In 1719 Alexander Pope moved to Twickenham and leased three small cottages by the Thames. He demolished one and lived in another while he had a Palladian villa built facing on to the river. The site only having a small garden which was open to and therefore overlooked from the river, he leased more parcels of land on the opposite site of the road and proceeded to make a garden there.
At that time the road was only a track, but Pope still needed to make a private means of access to his new garden. He decided that, rather than building a bridge, he would dig a tunnel. His riverside garden was a full storey lower than road level, so he could have a tunnel made from his basement under the road, surfacing in the garden.
Pope had spent over a decade translating the Iliad and the Odyssey, giving him a good knowledge of and an interest in Greek mythology, and so he decided to make a grotto of his cellar and tunnel.
This he did, with William Kent, among others, providing advice, and many of his friends (and friends of friends) providing materials, and he more or less spent the rest of his life making and remaking the grotto. There was a Shell Temple outside the garden entrance, which had a small porch decorated with shells, ore, and flints. A spring was found during the excavations, and so he was able to furnish his grotto with small water features.
In 1739, after a visit to the Avon Gorge in Bristol, he developed an interest in geology, and decided to change his grotto to reflect this, again pressing his friends for new sorts of materials – various stones, crystals and ores, William Borlase providing much from Cornish mines. His West Country friends (and friends of friends) were supplying him with, literally, tons of materials (and cider), for which he paid with his home-grown pineapples. He was supplied with grotto-making paraphernalia from all over the world – even some bits of the Giants Causeway which were donated by Hans Sloane (the collector whose collection formed the basis of the British Museum, and who invented drinking chocolate). It was fortunate that his garden was beside the Thames – the materials were carried by ship to London, transhipped by barge, then unloaded onto his front lawn.
Samuel Johnson was a little dismissive: ‘He extracted an ornament from an inconvenience, and vanity produced a grotto where necessity enforced a passage.’
In 1744 Pope died, and the leases of the house and the gardens reverted to their owners; his gardens were built upon, the road was widened and the passage therefore lengthened more than once, making the grotto much more tunnel-like. The grotto was a popular tourist attraction, and in the way of the times each visitor took a bit away with them; in the early 1800s Baroness Howe, a subsequent owner, demolished the house, unwilling to put up with the tourists.
The grotto remains, however, now beneath the current building erected by tea merchant Thomas Young in 1842, and it is shown annually during the Twickenham Festival. I was lucky enough to get a look at it this afternoon. It is badly in need of restoration, and the local history society is hoping to be able to do this. The building currently houses a school, although in September they relocate to new premises, the building is on the market (only £7 million), and so future access to the grotto is uncertain.
I walked back through some of the leafier, riverside parts – Twickenham does have a reputation for being a bit upper-class, although I’m sure it’s not as posh as it’s purported to be. I passed one of the shopping streets, which was closed to vehicles.
Having some time to spare, I visited the Orleans House Gallery, first for a cup of tea in the café housed in the old stables, and then for a quick look at the exhibits. I’ll be back for a longer look at the gallery, and there’s a lot more to see in the area – it’s an interesting part of the world: Marble Hill House is next door, Ham House is a ferry-ride across the river, and Horace Walpole’s gothic pile is scheduled to open to the public in the autumn (although this afternoon it was still shrouded in scaffolding in a rather unkempt-looking setting).
There’s a number of interesting books about Alexander Pope produced by Twickenham Museum, including these: