This “little gothic castle” on the Thames sparked the Gothic revival craze of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Horace Walpole, the youngest son of the first prime minister of Great Britain, marched to the beat of his own drummer. A writer, gadfly, aesthete, and prodigious collector of curiosities, Walpole first laid his eyes on the small estate of Chopp’d Straw Hill in 1747. He bought the property, renamed it “Strawberry Hill,” and embarked on a decades long project to turn the villa into a medieval style castle full of “gloomth” and wonder. He called Strawberry Hill his “little plaything…the prettiest bauble you ever saw,” and sat about covering it in towers, battlements, stained glass windows, spires, gold accents, and mirrors. It soon resembled an elegant, delightful, childlike perversion of medieval buildings like Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral, which Walpole had studied.
Strawberry Hill became a tourist attraction during Walpole’s lifetime, becoming one of the first of England’s many estate-museums. A favorite spot for lovers was a particular bench in the lovely garden, which was carved like a giant Rocco style sea shell. Walpole complained, rather disingenuously, about this onslaught of visitors and guests:
“I have but a minute’s time in answering your letter, my house is full of people, and has been so from the instant I breakfasted, and more are coming; in short, I keep an inn; the sign ‘The Gothic Castle’ …my whole time is passed in giving tickets for seeing it, and hiding myself when it is seen. Take my advice, never build a charming house for yourself between London and Hampton Court: everybody will live in it but you”.
The house also inspired what most scholars believe was the first Gothic novel. One night, Walpole was frightened awake by a nightmare. He dreamed that he had seen a giant armored fist on the highest bannister of the grand staircase at Strawberry Hill. This vision prompted him to write The Castle of Otranto, a runaway hit said to have inspired Mary Shelley. From its opening lines, it set in motion a romantic gothic tradition that continues into the present day:
The gentle maid, whose hapless tale These melancholy pages speak; Say, gracious lady, shall she fail To draw the tear adown thy cheek?
Today, Strawberry Hill is open to the public attached to St. Mary’s University, and still delighting and confounding visitors from all over the world. There can be little doubt that Walpole would be pleased.