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Nothing remains of Alexander Pope’s 18th-century villa except its grotto, which has experienced three centuries of quiet decay alongside the River Thames in Twickenham, England. Gates block the entrances, although errant foxes sometimes slip through. It was never completely forgotten, yet it’s not the popular tourist spot it was after Pope’s death, nor does it still have its river view, lost to encroaching development. The poet’s beloved underground passage, where he spent two decades filling the walls with minerals that glint and fossils that give the impression of a romantic cave, is now the focus of a restoration project to return it to some of its former atmospheric glory.
“It’s gloomy, dusty, poorly lit, and it’s difficult to see the rocks and minerals which Pope installed,” Robert Youngs, treasurer of the Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust, told Hyperallergic. The organization is rallying donations to match funding for restoration, better lighting, and more public access. As the Guardian reported in May, the grotto already has heritage grant support, although it doesn’t cover the entire project. Currently the grotto only has sporadic openings, during June’s Twickenham Festival and Open House London, taking place this year on September 17.
“We have just completed the first minor restoration: the statues, [which are] later than Pope, and the 18th-century iron gates, possibly there in Pope’s time,” Youngs explained. “We are now raising money for the complete restoration, which will include cleaning, stabilization, lighting, flooring, and improving access.”
Youngs noted that this work is planned for next summer, as any major restoration to the grotto would have to coordinate with the schedule of the Radnor House School, which owns the site and is also involved in its preservation.
Construction on the villa began in 1719, when Twickenham was more rustic than suburban. The grotto was created as a shortcut from the basement of the house to his garden so Pope wouldn’t have to cross a dividing road. As poet Samuel Johnson wrote, perhaps wryly referencing Pope’s hunchback due to childhood tuberculosis: “Pope’s excavation was requisite as an entrance to his garden, and, as some men try to be proud of their defects, he extracted an ornament from an inconvenience, and vanity produced a grotto where necessity enforced a passage.”
According to Historic England, after Pope’s death in 1744 at the age of 56, the Baroness Howe bought the villa in 1807 and “almost immediately” tore down the building, and “irritated by the number of people who still visited the site in memory of Pope, she removed most of the decorations that adorned the Grotto.”
Yet overall, little has changed, with the grotto’s shell and stone-covered walls, once illuminated by alabaster lamps, still embodying both the classical mythology Pope was inspired by while translating Homer, and his fascination with mines and geology. Mary Wellesley described a visit this month in an article for the London Review of Books, noting that the walls are “encrusted with geological curiosities,” including “a piece of basalt hacked from the Giant’s Causeway and there was once a stalagmite from Wookey Hole, supposedly shot down from the roof of the cave at Pope’s request.”
However, the area around the grotto is much changed, the country road Pope tunneled under now the busier A310 London Road. Yet within the subterranean space, where Pope pondered his Iliad translation and his own satiric verse, there’s still the mineral smell and texture that evokes this 18th-century retreat, a rare tangible expression from the author’s personal life. And you can still imagine, beyond the neglect, the magic in it that he saw:
Thou who shalt stop, where Thames’ translucent wave
Shines a broad mirror through the shadowy cave;
Where lingering drops from mineral roofs distil,
And pointed crystals break the sparkling rill,
Unpolish’d gems no ray on pride bestow,
And latent metals innocently glow:
Approach! Great Nature studiously behold!