A Popish Plot in Twickenham Contains a Popish Grotto, Finds Griselda Heppel

Radnor House School, Twickenham
It’s extraordinary what you can find in a school. I don’t mean the usual collection of classrooms, gym, assembly hall, dining room, with a scattering of lost trainers, sweatshirts, bald tennis balls and trodden on pieces of paper. 

It’s quirks of architecture that appeal to me. When a school is made up of a jumble of old buildings, all from different historical periods, the scope for hidden doors, secret rooms and passage ways is extremely appealing (as you might tell from the way these elements crop up in my books, taking my poor heroes on terrifying journeys). Until a week ago, I thought I knew the limits you could go to with a school’s environment without losing all sense of realism and thereby your readers’ suspension of disbelief; but then a week ago I’d never heard of Radnor House School.

Alexander Pope's villa. Engraving by Nathanial Parr from 1735 painting
by Michael Rysbrack

Radnor House is an attractive 19th century red brick building in Twickenham, west London, with a glorious frontage on the Thames and its own grotto underneath. 

Yes, you read that right. Its own grotto. And not just any grotto. (Is there such a thing as Just Any Grotto? Discuss.) This one dates back to 1729, when a fine Palladian villa belonging to the great poet Alexander Pope stood on this spot. Between translating the works of Homer and sending up contemporary mores in The Dunciad and The Rape of the Lock, Pope took great interest in gardens and garden design. One problem: his five acres of land lay on the other side of Deep Cross Road from his house.

Plan of Pope's grotto
(Pope's Grotto Preservation Trust)
To gain easy access, he hit on the ingenious idea of tunnelling under house and road together, widening the space into a series of intriguing chambers. As Johnson drily remarked, Pope ‘extracted an ornament from an inconvenience, and vanity produced a grotto where necessity enforced a passage.'

Centuries passed. Pope’s villa was torn down and other buildings erected in its stead. But the grotto remained, and in recent years the Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust was set up to restore it. Work has begun but there’s still more to do, which is why the grotto can only, for the time being, be viewed on special Open Days. A friend alerted us to the most recent one and my husband and I leapt at the chance.

Looking down the central chamber to 
the tunnel in Pope's grotto

With the aid of a wonderfully informative volunteer, we explored all the fascinating details. Captivated by geology, Pope decorated the walls, not with shells, as became fashionable in the 18th century, but with stones and minerals, fossilised sponges and pieces of petrified wood. There are even two basalt hexagons from the Giant’s Causeway. He cleverly inserted three mirrors at angles to reflect light from the river (now sadly blocked by a school building), making the minerals on the uneven surface of the walls sparkle. The effect was enhanced even further by the suspension of – wait for it – an alabaster ball from the ceiling that glittered as it revolved in the breeze, as shown in William Kent’s drawing of Pope in his grotto.

Alexander Pope in his Grotto by William Kent, 1725-30
(Chatsworth Settlement Trustees) Note the disco ball
to the left of the poet's head.

Whaaaaaat? On top of writing some of the most famous poems ever written, coining aphorisms, designing gardens and pursuing geological interests, Alexander Pope invented the…. disco ball? Was there anything the man couldn’t do? 

Looking at Kent’s drawing, I did wonder. Given the cold, the draughtiness, the gloom – even if relieved by scattered gleams of light – and the general lack of comfort, could Pope really have sat at his desk in the middle of the passage and written reams of poetry? The privacy and lack of distraction would be a great plus, certainly. 

But for a man who could build his own Palladian villa, there must have been easier ways of finding those.

The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel
BRONZE WINNER in the Wishing Shelf Awards 2021 
By the author of Ante's Inferno  
WINNER of the People's Book Prize


Peter Leyland said…
Well, there's a lot I didn't know about Pope here Griselda despite having studied him at University in London of all places. I even have the Twickenham Edition of his poems! There were a group there who loved the Augustans like Pope and Swift, and another lot who were keen on the Romantics like Wordsworth and Keats. You can probably guess which group I favoured.

I have made amends, however, and my small poetry group recently had a session on Pope at which I was able to display my literary knowledge of him. If I'd had your post earlier, I would have been able to say a lot more. So I'm making a note of The Grotto Preservation Trust which sounds fascinating.

Thanks for an informative blog
Sandra Horn said…
Amazing! I can picture Pope in his cave - apart from the glitter ball, which I'm still struggling with. There's obviously more to him than ever I dreamed of! Thank you!
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you both - yes, it's been quite a learning curve for me too, as far as Pope is concerned. I had to do his poetry at university, and while some amused me, I ended up choosing Restoration Comedy as the subject for my dissertation because 1) It was a lot jollier 2) It got me out of having to sit an exam on 18th century literature altogether (away with you, Dryden, Burke, Paine etc).

I did enjoy The Rape of the Lock though.
Peter Leyland said…
A good choice. I still have a treasured book of Everyman Restoration Plays bought for 6s 6d for my own degree.

Popular posts

Be a Sexy Senior Freshman with a Landline Phone---Reb MacRath

Bear Facts and Gristed Mills by Fran Brady

Where We Work (Part Two) - Joint Post

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

'Strong Winds' and Sponsorship