London: Alexander Pope’s Grotto and the Georgian House

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Another London Open Weekend has come and gone (a few weeks ago, sorry I’m not more timely), and as usual, it was kind of a bust for me.  I always get really excited when it rolls around, but then realise most of the buildings on the list either require advance booking, which I’m not usually organised enough to do in time, or are examples of modern architecture that I couldn’t care less about.  This year, to add insult to injury, I attempted to volunteer at the historic almshouse at the Geffrye and thought I had successfully signed up for it only to be told a month later, when there were no other volunteering slots left, that the Geffrye didn’t actually need volunteers this year.  Guess I’m not the only one with poor organisational skills.  The only benefit of this was that it freed up my Saturday to visit Alexander Pope‘s Grotto, something I’ve been longing to do for years!

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Pope was one of the people I discussed in my Master’s thesis, so I’ve long been interested in him (though his personal life more so than his poetry), and anxious to see this grotto, which is the only surviving part of his once extensive estate in Twickenham.  The grotto is now located beneath a school, is only open to the public on London Open Weekend, and requires advance booking to see it even then (which is why I haven’t been there until now).  By the time Open City informed me that my services wouldn’t be required, only the 10 am slot was left, which meant I had to get up far earlier on a Saturday then I would normally find acceptable, but damned if I didn’t just about manage it.  Well, we ran in just as the tour was starting, but that was more to do with it taking ages to find a parking space.

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I say “tour,” but fortunately after an introduction from some guy who I think was probably the headmaster of the school, we were free to wander on our own, probably for the best as the grotto was not huge (not that it needed to be, for Pope anyway).  They did pass out a little map and scavenger hunt, and some of the pupils were available to answer questions, although they had signs hanging up around the outside of the grotto that were quite informative on their own.  Pope was pretty keen on geology, so his grotto had interesting rocks built into its walls, many of them from places I’ve been lucky enough to visit already, like Wookey Hole, and Mother Shipton’s Well.

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The grotto had three separate tunnels, one just leading out to the road (which was the reason why the grotto was preserved even though Pope’s house wasn’t; the Baroness who bought the estate kept the grotto so she could cross under the main road), and the other two leading to little sanctuary like rooms that contained religious statues.  Though these were probably the coolest aspect of the grotto, they weren’t even there during Pope’s day, but were added some time later.

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Although the grotto didn’t take all that long to see, it was really neat getting to walk in Pope’s footsteps, and I always love a good Georgian folly, so I really enjoyed this, and definitely recommend checking it out when the Open Weekend rolls around next year.  I can’t say the same for the next destination, the Georgian House.

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There were actually quite a few other properties open around Richmond and Hounslow, but a lot of them were normally open to the public anyway, or only open on the Sunday (like some awesome sounding mausoleums), so after a stop at Hansel and Pretzel to stock up on salty twisted bready goodness (which I would also recommend), we decided to check out the Georgian House at Hampton Court.  I love Hampton Court, and have been many times before, but this Open City event was for the Georgian House, a building to the side of the palace that is not normally open to the public except as a holiday home.  They were offering free 40 minute tours, so we signed up for the next available one, and walked around the free gardens to kill some time beforehand.

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We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the house and had to walk through some security gates to even access it, but the exterior was pleasant enough, as it was built early in the reign of George I in a style of architecture he was familiar with from his native Hanover.  We were only taken through half the house, which had unfortunately all been modernised for use as a rental home.  Well, I say modernised, but really it was like a particularly grim B&B, with lumpy beds, gross looking carpets, and no TVs, so I kind of pity anyone who has stayed there (we were told the Beach Boys spent the night, and I imagine they probably couldn’t wait to get out and check into a modern hotel!).

Our tour guide was fine and told us some interesting facts about the kitchens and the kind of food George preferred (Germanic, obviously), but nothing could save the uninspiring interior, not even the excellent portraits of Stuart kings lining the walls.  I’m sorry I wasted my time here when I could have been seeing something more to my liking.  Ah, well, these are the risks that must be taken on London Open Weekend!  Frankly, I’m proud of myself for at least seeing one cool thing; sadly, that’s the best record I’ve got going with Open City.



  1. The Georgian house sounds disappointing but love the sound of the grotto – you can’t beat a folly in my opinion!! Having like you been to Mother Shipton’s and Wookey Hole my appetite is whetted and I would love to see this place.

  2. I’m also disappointed by the prebooking thing – at the Glasgow equivalent it seems that the proportion grows every year. Gone are the days of the city teeming with people clutching programmes and making serendipitous discoveries. I think that’s a shame and kind of against the “open” concept.

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