Our precious stones

L1230259©Geoff Wilkinson

Wanstead Park has been described as the jewel in east London’s crown. In the second of a series of articles documenting restoration work on the park’s 18th-century Grotto – a gem in its own right – John Sharpe of the Friends of Wanstead Parklands reports on a royal visit. Photo by Geoff Wilkinson

Representatives from the Friends of Wanstead Parklands were thrilled to be invited by the Heritage of London Trust (HoLT) to a prestigious visit to Wanstead Park last month by their patron, HRH The Duke of Gloucester.

The event was conceived to celebrate the completion of the first stage of works to the historic Grotto’s landing stage, funded by HoLT and the City of London Corporation, and marked the stabilisation of the Grade II listed structure. The Grotto has been on the Heritage at Risk Register since November 2017, with the landing stage deteriorating in 2020, putting at risk the entire structure. The Duke was shown the success of the repair work, with the retaining wall now safely rebuilt and invasive plant life extracted.

The Grotto itself enjoys a long and curious history as part of the estate of the long-lost Wanstead House. It was constructed between 1760 and 1764 as an exotic venue for theatrical entertainments with many activities taking place on the lake just in front of the Grotto. Inside, the upper rooms were adorned with shells and crystals, mirrors and a mosaic pebble floor.

Tragically, a fire that broke out in 1884 left the Grotto a ruin. Heritage of London Trust partnered with the City of London Corporation to spearhead a new restoration programme for the landing stage last year.

HRH The Duke of Gloucester met representatives of the Epping Forest Charitable Trust, Heritage of London Trust, Friends of Wanstead Parklands and young refugees as part of HoLT’s Proud Places programme. The programme offers young people from challenging backgrounds an opportunity to get involved with London’s heritage. Proud Places takes groups on site visits, and shows them the craft skills involved and facilitates creative workshops. The young refugees were excited to have a chance to see the Grotto.

The Duke was delighted to see the works which are a part of a wider plan for the restoration and maintenance of the structure. The Duke inspected the conservation work and spoke with the young people to welcome them and share his interest in the Epping Forest area, for which he is the ranger. The Duke also practised as an architect before succeeding to his elder brother’s titles and becoming a more active member of the Royal Family. The Duke impressed those he met last month with his knowledge and level of engagement with the Grotto project.

The Friends of Wanstead Parklands were delighted by the Duke’s visit, and greatly appreciate the personal interest he is taking in this project. It’s very gratifying to see the Grotto’s importance recognised by a royal visit as work begins to secure its future. The intervention by the Heritage of London Trust is proving a catalyst for critical action.

Dr Nicola Stacey, HoLT director, said: “It was wonderful to show the Duke progress on the Grotto. It’s one of east London’s hidden gems and so important that it is restored for the public – and the local community – to enjoy again.”

For more information on Wanstead Park’s Grotto, visit wnstd.com/grotto