Heritage Lost – The Menagerie Grotto


Heritage is ephemeral and is easily lost. ..

I was the Head Gardener at The Menagerie, Horton, Northamptonshire when Gervase Jackson Stops was creating a garden to suit the building. The Menagerie was originally a part of the Horton Hall Gardens and held gardens and pools for a small collection of animals and fish. The building was what most people would call a Folly, but besides being a decorative feature of the parkland, it was quite practical, being a music room, with a subterranean kitchen. Walls extended from central building that terminated with sheds, which could be used to store tools and food for the animals. In 1763, Horace Walpole, the diarist who seemed to get everywhere of any note, stated that the grounds of the Menagerie were set out as,

‘a little wood, prettily disposed with many basons of gold fish’.

There were also animals;

“storks, ‘racoons that breed there much’, a young tiger, a bear, ‘uncommon martins’, and ‘warthogs with navels on their backs”.

The whole was enclosed by a circular moat, which may have been filled with water. Little of the moat now survives. I later discovered earthenware pipes between the ponds and bricks with a very dark green glaze on only one side which may have been part of the pools.

The hall itself was demolished and all its contents sold at auction. The Temple and Arch buildings were lived in, but the Menagerie building fell into disrepair. Gervase Jackson Stops bought the ruin and converted it into a habitable building.

When I took on the position of Head Gardener Ian Kirby had designed a garden to suit what we all came to affectionately call the Stately Bungalow.

Visitors to the menagerie would have left Horton Hall, by coach or on foot, and then crossed man-made lake using the Green Bridge. They could admire the animals and fish, and listen to music as they wined and dined with food prepared in the kitchen beneath them. Gervase, wanting everything in his garden that could have been found in the gardens of the grander houses during the 18th century wanted a grotto and the kitchen was an ideal place to create one. As the kitchen was beneath the ground, what better theme than Orpheus in the Underworld.

Before work began, there was the problem of a drainage pipe set in the floor of the kitchen. Would building the grotto affect the drainage system. One bright October Friday morning Ian said that he was off to London, and as the ground was waterlogged he gave me a container of green dye, with instructions to pour some in the drainage pipe and see if I could discover where the water went. I poured part of the dye into the pipe and went down to a small pond in the field north of the Menagerie. We had been fairly certain that this is where the water would eventually go, but there was no sign of any greenish hue to the water. I decided that maybe I hadn’t used enough of the dye, so I went back and emptied the contents into the drain pipe and went back to the pool. Nothing. Rather puzzled, I made my way back and met the farmer on the way. He asked what I was up to, so I explained. He suggested that the water may drain into the decorative lake in the valley, so off I went. I struggled through the undergrowth to the water’s edge. I stopped in horror. The water was a bright fluorescent green, rather like the fluid in a spirit level. One problem solved. At least we knew where the water drained to. I searched for the exit point and found a triangular structure built of stone that was in line with the centre of the Menagerie building, which was over four hundred yards away. Even with modern ploughing the simple drainage system still worked.

Another task was to remove any remaining rubbish. Most privately employed gardeners usually end up doing more than just the gardening, so this was one of my extras. The walls had to be sandblasted to make a clean, but irregular surface for the lime plaster that would later be covered with seashells. I remember being on the lawn as the workers blasted the walls. Great clouds of dust billowed out from the kitchen windows and door, and drifted across the lawn, looking suitably hell-like, and leaving a thick layer of fine dust all over the grass. I was coughing outside, but the workers inside did not wear any breathing apparatus or dust masks. How they managed to breathe, I have no idea. The dust inside then had to be hoovered with a very noisy vacuum cleaner.

Two local builders from Northampton then had to put on a coarse layer of lime plaster. Ancient plastering methods had been researched; apparently, eggs yolks could be added to make it easier to spread the plaster. Finely chopped horse hair was to be mixed in to help prevent cracks in the plaster. Getting enough horse hair was impossible. The egg yolks were used for one mix of lime, but it soon became apparent that the number of eggs needed would be too expensive, so neither eggs, nor horse hair was used, and it seemed to make little difference. Some days later the plastering was completed which then had to be allowed to dry; this took a few weeks.

