“Do you happen to know anything about the ‘subterranean grotto’ in the grounds of Woodlands/Mycenae House, mentioned in the newish Westcombe Park conservation area appraisal in ” The Westcombe Park Conservation Area Apprasial?” (page 23, if you’re looking – though I’ll understand if you get waylaid, it’s a fascinating document – TGP)
Greenwich is, frankly, poorly served for grottoes. It wasn’t always so – according to the fabulous John Bold (if you don’t have his architectural history of Greenwich, then get saving those pennies now – he’s pricey but so worth it) 17th Century Greenwich boasted a grotto (by Salomen de Caus, a major Mannerist gardener) to rival Tivoli in the grounds of the seminal Queen’s House (though the comedy fountain wasn’t quite as grand…)
A 1640 visitor described this confection as one of the prettiest he’d ever seen; inside a little house with an iron grille at the front. The walls shimmered with mother of pearl and little sea shells interspersed with grass and moss, so artfully done that it looked like some magical creation. I can’t quite picture the ‘woman representing a centaur, made of shells, bringing forth a great quantity of water, just like the other two figures to either side of her,’ but I’m sure it was charming.
John Bold discusses (then dismisses, boo…) the possibility of the Queen’s House basement being originally intended as a grotto (apparently de Caus had built one in the basement of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, now long-gone, though there is one still at Woburn Abbey.)
There’s pretty much nothing left of the magnificent gardens at Greenwich – whatever’s still in the Dwarf Orchard is pretty much our lot these days as far as I know. Sadly while the rest of Europe was enjoying a grotto-building extravaganza, Greenwich Palace was busily being turned into biscuit factory by Oliver Cromwell, and even later, when Charles II promised new heights of extravagance, and there were hints of a new grotto in the air, to be constructed at the top of the Giant Steps, the king ran out of cash while the splendid, multi-storey, temple-esque folly was still a twinkle in John Webb’s eye.
During the grand rococo second-flush of grotto-creation in the 18th Century, Greenwich’s fortunes had already taken a turn for the worse. The court had long moved west, and with it the money courtiers were prepared to spend on fripperies. The fabulous new hospital was grand but salty old sea-dogs had no use for the kind of nymphs found in shell-houses. If the grand houses around the park boasted any, I don’t know of them (though I can’t help thinking Princess Caroline would have loved one) and if there are any left in back gardens in West Greenwich I don’t know of them, either, though I would looooooove to (hint, hint…)
There may have been one in Sir John Vanbrugh’s back garden ( I certainly wouldn’t put it beyond him) and I do vaguely remember someone telling me that there’s still a folly at Vanbrugh Castle which, when the person who told me last saw it, was being used as a shed.
So in our paucity of rustic folly, we have to turn to those other great grotto-lovers.
No, really. There’s nothing, it seems, that nuns love building more than little shrines and grottoes in the grounds of their convents. I know of two in Greenwich, though I guess there could be more.
Firstly, the one in the Ursuline, part of Our Lady Star of the Sea on Crooms Hill. I’ve never seen it, of course, it’s behind the high walls, but I was chatting to a woman I met at a function a few months ago who had gone to school there and distinctly remembered the grotto in the bushes as a good place for the ‘naughty girls’ to have a quiet fag.
The other, and I finally get on to Gavin’s question now, was in the grounds of Woodlands/Mycenae House and built by the Little Sisters of the Assumption. As I understand it it was based on the famous shrine at Lourdes, which must have been quite an eyeful (although my own abiding memories of Lourdes are the wall-to-wall souvenir shops selling plastic water bottles in the shape of the Virgin Mary, glow-in-the-dark Maddonas and miniature icons made out of fairy lights to sit on car dashboards) but I’m not aware that it was subterranean.
I was quite excited by the little note in the Apprasial, as I was under the distinct impression that the grotto had been wantonly demolished a few years ago, but if it’s in an official document, it does raise the tantalising possiblity that what I have heard about the loss of the grotto is wrong and that it lies there still, “now concealed beneath undergrowth” at the bottom of the gardens.
Or maybe it’s a totally different grotto to the ones the nuns built. Certainly there’s quite an implication that the subterranean grotto belongs to Woodlands rather than Mycenae and, therefore, possibly something left over from John Julius Angerstein’s time. It’s frustratingly brief.
Back in April, when Gavin first asked the question, I wrote to Senior Conservation Officer, Rebecca Duncan, who wrote the report, to confirm that the subterranean grotto does actually exist. So far I have had no reply. I remain optimistic, but can’t help feeling that more digging, both literal and metaphorical, needs to be done.
Does anyone know of any modern grottoes/follies in Greenwich?