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The Carshalton Park Grotto - by Andrew Skelton

The Grotto in 2013


The Grotto and Canal in Carshalton Park are much neglected and misunderstood historic features.  They are fragments from a major early but

Merged photos showing the central chamber.
This was originally decorated

unfinished landscape project apparently designed by the Park owner Thomas Scawen (?c.1702-1774) and constructed about 1724.  It was a formal

forerunner of the later great grottoes such as Stourhead, Goldney and Painshill.  The grotto lies at the south end of a formal canal, fed by springs further south.  At the north end of the canal a large mansion was begun but not completed; some architectural fragments from this house have recently been identified.  The Scawen family lived across the High Street in an early 18th century mansion called Stone Court (demolished c1800), the Park and Grotto remained separate until George Taylor built a house called Carshalton Park on the road called “Brookside” on the other side of Ruskin Road (demolished 1926). The Orangery with pedimented portico still stands on the corner with the Square.  In 1913 the Grotto and the present, much reduced park passed into public ownership.  The building was then stripped of its decoration, and the facades almost totally rebuilt; only limited records of the decoration were made.  Excavations took place around the grotto in the 1980's, and a limited investigation in 2005 cleaned up the interior to allow limited access for the public.

The central passage beneath the grotto.
This collected spring water but is now generally dry.

The Grotto and canal is set in a geological dry valley.  Behind and under it, culverts run about 20m south, channelling water from natural chalk and filling the pool and canal in front of it.  As seen externally, the grotto facade brickwork is essentially 20th century.  A few of the decorative large flints, which completely studded this facade, still survive set low down; the rest were removed in 1914.  Early references suggest that lead statues stood on the piers or podiums on the facade, and in the wide niches to each side of the entrance arch.  This large archway was filled with a fine wrought iron gate and surround bearing the Scawen arms; it leads through a delicately vaulted vestibule area flanked by small arched compartments into a large Octagonal room described in 1895 as having “. . a domed roof and walls fantastically covered with flints, scraps of Ironstone, shells and the like, and has a tesselled floor of black and white marble ". Regrettably this decoration was scraped off the fine brickwork of the walls and vault in 1914; but enough fragments survive to show the substance of this decoration, if not its arrangement.  Note the brick floor, which provided bedding for an Ornate marble floor of "fictive cube” design.  The brickwork is studded with the remains of iron staples, which held the decoration in place.  In the vault centre is a Portland stone skylight or “oculi”, repaired in the late 18th century but now infilled.  Central to the room, opposite the entrance, is a wide shallow niche in which lay a large carved red Marble shell, part of an ornamental water feature supplied by piped water from a spring elsewhere in the park.

The grotto with springs flowing in January 2014. In the past the springs flowed all the time but now they are generally dry because a large amount of water is pumped out of the ground for domestic supplies. The springs still flow after a very wet winter such as 2013-4 or 2000-1.

Although currently in a pitiful state the Grotto is a most important structure in the development of Grottoes in this country, being an early example of the formal type.  Research on its history is continuing.

The canal has a most sinuous, decorative cross-section, providing two distinct grass levels at its south end which converge further north as the surface slopes down. Just past the Grotto pool the remains of two brick culverts entering the canal on each side can be seen; these were once a single culvert pre-dating 1724 which ran diagonally across the park but was cut when the canal was dug, and the exposed ends backfilled and sealed with clay.  Further north, by the Ruskin Road bridge, there is the remains of a sluice gate allowing water to be drawn off from the Grotto canal to augment the water flow from the north-east corner of the Hog Pit.

Other features surviving in Carshalton Park include the deep rectangular bason or reservoir known locally as The Hog Pit.  This feature, which may date long before 1785 when first recorded, has springs along its southern edge, and culverts in the north corners.  One of these allowed water to be channelled north to feed a watercourse passing through east Carshalton towards the river Wandle at the bottom of Butter Hill, while the other fed water along the Square behind the later Coach and Horses Public House where it once drove a small water-wheel, before entering the Ponds by the parish Church. The shallower curving ‘amphitheatre’ depression attached to its south end is a later quarrying operation, with an inclined ramp allowing horses and carts to gradually leave the quarry. To the west of the Hog Pit is the Frying Pan, a perfectly circular, shallow depression with a rammed chalk bottom.  Not recorded until the 19th century, its purpose is unknown although it has been suggested that it was either a reservoir or a round bowling green.  The large, spiralling Sweet Chestnut Trees probably pre-date Scawen’s Park, these show evidence of being pollarded in the 17th century during the ownership of the Burton family, while a large section of the early 18th century Park Wall along the southern boundary can still be seen along a Bridal Path off Ashcombe Road and Woodstock Road.  The remains of two large gatepiers – decorative features only – can be seen on this wall; these linked up with an avenue of trees extending to the Grotto further north.

Text used with the kind permission of, and Copyright ©, Andrew Skelton and The Friends of Honeywood Museum 2016
Images © John Phillips and The Friends of Honeywood Museum 2016

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