architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, Grotto, landscape, North Yorkshire, Temple

The Grotto Temple, Masham, North Yorkshire

Just over the river Ure from the market town of Masham is this unusual rotunda sitting on top of a rustic grotto. It was designed to take advantage of the view over the river to the church and the attractive little town. An engraved stone near the temple tells us that in 1770 ‘Samuel Wrather built this grotto’.

A wonderful wintry view of the pavilion and grotto below. Card postmarked 1907 courtesy of the Dave Martin Collection.

Samuel Wrather (1727-1806) was a wool-stapler of Masham. In 1773 he married Miss Spence, a ‘young lady of merit and fortune’, and he died in 1806 ‘at an advanced age universally respected’. He was succeeded by his son, Samuel junior (c.1778-1854), who is best known today as the owner of Nutwith, the champion racehorse bred by his late brother, which won the St Leger in 1843. The family had a small estate at Beggars Bush, in nearby Grewelthorpe, and also owned property in Masham town.

The ‘Grotto Temple’, early 20th century glass slide, courtesy of a private collection. 

The early history of the Grotto Temple is unclear, and apart from the stone near the building there is little to go on. Late 18th century maps show that Samuel Wrather owned the strip of land now called Grotto Plantation, but the Grotto Temple itself is not marked.

Engraving of the Temple by Samuel Pye after a drawing by George Cuitt © The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.

The earliest image of the Grotto Temple found to date shows it as the property of Samuel Wrather junior. An engraving after a sketch by the artist George Cuitt (1779-1854), who moved to Masham in 1821, was made in 1837. It was published a year later in a fashionable pocket diary called Le Souvenir, or Pocket Tablet and captioned ‘Temple in the Grounds of S. Wrather, Masham’.

The 1st edition Ordnance Survey map, published in 1859, shows the structure as ‘Pavilion’, within woodland called ‘Grotto Plantation’. At that date there was no house nearby, suggesting that this was a detached pleasure ground (another unnamed building and bridges over a stream can be seen on the map), perhaps to be visited by the ferry which crossed the river not far away. There was certainly inspiration nearby: Hackfall, the famed woodland landscape with buildings created by William Aislabie of Studley in the 1750s and 60s, did not have a principal house attached and is only a short distance away.

Dydynski’s lithograph of the Grotto and the view to Masham (detail), c.1850. Image courtesy of Leeds Libraries, Leeds City Council

A rare lithograph of the pavilion, of which only one copy has been traced, attests to its lost fame. It was published by C. M. Dydynski in around 1850 and was inserted into an extra-illustrated copy of Thomas Dunham Whitaker’s Richmondshire in the collection of Leeds Libraries. Extra-illustration, or Grangerisation, was a fashionable hobby in which prints and original sketches were interleaved into a text to enhance the content. The process took its name from the clergyman and print collector James Granger (1723-1776) who published a biographical history and encouraged readers to embellish it with engraved portraits of his subjects.

The Grotto Temple then featured on a number of picture postcards which were probably produced for the tourists who arrived after the opening of the branch line to Masham in 1875: visitors would have passed the grotto grounds on their way from the station to the town.

The view of Masham from the Grotto Plantation, early 20th century glass slide, courtesy of a private collection.

Sometime between 1890 and 1905, a house was built which took its name from the existing pleasure grounds: ‘The Grotto’. In the 1910s it was home to Arthur Atkinson, a haulage contractor, but by 1921 it had been renamed ‘The Greens’ and was home to the Burrill family. The engraved stone by the pavilion records that Edward Burrill restored the Grotto Temple in 1935, perhaps in preparation for the wedding of his daughter Lucy in 1936, when the reception was held at The Greens.

A fleeting mention of the ‘grotto in the plantation’ can be found in local novelist and writer Mary Elizabeth Stevenson’s guide to Masham, published in 1919. On Summer Roads in Mashamshire suggests rambles for the visitor to the area, including a walk from Masham town over the bridge towards the weir (since destroyed) to appreciate the views of the church from across the river.

View of Masham by Julius Caesar Ibbetson, signed and dated 1816. Mary Elizabeth Stevenson sold it to the Bradford City collection in 1917.

