and usage of the spaces are really fascinating.
Take for instance Walpole’s special room called ‘The Tribune’ that he had built to store and display his most valuable possessions. He was extremely proud of this room, but only granted access to it to a select few. Less fortunate souls were only allowed to look into the room through a fence.
Personally, I highly recommend a visit to Strawberry Hill House. It’s an extraordinary piece of architecture with a curious history that has had a huge influence on modern popular culture. But it’s also a great way to explore an area in London you wouldn’t necessarily visit as a tourist. Located in a beautiful part of London with lots of green just by the river Thames, Twickenham makes for an idyllic haven away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
And who knows, your visit to Strawberry Hill House might inspire you to write the next world-famous horror story…
Have you been to Strawberry Hill House yet?
Let me know what you thought of it in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx