Some time around 1760 an elaborate building known as Grotto was constructed by John, second Earl Tylney, on the west bank of the Ornamental Water. The structure was completed by 1764 and is said to have cost £2000, but with the addition of decoration and ornamentation was later valued at £40,000. Grottoes were a type of folly (that is, an architectural erection without functional intention) very popular with rich 18th century landowners. In fact, in many cases it is said that the landowner engaged a person to live in the folly and act the part of a real hermit. Whether this happened in the case of Wanstead Park is not known. In the case of the park's grotto, it is probable that the structure was lived in at some time, and below the living accommodating there was a boathouse - so that this one was more functional than many!
The front of the building, facing the lake, was of rough stone with a variety of ornamental details including arches and niches, with a landing stage for boats. A central open arch gave access to a boathouse in which were storage and repair facilities. A passage on the north side of the building gave access to a domed top-lit chamber above the boathouse, which was also accessible by means of steps from the lake. The chamber had a stained glass window, an elaborate pebble-pattern floor and was decorated with shells, crystals and mirrors. A remains of a very few of these could still be seen even up to the 1960's, but only a few embedded small shells remain visible now. There were two smaller rooms behind the chamber - one above the other - which may have served as an apartment for the keeper. When the Park was opened to the public in 1882 part of the enclosed space surrounding the old Grotto was white in early spring with snowdrops.
From 1882 when the park was opened to the public it was looked after by a caretaker, Mr. Puffet, and visitors could pay for a visit. An amusing article describing Mr Puffet was written in an edition of "Punch" magazine. Early in the 1880's, John T Bedford started writing for this satirical magazine under the nomme de plume ''Robert the Waiter" and the article describes a visit of the members of the Epping Forest and Open Spaces Committee to Wanstead Park where they met the newly appointed Keeper Puffet. (click here for the article)
In November 1884 the Grotto was damaged by fire. The most usual account of what happened relates to a workman who was re-tarring the boat which was kept in the boathouse under the Grotto. He did not notice the tar bubbling over, and the Grotto was set alight. Unfortunately, the lake had been drained for cleaning, so there was no ready supply of water available to fight the fire, and the building was all but destroyed. The facade survived, together with some of the interior and the access passage.
Some renovation work has been done from time to time and an archaeological exploration was undertaken in the winter of 1997/8 by the Museum of London Archaeological Service (MoLAS). This resulted in the exposure after many years of the dock of the boathouse which was incorporated into the structure (photo). It was in this dock that the punt that is featured in some photographs of the ornamental waters would have been moored.
Unfortunately, after the work had been completed and the Grotto was once again locked behind its fence, vegetation was allowed to grow up within and around the fenced enclosure so that ten years afterwards it could be difficult to see that the structure was there, even if standing just outside the fence! The only relatively clear view was from the opposite bank of the Ornamental Water, but by 2010 during the summer only a small amount of the stonework was visible and the structure was effectively camouflaged into the landscape.
In January 2011 a clearance operation was begun which culminated in a ten-person work party consisting of City of London staff and volunteers who carefully cleared the vegetation from the rear of the structure, resulting in it once again being visible. The vegetation was found to be mainly ivy, with considerable sycamore, alder growing from the boat-dock and one small self-seeded yew on the stonework of the front of the grotto. A close inspection of the brick and stonework did not reveal any other species of flowering plant, although mosses, liverworts and lichens may well have been present. Some aspects of the Grotto through the years are shown below, including photographs taken during this work.
When the level of the Ornamental Water is low, it is possible to see on the opposite bank the remains of a bridge which connected across to the Grotto. (photo).
The Grotto is a Grade 11 listed building.