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.

* 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 https://www.guinness-storehouse.com/Content/pdf/archive-factsheets/advertising/festival_clock.pdf

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26 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

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