I can’t even remember where I found out about Pope’s Grotto, but this unique curiosity is well worth visiting and the Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust, supported by Radnor House School, the owners of this grade 2* listed site, is hoping to repair and conserve it. The grotto is the last remaining part of Alexander Pope’s villa, which he built in 1720 on the banks of the Thames at Twickenham. The villa was demolished in 1808 and the site has been developed numerous times since then – but the grotto still remains.
Alexander Pope was a 18th century poet whose famous works include The Rape of the Lock; he also translated the Iliad and the Odyssey. While not a household name today, he contributed several popular phrases to the English language, including ‘eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’ (the name of one of my favourite films), ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’, and ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing.’
History of the Grotto
In 1719, Pope came to live in Twickenham, demolishing one of the houses on the site to build himself a villa. He decided to build a grotto beneath the house, inspired by the interest in classical mythology that had prompted his translations of Homer. In later years, Pope decided to redesign the grotto as a museum of mineralogy and mining, after a visit to the Hotwell Spa on the banks of the Avon. He sought help and donations from people all over the country, and friends and acquaintances sent material too: Sir Hans Sloane donated two small pieces of basalt from the Giants’ Causeway in Ireland.
Inside the Grotto
Inside, it’s an eerie but fascinating experience. You enter through the school and walk outside onto the terrace, with a great view of the river, before heading down some steps and to the entrance of the grotto. The entrance takes you into a long corridor, extending to the other side of the road, lined with stones and minerals. There is even fossilised wood from the Dropping Well in Knaresborough.
Above the archway is a sign, requisitioned from an unknown location.
On either side of the corridor there are chambers. To the left, one chamber has a statue, possibly of St Catherine or the Virgin Mary, as well as a tree trunk in one corner.
This tree trunk is supposedly from a willow planted by Pope.
Ammonite casts are placed above the archways on each side.
I spied lots of different minerals on the walls, but I have no idea what they all are.
The second chamber had a statue of St James the Great, and there were lots of boxes of minerals ready to stick on the walls.
The project began with a pilot to conserve the South Chamber last summer. The full project, for which funds are currently being sought, will involve careful cleaning, replacement of the cement floor, new lighting and sound effects, and a digital interpretation.
Pope’s Grotto is well worth a visit, if you can catch it on an Open Day (there are two more in June, and the site will also be open for free access in September during Open House London weekend). It’s a fascinating curiosity, whether you have an interest in Pope or not.
Address: Radnor House Independent School, 21 Cross Deep, Twickenham, TW1 4QG
Opening Times: Check popesgrotto.org.uk/visits/ for details; you can subscribe to the newsletter for information about open dates/times
Prices: £6, £5 for concessions