architecture, Folly, garden, garden history, Grotto, landscape, London

The Schweppes Grotto, Festival of Britain Pleasure Gardens, Battersea, London

In 1947, the British Government decided to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 with a Festival of Britain, scheduled to open 100 years to the day since the launch of the Great Exhibition, on 3 May 1951. The focus was an exhibition in London, and the area we now know as South Bank was chosen as the venue for the celebration of British achievements past, present and future. A little upriver at Battersea were the complementary Festival Pleasure Gardens. Whilst the tone on the South Bank was ‘intellectual seriousness’, at Battersea all was colour and whimsy, and a highlight was the sparkling grotto, sponsored by Schhh, you know who…

A site at Battersea comprising of ‘thirty-eight acres of allotments […] and a cricket pitch’ was chosen as the venue for the Pleasure Gardens. The project was overseen by James Gardner, a noted exhibition designer, who beat Oliver Messel to the job. He recruited designers, including Osbert Lancaster and John Piper, to help create the gay scene in ‘the English tradition of elegant follies’.

Gardner gave the commission for the proposed grotto to Guy Sheppard (1912-1990), a set and costume designer, who also created the site’s Riverside Theatre where Leonard Sachs presented ‘old-time Song-Saloon shows’. The company set up to run the Pleasure Gardens approached major companies for their support, the best remembered deal produced the famously wacky Guinness Clock, by design partnership Lewitt Him. Drinks manufacturer Schweppes were approached to sponsor the Grotto, perhaps suggesting some rather creative thinking by the team, as the festival had promised to be ‘a tonic to the nation’.

E.W Fenton’s sketch of the exit from the grotto, as featured in the 1951 guide to the Festival Gardens. Fenton was an artist and designer whose clients included Transport for London and Barclays Bank. He was one of Edward Bawden’s assistants in the creation of the ‘English Pub’ mural for the ship S.S. Oronsay in 1949-51.

The Grotto consisted of chambers, representing the four elements of Wind, Fire, Earth and Water. In the ‘Temple of the Winds’ Sheppard engineered breezes blowing in from the four points of the compass, accompanied by appropriate sounds. So the north wind carried the tinkling of sleigh bells and the howling of wolves, whilst that from the east brought the chiming of temple bells. The south wind brought the sounds of the jungle, and the west the boom of fog horns to conjure up vast oceans. Completing the sensory experience were aromas wafted in on the moving air – pine from the north, flowers from the south, rich spices from the east, and seaweed from the west. These olfactory delights were provided by ‘Atkinsons’, presumably the long established Mayfair perfume house.

The Earth chamber of the grotto, as seen in the 1951 guidebook to the Festival Gardens. The drawing is unsigned and uncredited.

A ramp led to the ‘cave of Fire’, where a bridge carried visitors over what seemed to be the crater of a volcano that bubbled and boiled with molten lava, and next was the chamber dedicated to Earth, where carefully designed lighting shone on stalactites and glittering minerals, whilst a musical fountain glowed ‘pale phosphorescent blue’. Finally there was the ‘magical luminous world’ of Water, built as a coral reef where fish and sea creatures glowed in pools. Passing beneath a waterfall the visitor exited the ‘wonderfully eerie grotto’ in another part of the gardens. Echoing the 18th century experience of the beautiful and the sublime, visitors remembered being enchanted one moment, and then fearful the next as they passed from a gaily lit chamber onto an apparently rickety bridge over a fiery pit.

A note about historic grottoes also appeared in the guidebook. It mentioned Pope’s Grotto at Twickenham, Goldney’s Grotto in Bristol, and the grottoes in the parks at Wimborne St Giles, Stourhead, Pain’s Hill [sic] and Oatlands. One must wonder if this information came from Gardner’s friend Barbara Jones, also busy on both festival sites with ‘various capers’. At that date she was accumulating the information that would appear in Follies and Grottoes only 2 years later in 1953*.

This potted history concluded with a prominent plug for the sponsor: ‘But, as we see in the Pleasure Gardens, the spirit that built and enjoyed these grottoes, the cave-dweller in each of us, still Schweppervesces’ (Schweppes was at this date running an ad campaign with the slogan ‘Schweppervescence lasts the whole drink through’).

