I began 2022 not by visiting a real garden but enjoying a digital reconstruction of Alexander Pope’s garden in Twickenham. A Virtual Arcadia has been created by Professor Paul Richens for Pope’s Preservation Trust. The journey starts on the River Thames and after passing a few pubs, a tannery, some barges, we disembark at Pope’s Villa.

Sadly the Villa was demolished in 1808 – and you will have to see the film to see what the garden was like – but what still survives, is part of the Grotto.

Alexander Pope arrived in Twickenham in 1719 with his elderly mother and nurse. Leasing land from his friend Thomas Vernon, Pope built a Villa and in the cellars underneath the house, Pope created the grotto.

Pope was instrumental in encouraging a new style of gardening in England. Away from the strictures of the Franco-Dutch design, Pope advocated a more relaxed style, the ‘Simplicity of unadorned Nature’ harking back to the ‘Taste of the Ancients’. Imagine Pope’s delight when he discovered a stream in his grotto – in Greek mythology, the Oreads were nymphs of mountains and grottoes while the Naiads presided over fountains, wells, springs and streams.

A description of the Grotto appeared in the Newcastle General Magazine of 1748: ‘Cast your Eyes upward, and you half shudder to see Cataracts of Water precipitating over your Head, from impending Stones and Rocks, while salient spouts rise in rapid streams at your Feet: Around, you are equally surprised with flowing Rivulets and flowing Waters, that rush over airy Precipes, and break amongst Heaps of ideal Flints and Spar.’

Sadly, the stream has disappeared but entering into one of the most important grottoes of early Georgian England, is still a magical experience. Dark with layers of grime covering many of the walls, some minerals and rocks are still visible.

The grotto consists of four chambers. A Lateral Chamber which would have been created when Pope added the portico to his Villa, the restored South Chamber to your left while the North Chamber to your right and the Central Chamber still await restoration.

A plan of the grotto helps in indentifying various quartzes, shells, the remains of a willow trunk (possibly one of the two willows that Pope planted in his garden), mother amethyst, ammonites, fossilised wood, Bristol diamond, looking glasses, faces and basalt from the Giant’s Causeway.

The Grotto is open to the public on several days of the year – check https://popesgrotto.org.uk/ for details. If you get an opportunity go. It’s a chance to explore the Grotto created by a brilliant poet and satirist who challenged man’s relationship to nature.

For a more detailed account of Pope’s Grotto, read the entry on the Visit Gardens website.

I’ll end this post with a description of the Grotto by Pope:

THOU who shalt stop where Thames’ translucent wave

Shines a broad mirror thro’ the shadowy cave’

Where ling’ring drops from min’ral 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!

And eye the mine without a wish for gold.

Approach; but awful! lo! the Aegerian grot,

Where, nobly pensive, St John sate and thought;

Where British sighs from dying Wyndham stole,

And the bright flame was shot thro’ Marchmont’s soul.

Let such, such only, tread this sacred floor,

Who dare to love their country, and be poor.

Verses on a Grotto by the River Thames at Twickenham by Alexander Pope

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