A taste for the grotesque

An article that appeared in the Goring Gap News.

Grottoes have always captured the imagination.   That must be the reason why the name, The Grotto, still clings to the 18th Century mansion on The Thames at Lower Basildon, just below Streatley.  Over the years, several attempts have been made to change the name.  In the latter part of the 19th Century, it was called Beechcombe and in the 20th Century, during the years of the Second World War, it was called The Grove.  By the time it was acquired by the Institute of Parks and Recreation Administration in 1953, it had reverted once again to The Grotto, although the Parks Superintendents, who were the members of this professional body, didn’t think it was a suitable name for their headquarters, grottoes being somewhat out of fashion in the world of parks.  Today, occupied by the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management, it is often known as ILAM House, but you will still find it shown as The Grotto on ordinance survey maps.  

The original grotto was built around 1720 for Lady Fane, who lived at the great house at Basildon Park. The grotto itself adjoined a small house built by her husband for her to use as a place of retirement and consisted of an elaborate shell room with a separate rock chamber where running water fed a pool.  The poet, William Shenstone, described the Basildon grotto as “a very beautiful disposition of the finest collection of shells I ever saw”.  Apparently, it cost £5,000, a very considerable sum and three times as much as the house.  The Fane’s manor at Basildon has gone, demolished when the current house was built by the Sykes family.  The Grotto house is the only real memorial to the Fanes.  Lady Fane died in 1762, according to legend by drowning in a well.  Her only son died just four years later.  It is thought to be the ghost of Lady Fane, who, over the centuries has made regular appearances in the house and been responsible for some odd happenings, particularly when alterations are being carried out to the building.  

It is likely that the Sykes family were responsible for dismantling the shell and rock grotto when they acquired the Basildon Estate, including the Grotto house, in 1771.  Some of the decorative features in the Grotto house reflect those in the new house designed by John Carr and built for Sir Francis Sykes at Basildon Park.  Whilst in the ownership of the Sykes family, the Grotto was let to a series of tenants and it was not until the younger son of the family, William Sykes, known in the family as William of The Grotto, came to live at Basildon that it had an owner in residence, although he didn’t live there very long.   

The next owner of The Grotto was Arthur Smith, JP, who was the Sheriff of Berkshire.  He was responsible for extending the building significantly in order to accommodate his large family and many servants.  He had a short time to enjoy these riverside amenities as he died at only fifty years of age having been in Basildon for nine years.  He is buried in the churchyard at St. Bartholomew’s, Lower Basildon and there is a fine memorial to him in the churchyard, as well as a plaque inside the church.  The house was then sold to Darcy Wentworth Reeve, a gentleman from Kent with Australian connections, who only stayed for seven years.  He was responsible for the construction of a very grand conservatory at first floor level.  It would seem that he mainly used the house for recreational purposes, fishing and boating in the summer and hunting in the winter.  It is recorded that the ghost troubled both the Smith’s and the Reeves’, probably when changes were being made to the building.

The Grotto estate was purchased in 1891 by James Gilbert Collier Harter.  He retired from business at forty and turned his attention to running the house and grounds as a model estate, with a farmery and six greenhouses, all well equipped and staffed.   There were still fifteen live-in servants by the 1920s, but time was running out for establishments on this scale. Gilbert Harter died in 1924 and the house was finally sold by his widow at the outbreak of World War II.  The exact nature of the activities at The Grotto during the war years and immediately after remain clothed in mystery with no first hand accounts.  The rates were paid by the Treasury and it was used by the Women’s Land Army as a hostel, although a more inconvenient one can hardly be imagined.  It is unlikely that the Women’s Land Army was responsible for the alterations made to the house during this period, including the opening up of a new entrance in the east wing, with over the door an eagle, wings and neck outstretched, beak open.  This is more in keeping with a rumour that the house was used for some more secret purpose and another that “the Americans” were there for a time.

Finally, a house that was built for the leisure use of a privileged lady has become the home of an Institute devoted to the concept of leisure for all.  Finding out about the history of The Grotto has been rather like piecing together a jigsaw, with many pieces missing and some pieces belonging to the wrong jigsaw altogether.  It has, however, been a labour of love and the result is a History of The Grotto published in September 2003.  The book was launched at an Open Day for members and local people that included an exhibition on the history of the house. 

The Grotto House can be purchased for £10 including postage and packing.