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Wanstead Park's Grotto
Wanstead Park's crowning glory, a 250 year old romantic grotto.
The grade II-listed structure was once a beautiful building in the grounds of the magnificent mansion Wanstead House, with a sparkling view of the lake.
The grotto at Wanstead can be dated back to 1761, when Lord Tylney was acquiring materials, notably from the antiquarian William Borlase, amongst others. Although parts of it certainly pre-date that by 20 years.
Visiting it today it can accurately be called a ruin, as very little of the original splendour or size. The principal chamber, with its dome and octagonal lantern, was an eclectic array of materials: a floor made up of coloured pebbles laid out in patterns and figures, and the roof and walls were covered with coral, seaweed, stalactites, elegant sea-shells, and petrifactions. The furnishings were equally as mixed, ranging from a wooden coffin to three ostrich eggs. But the grotto served another purpose, because directly below the main room was a boathouse, which opened directly onto the water.
In 1824 the grotto escaped the fate of the house, and even survived plans for its demolition in 1835. It is tragic; therefore, that just two years after Wanstead Park was opened to the public in 1882, most of the grotto was destroyed by an accidental fire.
The uppercrust of society would come down and watch theatre and firework displays on the lake. Audiences, often including royal family, would sit in punts and boats and witness performances put on in front of the Grotto.
In 1764 King George III and Queen Charlotte were just such guests while American diplomats and Italian noblemen made long journeys to attend the parties held there.
An account of one such party in 1768 describes an astounding play in which the mansion's owner, Sir John Tylney (playing King Arthur) witnessed a fearful apparition rising from the lake itself which left the audience scared out of their wits.
They were certainly lavish shows at least: one estimate placed the cost of the parties and opulent lifestyle at 70,000 in 1822.
However, the Grotto fell into disuse after its last owner, a notorious gambler called William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, ran into huge debts.
His impoverished wife demolished the mansion to pay for his excesses, raising a paltry 10,000 despite it costing 360,000 to build.
It warms the heart to hear of funds being made available to restore the structure in some manner.