2013 - Strawberry Hill

July 2013: Strawberry Hill House

This year’s summer outing was to Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, the former summer home of Horace Walpole, the son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Around 40 members of the Oxted & District History Society and their friends travelled by coach from Oxted, enjoying coffee and biscuits before splitting into two groups for guided tours of Strawberry Hill House.

Walpole arrived at Strawberry Hill in rural Twickenham in 1747 to establish a summer residence and lived there until his death in 1797. At a time when classicism and Palladianism were fashionable, Walpole wanted to create a ‘little gothic castle’. There had been nothing like it since the Middle Ages. Walpole and his friends used medieval tombs as sources for the design of the chimney pieces. The house has a theatrical quality: it is entered via a gloomy hall and staircase to a magnificent vaulted gallery and the other main rooms. There is much stained glass in the windows, collected in the Low Countries, fan-vaulted ceilings, like Henry Vll’s chapel in Westminster Abbey and crimson Norwich wool damask wall coverings.

Walpole was an avid collector of bric-a-brac, coins, medals, miniatures and enamels. His most prized treasures were kept in the Tribune room, named after the room in the Uffizi Palace in Florence. The design of this room was inspired by the Chapter house at York Minster. Unfortunately all the contents of Strawberry Hill House were sold off in 1842 by George, 7th Earl of Waldegrave. In one of the biggest auctions of the 19th Century, Walpole’s collection was sold over 25 days from a temporary wooden auction hall on the lawn.

The Strawberry Hill Trust, formed of local people who were determined to restore the house to its former glory, was set up in the early 21st Century. Attracting some big-name supporters, the Trust received a £9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2007 and has now secured a further £1.5 million to complete the project. Members of the Trust are now trying to track down Walpole’s contents, auctioned in the 1842 sale. They have had some success in locating many of them and some have been reinstated in Strawberry Hill House on loan.

After a superior sandwich lunch at Strawberry Hill in the café located in Horace Walpole’s cloisters, some members of the Oxted & District History Society went on a guided tour of the gardens. Unfortunately part of Walpole’s estate near the River Thames was sold off for development in the 1920s. Horace Walpole’s gothic fantasies did not extend to the gardens. He went along with contemporary 18th Century ideas of the ‘managed nature’ look and the plants and trees in his remaining garden are now being replanted as far as possible with those species available in the 18th Century. Following afternoon tea, the Oxted & District History Society party returned by coach to Oxted.