Christopher Hobbs, who amongst other things, constructed film sets oversaw the implementation Gervase’s ideas. Steps descended from the patio to the kitchen entrance. It was decided to make a small pool in front of the door to represent the River Styx. Next to the doorway would be the ferryman, who would ferry you over the water. Charon the ferryman was constructed of lead sheeting. His head was more natural and modelled on Gervase himself. Originally there was an idea that the ferryman would have an outstretched arm; a visitor could place a large coin onto the hand, the arm would drop – and the door would open, to allow you to enter into the depths of the underworld.

Charon the Ferryman

Charon the Ferryman based on Gervase


In the time available this could not be achieved, so the visitor had to open the door themselves. The outside walls by the door were covered with tufa, a volcanic rock full of air bubbles, rather similar to the inside of a Crunchie Bar. I planted ferns and other plants that could withstand the shade in pockets that I cut out of the tufa, to create a suitably gloomy atmosphere.

Shell Face near the entrance to the grotto

Shell Face near the entrance to the grotto was a small fountain. It was on the opposite side of the steps from Charon.

Christopher also created the figure of Orpheus, which was modelled on Ian Kirby, although the likeness was not as good as the painted hardboard cut-out that had been set in place until the statue was completed. The various animals were also made by Christopher; I remember some being carved from breezeblocks before being covered. Stalactites were moulded from chicken wire mesh and then covered with pieces of old glass and pieces of broken pottery that I had collected in the garden.

Orpheus in the Underworld

Orpheus in the Underworld. I would soak the shells before visitors arrived to make the shells glisten in the lights.

Much of the grotto was to be decorated with shells, and very soon a lorry loaded with sacks of sea shells brought a delivery from a shop in Cornwall. Some of the shells were exotic, but there were many mussel shells that formed the background on the walls, being stuck on to show the black outside in some places and the mother of pearl inside for others; so twice the effect from the same type of shell. We all had a go at fixing shells to the walls, but it was very time consuming and took two summers. Most of the shells were fixed by Tom and Polly Verity during their holidays.

The walls were also decorated with pieces of wood and bark to create a rustic effect. Decorated tables were built and placed beneath mirrors that were surrounded by shells. Over the fireplace was placed a representation of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to Hades. All three of the necks were collared and chained, against a background of lurid yellow and red flames embellished with pieces of mirror that glittered in candlelight or the lights from the Orpheus tableau.

Cerberus the three-headed hound

Cerberus the three-headed hound guarded the entrance to Hades.

Two shell faces were built; one male and the other female. They were based on Gervase’s friends, John and Eileen Harris. John was quite happy with the face based on him, but that Eileen was less than happy with hers.

Shell Face

Shell Face in the Menagerie Grotto

A dipping pool cum jacuzzi was built between Orpheus and Cerberus. The top was decorated with handmade tiles that had been specially created by a woman who was a  descendant of the American, General Patton.  The pool was removed by a later owner of the menagerie. As far as I am aware the tiles were destroyed in the process.

The grotto also housed a wine store, a shower, a sauna and an area for exercising with weights.

The final touch was the ceiling. This was painted a dark blue and then the night sky as it appears at mid-summer day was added. Some stars were highlighted with sequins to make them sparkle. The artist had only just returned from a commission in Italy. He gave me a Geranium robertianum ‘Album’ as a present. I planted it in the garden and later took seed for myself. I still remember the Menagerie when I see the flowers.

Milky Way

Milky Way on the Menagerie Grotto ceiling; #Some stars were augmented with sequins for added sparkle.

The grotto was officially completed in time for Gervase’s farewell party. He returned to the Menagerie, much against medical and family advice, to be with his friends. An opera was performed in a marquee that had been set up in the garden and there were fireworks once it was dark enough when I opened the fountains to full height and turned on the lights too, for some watery fireworks of our own. It was a magical occasion. Gervase was smiling. He died only a few days later.

