At Rydal Hall in Cumbria is an unassuming little garden building. It was built by Sir Daniel Fleming, in the last years of the 1680s, as a summerhouse from which to view of one of the series of cascades on the Rydal Beck that flowed though his estate.
Sir Daniel’s accounts show that the summerhouse was built in 1668-9, and it was described only a few years later as ‘a little grotto [for] retirement’. But its big secret was the ‘very surprising’ view of a tumbling cascade, framed by the window of the ‘Grot-house’. The interior did not have the expected decoration of shells and minerals usually associated with grottoes, but was expensively fitted out with wooden panelling, sadly now lost. Just upstream Sir Daniel added a rustic arched bridge, which gave a view down onto the cascade and to the grotto.
Many descriptions of the grotto were written in the 18th and 19th centuries, when travellers and writers arrived first in pursuit of the picturesque, when Rydal was a ‘must’ on the tourists’ itinerary, and then in reverence of the romantic after William Wordsworth made his home at nearby Rydal Mount, generating another tourism boom (the cascade is mentioned in the poet’s An Evening Walk).
Visitors record being led along a shady walk by a guide who then opened the doors to the simple ‘Rugged House’ to reveal the cataract. In 1812 the guide was ‘a woman bent nearly double with age, who with astonishing alacrity stumped up the hill in a pair of wooden shoes’. (It is a curious characteristic of ‘tourist attractions’ in the 18th century, that the guides were elderly ladies – examples are recorded at the Claife Station and the Bowder Stone in the Lakes, and at Roslin Chapel in Scotland, where in 1788 it was noted that the ‘old woman who shows it […] is as great a curiosity as the chapel’.)
William Gilpin, famed for his pontificating on the picturesque, found the scene enchanting, and described the beautiful view from the summerhouse window as ‘like a picture in a frame’. A visitor in 1791 appreciated the carefully composed effect seen through the window: ‘over the head of the cascade is an old bridge, and over that a thicket of tall trees – and over that a dark mountain – and over that perhaps a dark cloud’. To the holidaying Londoner this was all very striking, and filled his mind ‘with terror and amazement’. After all this excitement guests could relax and dine in the little room: in 1795 Harriet Clarke recorded in her journal ‘in this grotto we ate, with much pleasure, our morning’s repast’.
Many artists delineated the scene. As well as the views shown here, other works include a John Constable sketch (Abbott Hall, Kendal) and an oil painting by Julius Caesar Ibbetson (Liverpool Museums). But as the keen-eyed will have spotted, they mainly painted the view from inside the grotto, so views of the building itself are scarce.
Many gardens and landscapes would go on to use the concept of the ‘surprise view’. For example at Studley Royal in Yorkshire doors were flung open for the grand reveal of the ruins of Fountains Abbey, and in Scotland the hermitages at Acharn and Dunkeld were both designed to allow a first sighting of waterfalls, but Sir Daniel Fleming’s predates these curiosities by almost a century, and was a ‘picturesque’ viewing station way ahead of its time.
In 1980 the grade II* listed grotto was described as ‘forlorn and neglected’, with the roof falling in and only a fragment of the wainscot surviving. Happily, it was restored in 2005-2007 as part of a major project to renovate the Rydal Hall gardens and park.
The falls are best seen after heavy rain. The Folly Flâneuse, with her usual impeccable timing, chose to first visit in autumn of 2021 during heavy rain, but it was worth getting soaked to see the cascade in full flow. This is the view from a bridge just downstream, not extant when the grotto was built, which enables the grotto and cascade to be seen in one view. Happily a return visit in spring was a brighter experience.
And of course if one visits Wordsworth country in April, one can’t miss the last of the …
Rydal Hall is now owned by the Diocese of Carlisle and is a conference and retreat centre. The grounds are open to visitors throughout the year, and you can continue the more than 300 year old tradition of viewing the cascade from the grotto window. As a visitor wrote in 1799, the ‘lower cascade must ever delight’. https://www.rydalhall.org
For the full history of the construction of the grotto see Blake Tyson’s article in Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, Vol 24, 1980.
For Wordsworth Grasmere see https://wordsworth.org.uk
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