A 1951 postcard of the Pleasure Gardens. Sadly the underground grotto does not feature, but the scene-stealing Guinness Clock is centre stage, as usual.

The Pleasure Gardens were scheduled to open with the main Festival site on 3 May 1951, one hundred years to the day since the launch of the Great Exhibition, but bad weather delayed the installation, and the gardens did not open until later in the month. The project was a great success with Country Life writing: ‘here is the festive spirit realised with a mixture of landscape, fantasy, flowers and fun which really delights’.

The grotto was a huge draw and visitors were happy to pay the additional 6d to enter (at the end of the 1951 season the proceeds of £9,300 were donated to the National Playing Fields Association). Celebrity visitors included the actor Douglas Fairbanks, and the Yorkshire cricket team, who called in for a visit before playing Surrey at the Oval (it was a draw). But surely the greatest praise came from the British Speleological Association (in brief: people who like caves), whose journal recommended that ‘all cave explorers make an effort to see this […] masterpiece of ingenuity’.

The initial estimate of visitor numbers was 6,000,000, and this figure was comfortably passed with 7,750,000 people enjoying the gardens in 1951. The gardens were originally to be dismantled at the end of the festival, but the public enthusiasm was such that it was agreed to keep them open for another two years, and legislation had to be passed to allow this. In 1952, the soon-to-be architectural historian John Harris found employment manning the entrance to the grotto, and recorded in his memoirs that the then operators were somewhat lacking in scruples, and that perhaps not all the entrance sixpences found their way to the management. In 1953 private operators took a 21 year lease on the gardens, which operated for a number of years before becoming run down, and tarnished by tragedy when a ride collapsed with fatalities in 1972. Thereafter the gardens were gradually diminished until little remained.

The earth chamber, photographer unknown.

An exact date for the demolition of the grotto has not been found, and sadly few photos survive. What a wonderful, vivid experience it must have been. Sadly this post has been rather monochrome, and fails to do justice to the gardens, so to cheer everything up here is the joyous cover of the Festival Guide.

UPDATE February 2023: The Folly Flâneuse was absolutely delighted to hear from Peter Maggs who remembers visiting the Festival Pleasure Gardens on more than one occasion as a child. Here he is in the grotto, and his memories can be found in the comments section at the foot of the page.

Peter Maggs, aged eight, circa 1953, in the Grotto by the West Wind, photograph taken by his father, Norman Maggs. Photo courtesy of Peter Maggs.

* Gardner would continue to talk follies with Barbara Jones, and the second edition  of Follies & Grottoes, published in 1974, featured his drawing of the root house at Spetchley.

For the Guinness Clock see

Thank you for visiting The Folly Flâneuse. Your thoughts are always welcome, please scroll down if you would like to comment.

The Needle’s Eye, Wentworth Woodhouse. Subscribe and discover many other fascinating follies.


Subscribing to The Folly Flaneuse ensures you will never miss a post. All you need to do is provide me with your contact information and you will automatically receive an email each Saturday when I post new content on Your email address will never be sold or shared

 You can remove yourself anytime by contacting me.

* indicates required

46 thoughts on “The Schweppes Grotto, Festival of Britain Pleasure Gardens, Battersea, London”

  1. Gail Falkingham says:

    Absolutely fascinating Karen, wish it was all still there, I would have loved to see the grotto and folly. It all sounds amazing, truly in the spirit of the age!

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Gail. I’ve always been fascinated by the Festival as the opening day was my father’s 21st birthday, and he visited with his father a few weeks later. I have his copies of the guidebooks. I too would love to have seen it all.

      1. Gail Falkingham says:

        What a lovely connection, and to know that he will have seen and experienced what you have written about!

        1. Julia Colver says:

          I visited the Festival of Britain with my parents when I was 7. My mother had a school friend who lived in London and they took me everywhere in London when I was a child, including a photo of me on the step outside No. 10 Downing Street. You could just drive up and stop outside in those days! They took me all round the London decorations for the 1953 Coronation as Uncle Jack said I would see much more of it all before the actual Coronation Day which would be gridlocked.

          I remember the Festival’s South Bank location, beautiful modern statues, marquees and I had never seen anything like it before – not even the Yorkshire Show! I have a large commemorative coin from the 1951 Exhibition. Sadly I don’t remember the gardens although mum was a great gardener. Thanks for the memories Karen! And thank you for your beautifully written Follies’ articles every Saturday morning. I settle down with them when I know I have the time to fully appreciate them, without interruption!

