A little Disney in the country

This week I ventured out to the country to visit two very unusual landmarks.

My first stop was  Strawberry Hill House, located in Twickenham just outside of London.  Usually when we drive up to these ancient piles, as the English refer to stately English mansions, there is a venerable long drive, lined by mature trees, and surrounded by open pastures and magnificent gardens.

Not so at Strawberry Hill.

Once upon a time, the house stood alone with vast views to the Thames.  Now it is surrounded by very ordinary residential homes on a nondescript suburban lane.  At first we drove past the house!  Imagine my surprise when we pulled in to the car park to see this unusual vision:


Strawberry Hill combines an original Victorian structure in weathered ochre with a new Gothic Revivial architecture in bright white that was the latest fad back in the mid-1700s.  Horace Walpole rebuilt the existing house in stages starting in 1749 and ending in 1776. Gothic features such as towers, turrets, and battlements outside and elaborate decoration inside created the “gloomth” that Walpole desired to display his collection of antiquarian objects (all secure in the Yale collection now).

I think it looks like Walt Disney decided to transport one of his princess castles and drop it aside an old English manor house!


Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, was an English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and overall maverick.  He penned what is considered the original Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto.  Just as Strawberry Hill  is considered the first true example of Gothic Revival architecture, his book is said to have started the Gothic novel trend that introduced us to Frankenstein and Dracula, among others.

After exploring this unusual house, we drove a short distance to Cobham to visit Painshill Gardens.  Just as Strawberry Hill is not your run of the mill English mansion, Painshill is not your standard manicured English garden.  Instead, it is more of a vast parkland, encompassing over 200 acres of varied landscape.

Painshill was originally created by Charles Hamilton between 1738 and 1773.  His creation was among the earliest to reflect the changing fashion in garden design prompted by the Landscape Movement, representing the move away from geometric formality in garden design to a new naturalistic formula.   Hamilton placed a number of follies, or small decorative outposts, throughout the park as focal points in the vistas and as pleasing elements to be discovered in the landscape.

On our quest to see the follies, we strolled:

along a winding trail through fields of resplendent blue bells….



around peaceful ponds in the water meadow…



past regal swans along waterside paths…



across a Chinese foot bridge…



past a Gothic Abbey ruin….



down stream into a secret grotto.


The grotto was the ultimate folly, by definition a thing that the Hamilton sunk the most cost into with absolutely no purpose other than to dazzle guests.  And it was dazzling to stand in this damp cave beneath conical stalagmites covered in different reflective minerals and micas.  Yet, there is nothing natural about the setting.  In essence, this grotto is an elaborate stage set of wooden cones carefully covered in mineral chips beneath of framework of brick hidden in aged limestone.

It was another day of discovery, and the “folly” theme seemed appropriate as both Strawberry Hill and Painshill represented the unique visions of two men who strove to create deliberate distinction and whimsy in their home and garden.

I keep being reminded of Walt Disney who also had a very deliberate vision to create his own whimsical folly, Disneyland.  A place where Gothic Revival architecture conjures castles, various follies create a landscape filled with surprises, and stage sets produce dazzling worlds unto themselves.

My visit to the country was a day spent in a Magic Kingdom.





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