Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797) discovered Chopp’d Straw Hall in 1747 when it was one of the last remaining sites available on the banks of the Thames in fashionable Twickenham. He set about transforming what was then a couple of cottages into his ‘little gothic castle’ with pinnacles, battlements and a round tower set in meadows and gardens with ‘cows and sheep studied for becoming the view’.
The castle (or villa) became a tourist attraction in Walpole’s life-time. He allowed four visitors a day and published rules for their guidance (no children allowed). His house-keeper frequently showed them round while Walpole retired to his cottage in the grounds. It was also a place for parties and Walpole delighted in entertaining foreign ambassadors and royalty as well as the English aristocracy, several of whom were near neighbours. ‘Dowagers like flounders inhabit all around,’ he wrote.
In creating Strawberry Hill, Walpole inspired a new fashion for gothic in both architecture and literature. While houses like nearby Marble Hill were based on classic traditions, order and symmetry, Walpole chose the architecture of gothic cathedrals as the inspiration for his villa. Chimney pieces, doors and ceilings are based on gothic vaulting, medieval tombs and rose windows. Winding corridors and gloomy passageways open into the sudden splendour of rooms like the Gallery; ‘all Gothicism, gold and looking glass’ as the poet Thomas Gray described it.
One night Walpole awoke from a dream and imagined he saw a giant armoured fist on the staircase and it was this that inspired the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. Printed on the first private printing press in the country at Strawberry Hill, it was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a literary tradition which lasts into our own time.