Restoring Wanstead Park

The-Grotto-built-in-1760©Jennifer Baptist

In the 11th of a series of articles looking at the developing plans for restoring Wanstead Park, Richard Arnopp of the Friends of Wanstead Parklands has some good news about the park’s historic grotto. Photo by Jennifer Baptist

Far beyond living memory, Wanstead Park’s boathouse grotto has been quietly mouldering away as nobody could decide what to do with it. Now, 136 years after it was accidentally destroyed by fire, we have a double dose of good news about this iconic building.

Not only has the City of London adopted a Conservation Management Plan to secure its future, but the Friends of Wanstead Parklands have secured a grant from the Heritage of London Trust for some remedial work to be carried out on the structure.

The Grotto was built around 1760 for John, second Earl Tylney of Castlemaine, overlooking the Ornamental Water. Unusually large and elaborate, it was on two levels, with a boathouse below and a room for entertainment above, and with a service area to the side. It isn’t known who designed the building, though the noted antiquarian, geologist and naturalist Dr William Borlase supplied geological specimens to be incorporated into it. The grotto survived the wreck of the estate and became a popular attraction when the park was opened to the public, with an admission price of sixpence. Sadly, it was burned out during maintenance work in 1884, leaving only the exterior walls. Since then, weathering and vandalism have led to further loss of fabric: little is now left on the landward side, and the spectacular waterside façade survives only as a denuded shadow of its former self.

The Grotto was added in its own right to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register in 2017 (the park as a whole has been on the register since 2009).

The Conservation Management Plan was commissioned by Epping Forest and prepared by Alan Baxter Ltd, a consultancy specialising in conservation projects. It includes a summary of existing knowledge about the Grotto’s historical development as well as a consideration of its current condition and significance. It concluded that the Grotto is at a turning point in its history. In recent decades, its decline has accelerated, despite sporadic attempts at consolidation, to the point that visitors’ appreciation of the Grotto’s significance is being jeopardised.

The task was now to identify a sustainable future for the structure and to see its removal from the Heritage at Risk Register. The Conservation Management Plan recommended that, in the medium term, the City Corporation should, as far as possible, restore the façade to its 18th-century appearance. Nothing done should preclude fuller restoration at a later date if that was considered appropriate and funds became available. Issues of security, accessibility and interpretation would also need to be addressed. It was emphasised that, as part of a designed landscape, the Grotto could not be considered without reference to its immediate surroundings and the wider vision for Wanstead Park as a whole.

The Friends took an active part in the stakeholder workshops arranged by Alan Baxter Ltd and contributed documentary evidence and historic imagery to assist the project. The conclusions reached have our enthusiastic support – the Grotto is an important focal point in the landscape and a tangible link with the park’s rich history.

We were looking forward to seeing the plans take shape and become a reality when we were suddenly given an opportunity to help make it happen. In July, Friends of Wanstead Parklands Chairman John Sharpe received an approach from the Heritage of London Trust (HLT), a charity set up to provide help to London’s lost, neglected or ruined buildings and monuments. HLT told us it was interested in considering the Grotto for a grant in recognition of its ‘at risk’ status. After a site visit, the Friends submitted an application for a grant toward rebuilding the landing stage.

We are delighted to announce a grant of £10,000 has since been approved, with work planned to start later this year. The City of London will probably be able to add a further £15,000 to allow all the necessary work to be completed. The HLT briefed its Patron HRH Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, about the project at a recent meeting. The duke, who is also Ranger of Epping Forest, is said to be taking an interest.

The Friends hope there will be other opportunities over the coming years to act as the lead charity to unlock new sources of funding for projects in Wanstead Park. We’ll keep you posted!

For more information on Wanstead Park, and to become a member of the Friends of Wanstead Parklands, visit wansteadpark.org.uk