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Inside Painshill Park’s magnificent crystal grotto - Secret Surrey

PUBLISHED: 10:41 20 December 2013 | UPDATED: 12:34 05 June 2015

The grotto comprises hundreds of thousands of quartz, calcite and fluorite crystals

The grotto comprises hundreds of thousands of quartz, calcite and fluorite crystals

Painshill Park Trust Ltd and Cliveden Conservation

Following a major renovation, Painshill Park’s historic crystal grotto is now open to visitors again. Viv Micklefield uncovers the mystery behind the Cobham attraction’s shimmering stalactites

The newly restored grotto looks as though it has come straight out of a fairytaleThe newly restored grotto looks as though it has come straight out of a fairytale

Wandering through the newly restored crystal grotto at Painshill Park, you could be forgiven for thinking you had strayed into one of Gandalf’s hideouts. In actual fact, this remarkable structure, originally created from scratch back in the 1760’s by the Honourable Charles Hamilton, is the centrepiece of a magical Surrey garden.

Today, the Grade 1 listed landscape, with its rolling lawns and unclipped shrubbery, stands as a monument to this romantic visionary and pioneer of the English naturalistic movement. Should the seamless blending of a garden with its surrounding countryside appear simple however, the historic plantings and fantastical follies that inhabit these 158 acres tell a different story.

“It took Hamilton almost 30 years to create his landscape garden because of the complexity, and he wasn’t a rich man,” says chairman of Painshill Park Trust Michael Gove. “In the same way, we’ve been restoring it over the years as, and when, funds become available.”

So far, it’s taken the Trust, working on behalf of Elmbridge Borough Council, the best part of three decades to bring Painshill’s treasures back from the brink of dereliction. A feat topped-off when architectural crusader Lady Lucinda Lambton officially reopened the celebrated grotto.

Not only one of the last surviving of its kind in this country, but widely considered to be the finest in Europe, the grotto was inspired by Hamilton’s Grand Tours of Italy. Perhaps also taking his cue from Leonardo da Vinci, who reportedly declared, “You should feel two emotions when approaching a grotto: fear and desire,” Hamilton’s accomplished builder Joseph Lane was nothing if not ambitious with the £8,000 he had to spend. By straddling two islands in Painshill’s man-made serpentine lake, the illusion, created from a distance, is of a rocky outcrop; the wonders within, a well-hidden surprise.

Michael is in no doubt that this remains Lane’s pièce de résistance. “There were other grottos around but nothing on such a grand scale and, interestingly, his accounts show bricks for the grotto being made at a brickworks behind what is now the Ruined Abbey folly.”

Painshill’s private ownership over the centuries limited its visitors to, mainly, invited guests. Nevertheless, the grotto caused quite a stir in its early days. Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, one of the first inside, talks of “the sun penetrating through specially contrived cracks,” and of different crystals, attached to the walls and vault “like icicles.”

Meanwhile, its celebrity fans included writer Jane Austen, and 19th century poet Matthew Arnold, a former occupant of the estate’s Painshill Cottage.

 

No stone unturned

The latter-day scenes of collapse, supposedly brought on by the removal of lead from the grotto’s roof to pay for a VE day party, are now unrecognisable – its rescue from permanent closure and obscurity, thanks largely to a £750,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant, enabling restoration proper to start in 2012.

As Michael goes on to explain, painstaking research saw archaeological evidence used alongside old drawings and documents, but Cliveden Conservation, the specialist team employed, sometimes had to improvise. “Two months before the completed restoration, local historian David Taylor came across a French magazine article with a photograph of the grotto’s interior.

“This was wonderful, except, there was one particular area where we’d done an interpretation of the original effect. And, so, we had to take some crystals down and replace these, to make it all absolutely authentic.”

This attention to detail, using traditional construction methods and skills, was clearly executed with painstaking precision. Yet reports of hundreds of thousands of quartz, calcite and fluorite crystals, some recycled from earlier excavations, being hand-cleaned using toothbrushes are still mind-boggling. Mixed in-between was newly bought gypsum from the Atlas Mountains, each piece individually embedded with lime mortar, on to a framework of inverted wooden cones.

“At one time, we had five conservators working on the crystal work. I take my hat off to them, they spent the whole day with their backs bent,” says Michael.

 

Razzle dazzle

And what a result! Once eyes become adjusted to the fractured light, supplemented by discrete artificial illumination, the grotto’s shimmering magnificence is completely mesmerising.

“Typical of Hamilton, he controlled or changed your moods as you went around the park,” says Michael. “Coming into the grotto, you’ve got the spongestone outside, which is almost skull-like. On the lower walls, the slag used makes it slightly sombre and then, you’re led through, catching glimpses of the water. When the sun shines, it’s incredible because as this hits that water and it ripples, the whole thing lights up.”

And true to this pleasure garden’s design, it continues to entertain. Whether listening to the gentle tinkling of the lake water, cleverly pumped between different levels into coral-encrusted pools, or viewing the landscape beyond, through, weirdly shaped, protruding stone openings. Is that a dog’s head? Is it a face?

The temptation to reach out and touch the seemingly gravity-defying stalactites is hard to resist so the preservation of this fragile environment is a priority. Fortunately, in addition to providing for improved visitor access and for a replica of the historic Woollett Bridge to be built, the Lottery grant also funded an apprentice crystal restorer. He now works with Painshill’s volunteer team of grotto stewards, inspecting for any wear and tear, both inside and out.

While there were some who doubted the successful rebirth of the grotto, Michael’s rightly proud to report that it came in on time, within 12 months, and on budget.

Painshill has previously won a prestigious Europa Nostra medal, for excellence in cultural heritage conservation, and the rebuilding of The Temple of Bacchus folly is next on the wish list. But, for now, glasses are raised to this latest restoration project. “The nice thing about Painshill is that it hasn’t been an instant ‘put it up quick’ approach; people can come back year after year for another look,” says Michael.

 

***

 

Need to know:

Where: Painshill Park, Portsmouth Road, Cobham KT11 1JE

When: The crystal grotto is open weekends from 1pm to 4pm or as part of the pre-bookable Historic Tour.

Garden opening hours, ticket prices and membership: 01932 868113 / painshill.co.uk

Become a grotto steward: volunteering@painshill.co.uk

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