How many passengers on the R68 or the 33 bus, I wonder, are aware as they travel between Twickenham and Teddington along Cross Deep that beneath the tarmac is one of the loci classici of european culture, the grotto tunnel where Alexander Pope (1688-1744) watched the passing boats on the Thames and where, in 1726, the poet entertained Voltaire?
Pope began building his riverside villa in 1719. To connect it to the garden on the landward side of the road he commissioned the construction of a brick tunnel under the highway, entered from a chamber in the basement of the house, which over the years he was to embellish with rockwork and minerals. Dr Johnson, 'no grotto admirer', to quote Mavis Batey in her Alexander Pope: the Poet and the Landscape (Barn Elms 1999) observed that Pope had 'extracted an ornament from an inconvenience, and vanity provided a grotto where necessity enforced a passage'.
History has not been kind to Pope's house and garden. The villa was demolished early in the nineteenth century by Countess Howe and a school occupies part of the site of his garden, but the grotto tunnel survives and is listed at Grade II*, although now included in English Heritage's Heritage at Risk Register.
The Pope's Grotto Preservation Trust was established in 2004 with Kim Wilkie as its patron, and with a development grant from English Heritage commissioned the conservation architects Donald Insall Associates to prepare proposals for the consolidation, restoration and presentation of the grotto. Those proposals were put on hold while the boys' school on the riverside site changed ownership, and in 2010 a new school, Radnor House School, was founded and occupies the nineteenth- and twentieth-century buildings that replaced the poet's villa.
The new school is now supporting the Preservation Trust's bid to raise £300,000 to restore the grotto and to make it both physically and intellectually much more accessible to the public. The Preservation Trust is looking to the Heritage Lottery Fund for support through its Our Heritage scheme, and is working with English Heritage, LB Richmond upon Thames, the Thames Landscape Strategy, Strawberry Hill, Kingston University, Turner's House, and other local groups. The Heritage of London Trust has offered a grant towards the restoration of the eighteenth-century iron gate and railings, and additional funding is still needed to ensure that Pope's Grotto, one of the most resonant sites in English garden history, is preserved and made accessible for the benefit of the present and future generations.
For details of the Preservation Trust including updates on progress and on how to make a donation see: www.popesgrotto.org.uk