Mrs Stevenson (1853-1935)  introduces the interesting idea that the grotto was a favoured viewpoint of the artist Julius Caesar Ibbetson (1759-1817), who settled in Masham in 1805. Stevenson wrote that Ibbetson painted ‘many fine views of the Church from this side [of the river]’, and this 1816 view certainly looks to have been taken from within the Grotto Plantation (Stevenson would have known the history of this painting, for it had hung above the fireplace in her childhood home overlooking the Market Place in Masham). The Ibbetson and Wrather families were friends, and in September 1813 they and a party of friends spent a day sketching before partaking of ‘tea and syllabub’ at Wrather’s Beggars Bush home.

The overgrown temple and grotto as seen from the public footpath.

Sadly the current condition gives great cause for concern: the pavilion’s pretty roof, with its wide overhanging eaves, has fallen and the grotto is overgrown. The structure is not listed and therefore has little protection, an omission that should be rectified urgently.

Grotto Plantation is private property and there is no public access, but the Grotto Temple can be seen through the trees from a public footpath.

Huge thanks to Alison Brayshaw and Gail Falkingham for their help in compiling the history of the Grotto Pavilion. There are still gaps in our knowledge – do get in touch if you can help.

Thank you for reading. Please scroll down to the bottom of the page to share any thoughts or comments.




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11 thoughts on “The Grotto Temple, Masham, North Yorkshire”

  1. archaeogail says:

    Wonderful to see so many of the historic images showing the building as it was in all its glory, but heartbreaking indeed to see it in its present condition.

  2. Editor says:

    Hello Gail. My thoughts entirely, and thank you again for all of your help in trying to unravel its history. Let’s hope there is a will to save it from further decay.

    1. archaeogail says:

      It’s my absolute pleasure. Without sounding too sycophantic, I always enjoy reading your wonderful blogs telling the stories of these beautiful and fascinating all-too-often forgotten buildings! Let us indeed hope this one is not lost forever.

  3. Thompson Architecture says:

    So sad to see. Had anyone applied for it to be listed? It would be fantastic to bring it back from the brink!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Matthew. Yes, very sad indeed. I would love to see the grotto pavilion consolidated, and listing would be a great starting point. I did introduce it to Historic England some time ago, and I will see if I can reinvigorate their interest.

  4. ann Petherick says:


    You could try alerting ‘Save Britain’s Heritage’ The Buildings at Risk officer is Liz Fuller.

    Good luck !

    1. Editor says:

      Good evening Ann. Publishing this post was my starting point. I did tag SAVE on my social media but I will follow up with a direct contact. Many thanks.


    Hello! It is very interesting to see both engravings of the grotto for the first time. The pedimented house to the right of the church is Nutwith House, formerly called Paradise View. This was built by the artist George Cuit Senior for himself in around 1777. The lower building in the foreground on the other side of the river is Mill House, but it was never of sufficient importance to have the grotto as its pleasure pavilion. The Burrill family still live at the Greens and were the heirs to the Wrathers, which probably make them the oldest continuous landowners in Masham. The weir existed until sometime between the wars when old Major Burrill had it dynamited to stop the Greens being flooded when the river was in spate. The last time I went to the grotto about 10 years ago, the roof timbers remained and the window frames more or less intact. The little circular room has a simple Regency chimney surround in white marble. The view of Masham from the Grotto is still a beautiful bucolic snapshot of the rural 18th century.
    I will send you what pictures I have to your Instagram message feed. 👍🏻👍🏻

    1. Editor says:

      Hello George. Thanks for adding so much more of interest to the story of Masham and the Grotto Pavilion. The Cuitt was a very exciting find and I was led to it by a new book called ‘George Cuitt: England’s Piranesi’ by Boughton and Dunn, which I recommend if you haven’t seen it. The view to the town is very special – as evidenced by the countless picture postcards of the view as well as Ibbetson’s painting and Dydynski’s engraving. Thanks for sending your photographs which are a wonderful record of the building before its most recent decline.

  6. Digby Harris says:

    It is quite a distinguished little building using that baseless Doric, much used in North Yorkshire and by us in Bridlington. In fact Francis Johnson did a quite similar little circular garden house at Lythe Hall in 1988 which is illustrated on p259 of his monograph. I knew the co-author of the George Cuitt book and exhibition, Peter Boughton, who was Keeper of Art at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester until his untimely death a few years ago.

    1. Editor says:

      Good afternoon Digby. I always appreciate your expert comment. I was thoroughly enjoying the Cuitt book even before I found the tiny reference to the Masham grotto at the back and had to race to the British Museum to see the vignette. I have the Francis Johnson monograph so will have a look at the garden house at Lythe Hall – thanks for sharing this reference.

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