          1. Editor says:

            Hello Julia and lovely to hear from you. How wonderful that you remember visiting the festival as a little girl. And thanks for the kind words on my posts. The research and writing has kept me occupied in these odd times.

      2. Tony Cleaver says:

        Fascinating, I was 9 in 1951 and heard about Festival if Britain but no chance of visiting. London was the other side of the world from East Riding!! Your information makes it come to life. What a pity nothing survived.

        1. Editor says:

          Hello Tony. Good to hear from you. We need another Festival to cheer everyone up after COVID.

      3. Gand says:

        Well what a ‘tonic’ that post was in these strange days we find ourselves in.
        Another brilliant read.

        1. Editor says:

          Good morning Gand and thanks for the kind words. Have an effervescent day.

  2. Julia Abel Smith says:

    What a wonderful post for a miserable January morning in lockdown. The gardens sound like something from William Beckford’s coming of age party at Fonthill.
    While recording the paintings in public ownership for Art UK, I came across five Alan Sorrell decorative panels from the Gallery Deck Bar of the FoB ship, Campania. The paintings celebrated British vessels of every kind and were stored with Lady Gibberd.
    I love to think of John Harris manning the grotto entrance; I was lucky enough to work with him at the RIBA Drawings Collection during one never-to-be-forgotten summer.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Julia and thanks for sharing your appreciation. I was delighted to find John Harris’s account in his wonderful memoirs, a real human touch.

  3. Judy Rossiter says:

    What a wonderfully joyous post about an event following another dark time in our nation’s history . I grew up in London but don’t remember being taken to the Festival but do remember what a grey and dreary place the suburbs were . There were still ex-prisoners of war housed in a camp at the bottom of our garden, part of Beckenham Place Park , they didn’t want to go home as they were better fed here . Amazing to think that was all being planned while the war was in progress.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Judy and thanks for this lovely response to my post. It’s rather grey and dreary here today so your comments have brought some cheer.

  4. Gwyn Headley says:

    Superb! I lived opposite Battersea Park from 1959 to 1968 and often used to go to the park and the funfair (I fell in love with Judy Boston on the rollercoaster) but I don’t recall ever having even heard of the grotto. I loved “some rather creative thinking by the team, as the festival had promised to be ‘a tonic to the nation’.” A great piece of original research, absolutely fascinating — well done you.

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Gwyn. I get travel-sick even looking at a rollercoaster so no fairground love affairs in my history. Glad you enjoyed this week’s offering.

  5. Gwyn says:

    Where was the Emmett railway?

    1. Editor says:

      It ran around the gardens. It really was the most wonderful whimsical place and I so wish I could have seen it

    2. Lisa says:

      What a lovely post. So full of knowledge and energy as usual. For some reason I fancy a gin….🍸

      1. Editor says:

        What a lovely comment, thanks. One day soon we can have a G&T together. Just a little more patience required!

  6. Garance Rawinsky says:

    Thank you once again for your exceptional research ability and linkage which has brought that Festive Spirit to light – I love the colourful poster.

    The nation certainly needs a tonic just now, you have brightened my day too – just add gin!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello G and thank you. Will raise my glass to you when I settle by the fire with my G&T this evening.

  7. John St Brioc Hooper says:

    Dear Karen

    How well I remember the experience – I was a (very) small child!. My aunt and my mother took me to the Festival Gardens several times, and I particularly liked the tree walk, especially after dark when it was illuminated with colour lights, but the grotto I found rather frightening – the sound of the wind was errie. Thank you for the post which has prompted memories I have often try to impart to my younger friends.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello John. I am THRILLED to hear from a folly friend who has experienced the grotto. Thanks so much for commenting and I’m glad the post brought back so many memories for you.

    2. Gand says:

      Hey up flaneuse
      We are just watching footage of the Emett railway on YouTube.
      Look up a Quiet Afternoon in the Cloud Cuckoo Valley. We had the joy of seeing a wonderful Emett exhibition at Vompton Verney a few years ago.
      Also several Emett machines are currently on display in the Merrion Centre, Leeds until 30th April.

