One of the biggest challenges of winter travel is that a lot of attractions have reduced opening hours or are closed entirely. The number of times I’ve eagerly walked up to a museum or monument only to find a sign that says “closed until March, suckers” (or something like that) is sad. But a few places feel my pain, opening for a select number of days in winter to welcome people who don’t just want to get their fix in peak summer season when all the tourists are around. Strawberry Hill House in London’s Twickenham is one of them.
I’ve wanted to visit Strawberry Hill House ever since I heard the name. Maybe I watched too much Strawberry Shortcake as a kid, but I’ve always imagined a giant strawberry-shaped house with magical interiors and sweet treats inside.
Amazingly, I’m not too far off. Horace Walpole, son of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, was
a bit of an eccentric. Back in the 18th century, he decided to build himself a bright white Gothic Revival castle right smack in the middle of Twickenham. As one does.
The result is spectacular, both inside and out. And for two weekends every December (including this coming weekend), eager visitors like me can see the inside without having to wait until March. I discovered this by chance a few weeks ago and bought tickets to see what the Strawberry Shortcake house of my dreams was all about.
Now that I’m here, I’m pretty awestruck. The exterior of Strawberry Hill House is like a giant white wedding cake, only instead of a plastic couple on top there’s fanciful turrets and frosted crenelations. It might not be a giant strawberry, but it’s still pretty amazing.
Even more exciting is that as soon as I walk in, my strawberry dream comes true. Given it’s winter, Strawberry Hill House is Christmas ready. In the entry hall, I’m greeted by one of many Christmas trees in the house, and it has a big red strawberry on top. So do all the other Christmas trees. You won’t see that in March.
Even better, each room has a steward inside to answer questions and talk visitors through the finer details of the interior. It’s more interactive than just using the (admittedly good) guidebook that comes with the entry ticket, and brings the house to life with stories and anecdotes.
It’s a good thing, too, because the only downside of the visit is that it takes a bit of imagination to conceptualize what some of the rooms in Strawberry Hill House might have looked like back in Walpole’s day. Most of the original furnishings are long gone, so there’s some empty space to contend with.
But on the upside, rooms like The Gallery have amazing fan vaulted ceilings with gilded details and walls so bright they prompted Walpole to say “I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence”. No way, buddy. Your magnificence is fabulous.
Equally exciting are the dramatic Gothic staircase in the entrance (with little animals wearing Santa hats, no less!), and the views from the upper levels, which show off the gardens and grounds underneath beautiful stained-glass windows.
And speaking of the grounds, another reason to visit Strawberry Hill House in winter is the ice skating rink. Throughout the Christmas season there’s a rink set up on the lawn, complete with food vendors and entertainment.
I check it out as I make my way around the exterior to explore the grounds and sweet little Prior’s Garden before I leave. And when I do, I’m glad I’ve made a visit to Strawberry Hill House. It might not be Strawberry Shortcake’s house, but it’s every bit as magical.