It was a wonder of the western world: a tribute to the hidden grottos and secluded springs of classical mythology. Yet Alexander Pope’s great folly, a network of caves and tunnels built below his home on the banks of the River Thames at Twickenham, is largely forgotten.
Alexander Pope is granted eternal sunshine of a Twickenham memorial
A plan to restore the grotto, now grubby after three centuries of neglect, will get under way this month with the support of heritage grants, leading conservationists, fans of Pope’s poems and essays such as former University Challenge presenter Bamber Gascoigne and television gardener Monty Don, and schoolchildren who study inside the school that stands above it.
“The repair work we now have permission to carry out on the Grade II-listed structure will bring it back to life,” said Mike Cherry, an historian and secretary of Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust. “It is very dirty, since it is lying under 300 years of dust. Little has been done to it since Pope died in 1744. It needs proper lighting to show the quartz and other precious stones and metals to best effect, and some of the decoration is not entirely secure.”
The trust is holding a symposium, to be opened by Gascoigne, at the site on 21 May, Pope’s birthday, to publicise the plans and raise funds.
Pope, the reclusive literary star of 18th-century society, was the best-known English satirist and poet of his age, but also had an influential passion for landscape gardening and lobbied for the use of natural forms, rather than formal, geometric shapes. His grotto was built around a natural spring as a grand gesture and was copied across the fashionable estates of Britain, but it was also a place of tranquillity and mystery.
Pope recorded his feelings about it in 1741 in his Verses on a Grotto by the River Thames at Twickenham, composed of Marbles, Spars and Mineralscorrect:
“Where ling’ring Drops from Mineral Roofs distil,
And pointed Crystals break the sparkling Rill,
Unpolish’d Gemms no Ray on Pride bestow,
And latent Metals innocently glow.”
The grotto is the last remaining relic of Pope’s Thameside villa, built in 1720 after his visits to Italy. The river was wider at the time and visiting luminaries would arrive by boat and moor at the bottom of his garden. One guest, Sir John St Aubyn, wrote: “I have seen Mr Pope’s grotto in which … he has most strictly followed nature … [He has] made it a cabinet of the natural history of the growth of minerals.”
Pope continually added to the grotto and by the time he died, at the age of 56, its walls were studded with 200 geological features, including fossils, a stalagmite from Wookey Hole in Somerset, shells, flints, a “mother amethyst” from Northumberland, sections of the basalt Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and pieces of fossilised wood from Knaresborough in Yorkshire.
His villa was demolished in 1808 and repeated redevelopments followed over the next 200 years. During the 1960s the grotto functioned as a passageway for the school above it, allowing pupils to pass under the A310 road into an annexe. In 2005, the boys’ school on the site set up a charitable trust to preserve the grotto and the first serious fundraising plans for restoration began.
It has been a long wait, but, as Pope himself wrote in his Essay on Man, “hope springs eternal”. Five years ago, with the grotto listed on Historic England’s at-risk register, ownership of the building passed to the independent Radnor House School, which is also campaigning for its restoration and will hold open days over the next two months.
“We have a school Grotto Society which raises money and the children learn about its history so they can give tours,” said Rosie Gill, headteacher and a preservation society trustee.
“The gates are locked during the school week, but foxes sometimes get in and the younger children stick their heads in. There are rumours it is haunted by the ghost of an old teacher, but we take new kids down for a dinosaur hunt so they know what is down there. Some say Pope used the caves as a wine cellar, but we prefer to think of him using it to cross unseen over to his five acres of garden.”
Arts Council England has funded Giles Abbott to perform his new work, Alexander Pope: A Search for Perfection, at the symposium.
“Pope was described as being of ‘unparalleled sweetness and gentleness’ despite his vicious satires,” said Abbott. “You don’t find the real Pope in his writing, just his opinions and his skill. It is his grotto that is his truest, greatest work, I believe. He was trying to recreate the landscape of his imagination and created what was perhaps the first British ‘museum’, in the classical sense of a place for the nine inspirational muses who were always to be found gathered around a natural spring.”
Hope Springs Eternal
Understanding the Times
'Hope springs eternal in the human breast' wrote the eighteenth century poet, Alexander Pope. Platitude? Yes, but true for all that. I have to confess the lines (from An Essay on Man) come to mind frequently at dinner when Jake (my dog!) lies at my feet with fixed gaze on every morsel entering my mouth. Try telling him that this is but a platitude!
These words are at the heart of human experience. They form the nerve center of the book known as Ecclesiastes (take a look at Ecc. 9:4 about a 'living dog' as opposed to a 'dead lion' and you'll get the point). My sixteen year-old neighbor has been trying to learn how to ride a skateboard all summer. He's persisted through embarrassing falls and hostile temperatures. And why? Because, I fancy, it's a cool thing to do and the girls will love him for it. Why do musicians spend endless hours playing scales, or athletes sweat it out in gymnasiums, or seminary students stay up half the night studying (well, perhaps I'm dreaming here)? Because they hope to succeed one day. They want to be someone or do something and this is the way to achieve it. They have hope!
Without hope - the bitter experience of hopelessness - is a killer. Talk to medical therapists about the importance of sustaining hope in the fight against disease and again you'll get the point. Tell someone they have cancer and hope temporarily evaporates. It is crucial to urge the promotion of hope at such times. It is time to gird up the loins and do battle against a viscous monster. Whatever must be faced, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy ... these must be buoyed by the hope that they will do some good.
But, for Christians it is more than a hope for now and the present; it is that there is a purpose behind it all, an overruling providence that sustains the darkness and points toward the light. We have a basic (God-given) instinct to know who we are and why we are here. Without it, as in radical existentialism, human worth diminishes.
The secular humanists, men like Richard Dawkins (author of the current best seller, The God Delusion), must face the terrible dilemma that life really has no meaning except the self-absorbed obsession to make it as tolerable as possible. It is a philosophy of hopelessness - we exist, but there is nothing that gives our existence any meaning. There is no way to authenticate myself.
Viktor Frankl (who later founded a school of psychiatry known as logotherapy) spent three years as a young man in the Auschwitz concentration camp where he noticed that those most likely to survive their ordeal were those "who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill." Without meaning - hope - there is only a road that leads to boredom, alcoholism, and suicide.
The gospel responds to this Edenic malaise by assuring that in Jesus Christ lies real hope and true meaning. He came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). It restores in us an image of God that has been broken by sin. Like once ruined castles we are re-built to form a something beautiful and Christ-like. In Christ we are a new creation anticipating a newer existence yet in the world that is to come - an existence that has, in part, already broken through into our own space-time continuum (2 Cor. 5:17). As such, we have value. Yes, value. We much valuable than a sheep or many sparrows, Jesus said (Matt.10:31; 12:12). As Archbishop Temple put it, "My worth is what I am worth to God, and that is a marvelous great deal, for Christ died for me."