      1. Gand says:

        *Compton Verney.

        1. Editor says:

          Thanks Gand, will find a moment to look and thanks for the tip about the display in Leeds. So many talented designers contributed to the Festival Pleasure Gardens

  8. Editor says:

    Thanks to a reader, David, for sending me a copy of the little souvenir booklet that was presented to visitors to the grotto. It reveals that Cockney children used to celebrate St James’s Day by building little grottoes on the pavement, which they would decorate with shells, flowers and pieces of coloured glass. Inside, a candle stump would burn, and the children would say this rhyme and hope that passers-by would present them with pennies:

    Please to remember the grotto,
    Father’s gone to sea,
    Mother’s gone to fetch him back;
    Please remember me.

    A fascinating bit of folklore – further research needed!
    Many thanks David.

    1. garance Rawinsky says:

      Bonus information for our Easter Weekend. Thank you for sharing.

      But had father really gone to sea? Was the ritual around the Folly ‘their truth’ or ‘our truth’… I wonder if this rhyme is in a reference book we had in the 60s, ‘The Law and Language of Schoolchildren’?

      1. Editor says:

        If you google ‘please to remember the grotto’ you will find out more about Oyster Day. Fascinating stuff!

  9. Barbara Kay says:

    So happy to find this. My dad took me to Battersea Park funfair several times in the late 1950s. I remember the Clock, the Big Dipper (to watch – I was far too little to go on it), the Watersplash and the boating lake, where we once got drenched in the rain, drive home and went back after lunch. But my very favourite was the Grotto. It was in a muddy sort of place at the back, but when you went in it was wonderful. It smelled strange (probably all those winds getting mixed up, but I thought it was the plaster of Paris). I loved walking over the volcano, I’d forgotten about the stalagmites and stalactites, but I never forgot those 4 statues of the winds lit in different colours. The final bit always felt like an anticlimax – uv lights which made everyone laugh as their bri-nylon shirts glowed. And then out again into the little woody bit.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Barbara. Thanks for sharing your memories. My grandfather took my father to the festival as a 21st birthday treat and I loved hearing about it. I’m very pleased my post brought you pleasure.

  10. John Wardley says:

    There was a paybox at each end of the Grotto (one at the riverside promenade end, and one inside the park by the Guinness Clock), so that you could go through the Grotto in either direction. My uncle Lesley was marketing director for Schweppes, and oversaw the construction. He was onsite when the tragic accident happened on the Emmett railway, and was one of the first on the scene to help the rescuers.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello John. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of the grotto. How lovely to have a family connection to this wonderful attraction.

  11. Christine Stewart says:

    My parents took me to the Battersea Festival Gardens in 1951 – I was eight, and it must be one of my earliest memories. I remember the tree-walk, the coloured lights and most of all the Grotto. I was a bit scared of the bridge over the bubbling lava, and I remember the funny smell. I always thought it was called ‘The Blue Grotto’. My Dad bought me a rectangular book which had drawings of many of the attractions to colour in. After the constraints of rationing etc. I’m sure we must have had a wonderful day. Thankyou for writing about it.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Christine. It is a real delight to hear from people who remember the grotto from their childhoods, so thank you for getting in touch. It must have been a full on sensual experience with the sounds, sights and smells, and as you say occasionally a little scary – which I am sure was the intention!

      1. garance anna Rawinsky says:

        For those who would like more FoB nostalgia, Festival of Britain: A Brave New World documentary was repeated on BBC4 last night, so you should be able to get it on BBC iPlayer.

        1. Editor says:

          Thanks for the excellent tip Garance.

  12. Peter Maggs says:

    This wonderful site has certainly stimulated me to recall things long forgotten! My father took me to see the Festival of Britain in 1951 when I was six years old. Stand-out memories were the water feature and Skylon in the Festival itself, and the Guinness Clock and Grotto at the Festival Pleasure Gardens at Battersea. But of all of these, it was the Grotto that engaged my imagination. My father took the picture of me by the West Wind probably in Coronation year, 1953; I remember perfectly the noise the wind made and that it was perfumed. But it was the cave of fire that made the biggest impression on me. A pit of boiling molten lava was bridged with a walkway about six feet or so above it. To me at the time the illusion was perfect and terrifying. Irregularly shaped slabs of crust appeared to float up and down on a fiery bright red liquid accompanied by the sound of ‘boiling’. It seemed as though we were walking just a few feet above the fires of Hell invoked by the nuns at my Catholic school. When I visited the Grotto some years later, I became aware of the clanking of the levers and cams that moved the slabs up and down and my original awe was substantially diminished. No doubt the mechanism had become worn over time. Originally though, it was mesmerising and haunted my dreams for years afterwards.

