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Papal Visit II: Strawberry Hill and Pope's Grotto

Friday, September 03, 2010
On the morning of Friday 17th September Pope Benedict XVI will meet with religious involved in education, and with young people and teachers from Catholic schools. These meetings will take place at St Mary's University College in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham. The College is one of the leading teacher training institutions in Britain and is renowned also for its sports science department. It also has a lively school of philosophy, theology and history in which the author of the piece below, Fr Vivian Boland, taught for eight years.

The name ‘Strawberry Hill’ will evoke different associations for different people. For some it refers to a particular style of architecture and interior decoration known as Georgian Gothic or even Strawberry Hill Gothic. The original house at Strawberry Hill near Twickenham was built during the last years of the 17th century. In the second half of the 18th century its owner, Horace Walpole, a son of England’s first Prime Minister, transformed it, adding towers and battlements to turn it into what he called ‘a little Gothic castle’. Apparently he and his dandy friends used it as a place of escape from the dirt and bustle of London.

The Romantic revival of interest in the Middle Ages was under way towards the end of the 18th century. In fact Strawberry Hill may be regarded as one of the places that stimulated that revival in England. People came to see it even in Walpole’s time, an early form of tourism that strengthened his social standing and his reputation as an innovator in style. The eccentricities of the Victorian styles yet to come are already anticipated in the fireplaces, gilded ceilings and doorways imitating medieval tombs and vaults, as well as in the painted glass windows with their curious mixture of biblical and secular motifs. Walpole’s antiquarian interests were in keeping with the décor of the house and he built up an eccentric but impressive collection of antiquities, artworks, manuscripts and curios.

The house and grounds later became the property of the Waldegrave family and in the 1920s were bought by the Catholic Church to house Saint Mary’s College. This is the association that Strawberry Hill has for many people now, especially those who have been involved in Catholic education.

St Mary’s was established in 1850 and was originally housed at Brook Green in Hammersmith, much closer to the centre of London. It was set up to train male Catholic teachers in response to the expansion required in Catholic education in the middle of the 19th century following Catholic emancipation in 1829 and the large Irish immigration to England in the years of the Great Famine. During the second half of its life the Vincentians managed the college until its first lay principal took charge in the mid-1990s. The last forty years or so have seen great changes in Saint Mary’s. It established links with the University of London and more recently with the University of Surrey. It became co-educational and it changed from a teacher training college to a university College. It continues to thrive as a centre of excellence in teacher training and sports science, as well as offering courses and qualifications in theology, religious studies, psychology, English, history, drama and more.

Visitors to Strawberry Hill are often struck by the name of the pub, Pope’s Grotto, just down the road from the College. Some, knowing the college to be a Roman Catholic institution, have wondered whether the pub is of the same persuasion, christened by a strange piety in honour of Rome (and Lourdes!) But it is not so. The Pope in question is not the Bishop of Rome but the poet and critic, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) who lived nearby during the second half of his life. He was, as it happens, born to Catholic parents at a time when Catholics in England still suffered serious prejudice and repressive legislation. His parents had to move during his childhood in order to comply with restrictions on where Catholics could live. His education was uneven – a mixture of secret schooling, home tutoring and self-education. He suffered a variety of physical ailments and disabilities but these did not prevent him producing an impressive corpus of literary work. In fact Pope seems to have spent as much of his time engaged in controversy with other writers and critics as he did working on his own poems and translations.

One of Pope’s best-known poems, The Rape of the Lock, satirises the superficiality of the social mores of his day but also testifies to the power of humour to defuse potentially serious situations. His Essay on Man considers more profound questions about human character, against a dramatic and cosmic background in the style of John Milton, and is said to have inspired the French writer Voltaire. Pope admired the classical Latin poets Virgil, whose Iliad and Odyssey he translated into English, and Horace. His earnings from his translations enabled him to move to the neighbourhood of Strawberry Hill, which also gave him breathing space from the anti-Catholic pressures that continued to mark political and social life in London. Pope remained a Catholic all his life while taking on board many of the ideas of the Enlightenment period in which he lived.

In his later years Pope constructed a romantic ‘grot’ in a tunnel linking his back garden with the Thames. This was decorated with shells and pieces of mirror and it is said that he would sit in this, the original Pope’s grotto, thinking and writing. Although he is now generally regarded as having been overtaken by the great Romantic poets that came after him – Blake and Wordsworth for example – there are anticipations of what was to come in Pope’s nature poetry and in his interest in the medieval love story of Abelard and Heloise.

One of Pope’s final works is an attack on the government of Sir Robert Walpole whose son Horace was to begin his work of transforming Strawberry Hill, the house up the road, just four years after the death of Alexander Pope.

Some of Pope’s lines have become proverbial: ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’, ‘blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed’, and ‘to err is human, to forgive divine’. The sharpness and perennial relevance of his wit are seen in comments like ‘die and endow a college or a cat’, ‘fondly we think we honour merit then, when we but praise ourselves in other men’, and ‘Satan now is wiser than of yore, and tempts by making rich, not making poor’. But there is a kindness rather than sarcasm in this: ‘a man should never be ashamed to own he has been wrong, which is but saying, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday’.


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