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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Grottos, Grottas, and not forgetting Santa's Grotto

Perhaps all of you knew, especially Londoners, that the Undercroft (now used for receptions etc) of The Banqueting Hall in Whitehall once had a grotto built inside it. I only found this out recently and that started me thinking about the various types of grotto which we have in England.

First, the Grotto in the Banqueting Hall. Sadly this has long gone but was built and created for James I as a drinking den for him and his 'companions', with lots of dark curtained off places.. At one end was the grotto, decorated with shells. The grotto's designer was the French garden architect, Isaac de Caus. His first known commission in England was at The Banqueting House in 1623 for the Undercroft's grotto. Later he worked at Lincoln's Inn, Covent Garden, and Wilton House, outside Salisbury.

So what is a grotto? Originally, as at the Banqueting House, they were found indoors, in a dark space, such as a basement or under the stairs. They were a niche normally covered with shells to create an effect of an underwater nymph's cave, hence the phrase 'shell grotto'. Later they moved outdoors into gardens, which is where we are likely to encounter them today. Most of these early grottos were sadly destroyed during The Civil War of the 1640s.

By the end of the 18th century they had become very popular, if expensive, luxuries. No self respecting aristocrat could do without one. The grotto at Oaklands Park, for example, cost £25,000 in 1781 - a truly staggering sum of money. They were also becoming more natural as tastes changed, although shells remained a common feature. Today, there are roughly 200 surviving grottos.

Two of my personal favourites are the ones at Ware in Hertfordshire and at Margate in Kent. Most are located in the grounds of country houses or former houses, as in the case of the one at Ware. The Margate example is, however, a puzzle. Only discovered in 1835, it has been the subject of much wild speculation as to date and purpose. Some have suggested the Phoenicians built it, others The Knights Templar. Personally I am still of the opinion that it was a rich man's fancy that was abandoned, and over time forgotten about until re-discovered in the 19th century. One verifiable oddity is that most of the shells are local to Thanet or Kent, but there is one type of shell, that of the flat winkle, used in the design profusely, whose nearest source is Southampton. Oh, and I should add the one in Stourhead Gardens, another favourite of mine. I am sure many of you reading this will have your own favourites. If, however, you have never visited one, add it to your post pandemic 'to do' list. On my own such list is a visit to my nearest grotto, about two miles away at the Victorian Gardens at Highdown, just outside Worthing and sheltering under The South Downs.

Why did the Victorians generally turn their collective back on grottos (the example at Highdown is an exception)? Well, they liked mass banks of flowers, lawns, and conservatories, not flashy grottos. The nearest Victorian garden designers came to grottos were large rockeries which sometimes had a cave built into them.

Before I move on to 'grottas', two stories which may be of interest. Firstly, in the mid 18th century you could visit the showroom of Mr Castles in Grotto Passage, Marylebone and see displays of shellwork, make your choice, and place an order. Secondly, there is a shell grotto in the grounds of Thames Eyot, a block of 1930s flats in Twickenham. The grotto itself survives from a previous property on the site. I do wish my 1930s block of flats here in Worthing had a grotto, or at least that Mr Castles was still in business so I could order one, and reignite interest.

My second topic is far removed from the estates of 18th century country houses and takes us instead to the pavements of 19th century cities where 'grottas' or 'grotters', in the vernacular, were constructed by children around St James Day (25th July) as a way of soliciting money from passers-by, as indeed they also did, and still do, with Guy Fawkes figures in November. It is, as with much folklore, difficult to be certain about dates. These street grottas seem to have arisen at the end of the 18th century and had disappeared by the end of the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s. They were temporary affairs erected on a pavement consisting not just of shells, in this case oyster shells rather than seashells, with pieces of silver paper, flowers, leaves, and anything else that might catch the eye of the passer-by, added in to the overall design. There was no set pattern, although early references refer to a lit candle on top. And it is the presence of a candle, oysters, and St James Day that give us the clue as to their origin. St James of Compostela's badge is that of the oyster and around his day was the traditional opening season for oysters in England. The confusion over dates is caused by the 18th century calendar change. Thus the custom practised by children may well be remembrance of an earlier custom in honour of the saint which had been practised in Catholic England. But in truth the jury are out on origin as well as dates. Maybe it is simply that oyster shells were readily found at this time of year, and as it was summer there would be lots of people walking the streets providing a ready market for the enterprising young. There remains a rather orderly grotto making custom in Whitstable, Kent, during the town's Oyster Festival. But his is very much a middle class revival (1988), although none the worse for that.

One of the other unanswered questions is as to where the custom took place. Normally the answer is given as the South East, London, Kent and Sussex. But there are examples from further afield such as St Helier on the island of Jersey.

Not everyone was pleased to donate as a contributor to 'The Leisure Hour' recorded in 1856, 'No sooner do you walk out in the morning, in whatever direction you will, than you are saluted with the cry of. 'Please to the Grotto', emanating from some unwashed little wanderer, who runs before you, clutching in his dirty fingers an oyster shell, which serves him as a begging dish.' Ah well, it was ever thus. So, if you are accosted by the cry 'Please, spare a copper, for my grotta', I hope you will do the decent thing!

Staying with children, the grottos that today's children are most familiar with are the Santa Grottos, in Department Stores and Garden Centres, at Christmas time. This is a recent development having its origin in one English city, in one store, in an attempt to drum up more Christmas trade. The city was Liverpool, the store, Lewis's, and the date 1879. From Liverpool the custom has spread around the world. Lewis's has now gone but its grotto survives, thanks to its last manager. You can still find it today in a large Liverpool shop where it remains quite a draw.

If any of you reading this have memories of 'grottas', please let me know. You will definitely be adding to folklorists' knowledge of this now lapsed custom.

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Feb 27, 2021

As Stourhead is just up the road from my home I know the grotto very well. It even contains a pool and a statue of a classical water god.

however, I take issue with you on one, small point. Even though Victorian children made their ‘grotters ‘ with oyster shells - the food of the poor in those times - Saint James’ symbol has always been a scallop, not an oyster shell.

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