Strawberry HillIt’s not often that Joni and I are able to explore literary sites together since we’re usually on different continents. But during a recent stay with her in London, bookish activities were on our itinerary.

First we perused the British Library’s wonderfully informative and atmospheric exhibit “Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination,” inspired by the 250th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. The eerie tale is credited as being the first Gothic novel, and the exhibit opens with a section on the book and its creator. When we learned that Walpole conjured up The Castle of Otranto at Strawberry Hill, a Gothic-style house in a London suburb, we headed out to see it the next day.

Strawberry Hill “was built to please my own taste,” boasted Walpole. He took inspiration from Gothic cathedrals, incorporating features like vaulted arch doorways and rose windows into his abode, which in turn launched a literary tradition. It was in this atmospheric setting that Walpole first had the idea for The Castle of Otranto, awakening from a dream and imagining he saw a giant armored fist on the central staircase.

In addition to hosting royalty and other VIP guests at swank soirees, Walpole allowed members of the public entry into his domain. Only four literary travelers were allowed access on any given day, shown around by the writer’s housekeeper while he retreated elsewhere on the grounds. Walpole wanted a stroll through his abode to be a theatrical experience, with guests entering through a darkly lit foyer, ascending a gray stone staircase, and finally laying eyes on the flamboyant, crimson-and-gold gallery where he preferred to entertain.

We just made it for a self-guided tour of Walpole’s Gothic wonder before it closed for the season. Mark your calendars: Strawberry Hill reopens on March 1, 2015.