A trip to Strawberry Hill House

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The other week my friend Susan was down from Cumbria, and we spent a happy few days in London – as someone who’s lived in the capital for seventeen years now, I never usually have the time or energy to just be a tourist in my home town, and it’s always good to have an excuse. We wandered around, had some fine food (and I proved once and for all in Wagamama that I shall never be able to master chopsticks), and went to see a new version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial at the Young Vic (I did my dissertation at university on the novel. It wasn’t a great dissertation). And we went down to Twickenham in south-west London to see Strawberry Hill House.

The house, and land surrounding it (back then Twickenham was largely rural, but very fashionable if you were wealthy enough, with a few large houses dotted about near the Thames), were bought in 1748 by Horace Walpole – son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister – and he spent the next forty-two years altering and extending it, in imitation of the Gothic style he had seen whilst travelling the continent on his Grand Tour.

It was at Strawberry Hill that a terrible nightmare inspired his novel, The Castle of Otranto – and Walpole is thus credited with not only kick-starting the Gothic revival in architecture, but with writing the very first Gothic novel to boot.

The house itself lay derelict for many years, until a trust was formed in 2002 dedicated to restoring it, and it was finally reopened to the public in 2010 – though some restoration work still continues. Walpole wrote a detailed description of his “little bauble”, as he called it, in 1784, for the benefit of its many visitors, and this, along with his letters, and the many drawings and paintings of the house he commissioned, meant the restorers were able to faithfully recreate it as it would have been in the Eighteenth Century. The Strawberry Hill Trust are also trying to return to the house as much as possible of Walpole’s great collection of artefacts, pictures and furniture, for which it was in part a giant display cabinet, and which was all sold after his death.

After a very nice lunch at the café, accompanied by the screaming of children on a school trip, and only slightly dampened by the sudden appearance of rain, our tour began with a short introduction to Walpole and the house by one of the excellent volunteer guides, after which we were free to roam around inside, and free to take pictures, though we were politely asked not to touch anything, especially the (very expensive) wallpaper, a faithful reproduction of that you would have seen in Walpole’s day, and imported from the US as it is so specialist it can no longer be made here in the UK.

Walpole coined a term to describe the atmosphere he wanted to create at Strawberry Hill – gloomth, a combination of gloom and warmth. Indeed, for all its Gothic trappings, the house is really quite cosy, and doesn’t have the draughty, intimidating feel of the great neo-classical piles that some of Walpole’s contemporaries were building at the same time, like Castle Howard or Kedleston Hall.

Walpole never really expected the house to survive him, and it is a small miracle that, 218 years after his death, it has been rescued and restored to such a high standard. It’s a beautiful, intriguing place, and something tells me I’ll be back before too long for another visit.

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“Slow West” – review

I know that a whole library’s worth of books and treatises have been written about the Western, and I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert – nevertheless, I’ve seen a few Westerns in my time, and I think Slow West, which I went to see this afternoon, is a more than worthy addition to the genre.

The directorial debut of Scottish musician John Maclean, formerly of the Beta Band, it is set in the American West in 1870, though it was filmed in New Zealand, and is a UK-New Zealand co-production, starring an Irishman – Michael Fassbender – and an Australian, Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Smit-McPhee plays Jay, the young son of a Scottish laird, recently arrived in America in search of his lost love, Rose, who has had to flee Scotland with her father after an angry confrontation ends in tragedy, which Jay blames himself for.

Out in the wilds of the New World, Jay is way out of his depth, until an apparently fortuitous encounter with Silas (Fassbender), a bounty hunter who saves his life, and insists on chaperoning the boy to his destination. Jay reluctantly agrees, and so the odd couple set off. “Let’s drift,” says Silas, and they do – but this is to be no picnic, and before long they have witnessed – and Jay has participated in – a bloodbath in a remote provisions store, and we also come to realise that Silas’s old gang are on his tail, and are none too happy about his leaving their employ. But even more worrying for Jay, his companion has his own reasons for finding Rose and her father, which are rather less wholesome than Jay’s.

Like all the best Westerns, Slow West is as much about what isn’t said as what is, and Maclean is confident enough to let the silences, and the beautiful, unforgiving scenery, do a lot of the work, trusting his actors, and only giving us as much dialogue and backstory as we need, with a spare, well-judged narration from Silas occasionally filling in the blanks.

Fassbender increasingly resembles a younger Viggo Mortensen – he has a similarly weathered, melancholy face, which contrasts nicely with the open, pale features of Smit-McPhee. The other members of the cast are likewise superb – Ben Mendelsohn, as Payne, Silas’s former employer, and the rest of his gang, look like they’ve lived rough on the prairie their entire lives, and Caren Pistorius gives a nicely understated performance as Rose. Game of Thrones fans will be pleased to see Rory McCann as her father.

Though the film is called Slow West, and the pace seems unhurried, I don’t think there was a single moment in this picture when I felt bored – instead, I was entranced, and would strongly recommend it. It’s beautifully shot, by Robbie Ryan, and the original music, by Jed Kurzel, is some of the best I’ve heard in a movie in a long time. Watching it was a very moving experience, with a denouement that’s both terribly sad and simultaneously uplifting, without in any way being sentimental. Do try and see it if you get the chance.