Twickenham's Brush with Royalty

Marble Hill Park started life as the country residence of Henrietta Howard (1688-1767), later to become the 9th Countess of Suffolk. The house was paid for partly from Mrs Howard's wages as Mistress of the Robes to Queen Caroline but mostly by a generous contribution of some £12000 from Mrs Howard's lover, who was also her employer's husband, King George II. To continue the royal connection, the house was taken on in the 1790s by another royal mistress, the Prince Regent's unofficial consort, Mrs Fitzherbert.

The House and Grounds

When researching the architect of the house I came across three different names and was completely baffled. I later managed to unravel the mystery, thanks to a helpful English Heritage employee and some intensive googling. The house was originally designed by Colen Campbell but had to be scaled down to suit Mrs Howard's budget. The man responsible for this was Henry, Lord Herbert, also know as the Earl of Pembroke. No wonder I was confused! The house was then built by Roger Morris between 1724 and 1729.

As if the King giving his mistress a heavy bag of gold with which to build herself a villa wasn't enough, said mistress then decided to combine 'a textbook example of Palladian architecture' with completely natural, informal grounds. Today it means very little to most of us, used, as we are, to contradiction in design as a statement. To her contemporaries, Lady Suffolk was making a bold, brash statement which bewildered most of them. Encouraged by her very close friend and neighbour, Alexander Pope, she opted out of the traditional formal gardens which would usually have accompanied the style of villa she had built. Instead of reflecting the squareness, order and symmetry of the villa by having avenues of trees, rectangular flower beds, elaborate fountains and so on, she chose large rolling lawns and irregular shaped paths through the trees and bushes. There were kitchen gardens and orchards but not one formal flower bed or fountain in the entire estate. Many remarks at the time referred to how the house stuck out like a sore thumb against its surroundings. The grounds somehow managed to escape the hand of Capability Brown who was responsible for remodelling many of the gardens of nearby houses, a fact which is much appreciated today by locals who only know of the area as a park and are mostly ignorant of why there is a house slap bang in the middle of it.

In recent years, the great rolling lawns and landscaping have continued to cause upset amongst the locals. When English Heritage took over the property in 1986 they promised to restore both house and grounds to their former glory. One of the features which had disappeared and EH wished to reinstate was Sweet Walk. As its name suggests, this was a path, bordered by sweet-smelling flowers and shrubs. Sounds delightful, I hear you say, why would anyone take offence at such a thing? Well, because it cut across the back lawn, and would mean the demise of the clay tennis courts installed under the auspices of the GLC. It would also, many neighbours argued, spoil the view of the house from the road-end of the lawns. I'm sure there was more to this than meets the eye. It makes no sense to me to save the view of the back of the house and forego such an original feature. (I mean, come on! A scented walkway! How gorgeous is that?)

For the horticulturalists amongst you, let me tell you that the grounds boast the largest Black Walnut tree in the country. I can promise you that even the most committed tree-hugger couldn't get their arms round that trunk. Unfortunately, it was severely damaged in the summer of 2002 and I suspect it will go the way of the historic Blue Cedar (a rarity, I am reliably informed) which once dominated the lawns, and fell victim to the storms of January 1990.

The Grotto

In 1941 a fallen tree on the eastern side of the South Lawn created an opening in the earth, which led to the discovery of one of the two grottoes said to be within the grounds of Marble Hill House. The existence of the grottoes up until then was suspected but the whereabouts uncertain, although there were some clues found in letters written by friends and family of Lady Suffolk. The Countess was encouraged to construct the grottoes by Alexander Pope. Inigo Jones helped Pope construct a famously breathtaking grotto in his property and from there, presumably, the Countess took her inspiration. But it was not until 1983 that subsidence prompted excavations and the grotto was reinstated. The grotto today is, supposedly, a fair imitation of how it would have been in its day, surrounded by hedges and accessible by a short steep path. The entrance to the grotto itself is prohibited but if you press your face to the protective bars you can see the remains of a mosaic of shells studding the earthen walls. It must have been the perfect rendezvous for a midsummer's evening tryst. Nowadays it is mostly frequented by teenagers, as it provides ample cover for surreptitious spliff-smoking.

The Park Today

The park currently stretches over 66 acres, flanked by a 700 yard stretch of the River Thames between Richmond and Twickenham and the A305, a major commuter route into central London from Reading and the south-western Home Counties. To one side, there is Orleans House and the wonderful gardens of York House, complete with water nymphs.

Marble Hill is a haven for dog owners, parents, kids, sports enthusiasts, joggers, in-line skaters and squirrel lovers. It is a wonderful place to walk and has an excellent range of amenities. There are clay tennis courts, cricket tables, children's playgrounds, a cafe in the old stables, a safe fenced area for the One o'Clock Club, rugby pitches, football pitches, a putting green and a car park. In good weather, the park attracts picnickers by the coachload at the weekend along with after-work rounders games and a cricket green is marked out during the summer months. Even with all this activity going on, the park never seems crowded. There are still huge expanses of grass where you can spread out without encroaching on fellow sunbathers or frisbee players.The house itself is now open to the public and hosts some fine early Georgian art on its walls and period furniture throughout its beautifully preserved rooms.

During the year I lived next door to the park, there was always something going on. From children's adventure trails and local band competitions to installation art and the ubiquitous summer classical music picnics. If you find yourself near Richmond or Twickenham and have a couple of hours to spare, you could do worse than spend them at Marble Hill.

Further Reading:
How to find it:
English Heritage:
some images available here:

Richmond Today - Including Kew Gardens and Hampton Court by Roger George Clark. Ed. Hale 1994
Marble Hill: The Design and Use of a Palladian Estate by Julius Bryant, Borough of Twickenham Local History Society. February 1986
The Victoria History of the Counties of England - A History of Middlesex Ed. OUP 1962
English Heritage information panels in the park itself.
Local Studies department of Richmond Reference Library (where very helpful staff dug out piles of disintegrating newspapers for me and my dust mite allergy to enjoy.)

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