Grotto Project

IMG_0974©Richard Arnopp

In the first of a series of articles monitoring the restoration and maintenance of Wanstead Park’s historic Grotto, Richard Arnopp from The Friends of Wanstead Parklands explains the background

Three years ago, the City of London adopted a Conservation Management Plan for the boathouse grotto in Wanstead Park, which has been in ruins since a fire not long after the park opened to the public in the late 1800s.

Since 2022, the Heritage of London Trust has carried out remedial work on the landing stage of the building, and the site received a visit from HRH The Duke of Gloucester. More recently, a working party has started to formulate a vision for the structure’s future. Its task is to identify a sustainable future for the structure and to see its removal from the Heritage at Risk Register, to which it was added in 2017 (the park as a whole has been on the Register since 2009).

The Grotto was begun around 1760 for John, second Earl Tylney of Castlemaine, on a site on the west side of the Ornamental Water. It seems to have been complete and in use when it was visited by the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande in May 1763. It isn’t known who designed the building, though from surviving correspondence, we know the noted Cornish antiquarian and naturalist Dr William Borlase supplied geological specimens to be incorporated into it. Unusually large and elaborate, the Grotto was on two levels, with a boathouse below and a room for entertainment above, with a service area to the side. This may date from when modifications were made in 1781.

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. About half of the original fabric of the façade is estimated to survive, with two large areas of complete loss and some unsatisfactory past attempts at restoration. 

The first meeting of the Grotto Project Board has now taken place and there have been some positive developments. A contractor has been appointed to draw up a restoration and maintenance plan, subject to confirmation of funding, and investigations of the structure have indicated no insuperable problems.

The Friends of Wanstead Parklands took an active part in the development of the Conservation Management Plan for the Grotto and a committee member sits on the Project Board. 

Next month, I will discuss some of the work that has been done to make sense of the history of this neglected building.

For more information on Wanstead Park, visit wnstd.com/fwp

Author: Editor