    1. Editor says:

      Good evening Peter. Thank you so much for sharing not only your memories of the grotto, but also your precious photograph of yourself on a visit. I have added it to the original post and I am sure it will be enjoyed by the many readers who also recollect their visits to the festival.

  13. Richard says:

    My parents took me to Battersea Park Fun Fair on more than one occasion, circa 1960, or slightly later, when I was very young. I remember the Crooked House, where you ‘fell up’ the crooked steps inside, the humorous fake ‘colour television’ window, which was just an upstairs window in the house; because colour tv had not arrived in Britain at that stage. For some reason, the candy-floss drums stand out in my memory – you watched as the stick was vigorously wound around inside the drum, until it was blooming candy-floss; I remember the sweet taste. But my main impressions were of the Tree Walk, which was quite mysterious, in a way – and the Schweppes Grotto, Temple of the Winds. This so inspired me I actually visited the original Temple of the Winds in Greece, at Athens, many years later. But that is (now) just something monumental to be viewed from the outside. The Grotto was a multi-sensory installation, with sound, smell, light & colour – it’s influence has been with me ever since. That is the power of the creative arts, and I feel we should be justly proud of the brilliant minds behind the Festival of Britain 1951, Pleasure Gardens. Thank you.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Richard and thank you for adding to the information we have about this lost wonderland. Everyone has such happy memories of the Festival, and as you say it brought together so many wonderful artists, designers and creators. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  14. Nigel Haywood says:

    I wish I could provide another memory. I visited the grotto when I was small, probably the late fifties, and went through later years remembering “Battersea Park” and “grotto” but being unable to find out anything more about it. Every couple of years I google it, so am delighted to have found your site. I’m afraid I simply can’t remember anything other than being inside a lit-up cave. Maybe I had a bout of claustrophobia and had to be taken out. But I vividly remember the coloured lights, and their role in creating the sort of world that I now associate with the adventures of Rupert Bear. Funny things, memories, and their linkages with colour and light. Something to do with long dark winters. But thank you so much for rooting out this piece of the past!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Nigel. I’m delighted to learn that my account of the grotto helped fill a gap in your memories.Of all the posts I have written on these pages, the account of the Schweppes Grotto has had the greatest impact in terms of prompting faded recollections. My late father was taken to the festival in 1951 on his 21st birthday, and took my sister and I to the remnants of Battersea park some years later. He was saddened to see what was by then a rather tatty fairground, as his memories were also filled with colour and light. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  15. al Smith says:

    A pleasure to find some info on the “grotto” as I remember it.
    Some time in the early 60’s My parents took me to Battersea park and I remember entering the folly then going behind the waterfall which led to the temple of the 4 winds with rather tenuous smells . I vaguely remember the mineral cave but crossing the volcano impressed and scared me at that early age then it was the exit.
    My girlfriend (later the wife) probably visiting the park for the Easter parade in the early 70’s found the folly again , no payment required for this or the tree walk as both were semi derelict, I cannot remember much of that visit apart from it being rather shabby , the waterfall not working and the tree walk probably had a few planks missing but we still had to have a go as it was free.
    Last weekend I visited Battersea power station, not my thing now, too many awful shops so didn’t spend long there and went in search of the grotto/ folly in the park.
    Could not find it nor any sign of it, the lakes, gardens and steps are still holding out and I think I found where there was a boat moored with Emett models displayed inside, but a lot has been developed.
    Now I have found a plan of the festival gardens I may go back for another closer look …..

    1. Editor says:

      Hello there and thanks for getting in touch. It’s an absolute delight to hear from people who remember the grotto. I was taken to the site in the 1970s, by which time it was a tatty funfair, and my parents regretted the trip. As you say, Battersea is a rather glossier neighbourhood these days. Do get in touch if you revisit and find out more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.