Blog: Visiting the House under COVID-19
Written by Nevil Tomlinson, Volunteer Guide and Membership Newsletter Editor
29 July 2020

Strawberry Hill House has been made COVID-secure and opened to the public on 26th July, having been closed since 18th March. As a member, I was invited to a preview visit on 22nd July; I booked my timed slot in advance and duly walked into the ticket office at 11.08 a.m. to find that I was the very first visitor to the new Strawberry.

Volunteer room stewards are always important in communicating with visitors. The house is celebrated for its gothic features and I was half expecting a surreal experience with stewards in black masks skulking in dimly lit rooms adding to the gloomth. This was of course pure fantasy on my part; the house instead felt clear and fresh, as well as gothic and eccentric. The volunteers all wore clear face visors with no masks; it was really good to see their faces and hear them speak clearly. Hand sanitizing stations are in all the places that you would expect them to be and materials that visitors used to handle in each room have been removed. With carefully restricted attendee numbers, the house feels more spacious and I felt under no pressure to move on to the next room before I was ready.

Each year, Strawberry usually adds more objects to its collection and I was hoping to see some of these. My luck seemed to be out, although the stewards thought there could be two significant portraits going up on the walls later this year. But for lovers of Strawberry Hill, your luck is never out. The exit from the house is normally back down the main staircase but this is not possible under a COVID-secure regime; instead the exit was down the iron staircase just outside the café. Visitors go into the Round Room and then through the double door into the ante room of the Waldegrave Suite and down the staircase. The ante room and the stairs are owned by St Mary’s University and they have kindly agreed to use of this exit route during July and August when the university is still closed. The Waldegrave Suite is part and parcel of Strawberry Hill House’s Grade 1 listing and examining the ante room was an unexpected treat (always the best kind). The high Victorian grandeur of even this minor room throws a light on Walpole’s old house; you can understand how it looked small and out of date (but still engaging) in the 1860s. And the stained glass in the ante room is worth a close look with its arms of Alfred the Great and others. The Gothic revival looked to old English history rather than that of ancient Greece and Rome, so Horace would have appreciated Lady Waldegrave’s choice of subject matter.

The café is open with a serving hatch and outdoor seating which is pleasant enough under the acacia trees. The shop is open with an impressive perspex screen in front of the tills.

All in all, a very enjoyable visit.

Nevil Tomlinson