Sadly, the grotto was removed by the owner of the Menagerie in 2017.  The owner said that the grotto was morbid; since it was well-known that both Gervase and Ian had died of AIDS.  Planning permission to re-instate the grotto to its original function as a kitchen was granted without opposition. As Conservation Officer to Northamptonshire Gardens Trust, I only found out once planning permission had been passed.

All that remains of the grotto, for the time being, are photographs and memories.

I understand that much of it has been removed and it will be rebuilt elsewhere. I will add more information as it becomes known to me.

© 2017. All photographs are my own.


I am a garden historian, but a practical one. I resarch how gardening was carried out in the past, rather than just researching gardens. It can be very interesting. Some things that I learn seem to be rather unbelievable. Some other methods are still very practical. Visit my web site- www.historicgardener.co.uk

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13 comments on “Heritage Lost – The Menagerie Grotto
  1. Jan Willetts says:

    I have visited the Menagerie a few times and always enjoyed the shell grotto, I had no idea you were responsible for it, always assumed it was a much older construction. Such a shame it has gone, it certainly seemed to add to the quirky charm of the whole place.

  2. martin Hinchcliffe says:

    I just cannot believe this was allowed to happen,it makes one both sad and angry. I worked for 25 years as a museum conservation officer and now volunteer at the London Natural History Museum as a conservator, so I think I can understand how must feel.

    From: The Historic Gardener <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: The Historic Gardener <comment+e3b3majmy16vm_lnxf4mvf@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Monday, 11 December 2017 16:29 To: “Martin Hinchcliffe martin@mjhinchcliffe.demon.co.uk” <martin@mjhinchcliffe.demon.co.uk> Subject: [New post] Heritage Lost – The Menagerie Grotto

    historicgardener posted: ” Heritage is ephemeral and is easily lost. .. I was the Head Gardener at The Menagerie, Horton, Northamptonshire when Gervase Jackson Stops was creating a garden to suit the building. The Menagerie was originally a part of the Horton Hall Gardens “

    • Sadly the planning application went through without us knowing about it, or maybe we could have done something, but hopefully what is left will have a secure home/ The Ferryman and Orpheus are both lost though.

      Were you involved with re-enactments some years ago martin? The name sounds familiar.

  3. Hugues says:

    As the owner of the Menagerie, I have just stumbled across your post.

    Rest assure that the decision to remove the grotto was not taken lightly and definitely, not because there was a morbid aspect to it.

    The grotto was a late addition to the Menagerie as it was built in the 1990’s . Despite the emotional attachment you may have to it, It can hardly be referred to as Heritage.

    In fact the main building at the Menagerie was commissioned to Thomas Wright as a banqueting hall to Horton Hall by the Earl of Halifax. The grotto was installed in the 1990’s in what used to be, in the 18th century, the basement kitchen of the Menagerie. This is evidenced by the presence there of a fireplace.

    After years of neglect most of the grotto decor was crumbling. The presence of a fountain and various water features was creating a lot of humidity in the basement and it was frequently flooded, damaging the fabric of the building.

    Restoring the grotto would have involved removing most of the shell and wood decor, damp-proofing and draining, replacing all the rotten and worm infested woodwork and reinstating the shell work at a tremendous cost for no real heritage value.

    After many years of hesitation and consultation with English Heritage I decided to reinstate the basement as the Menagerie vaulted kitchen. This has involved damp proofing, draining and lime plastering the whole space. I can safely say that the Menagerie basement is now much truer to its original 18th century aspect and use than it ever was.

    Since I acquired the Menagerie, I have made extensive research about Gervaise and I have tried as much as I could to respect his work while improving on it. I will always be grateful to him for saving this extraordinary building.

    Allow me to have my own viewpoint on the Menagerie that, if it sometimes diverges from yours or Gervaise’s bears the same respect and love for a truly outstanding English legacy.

    Best regards,


    • I am happy for you to add your view Hugues.
      Heritage though is as old as you wish. Even my childhood is considered heritage today and as a unique feature of the garden, the grotto was very important. I can understand the problems caused by the grotto though; lots of things were done on the cheap and in a hurry.
      The reports I read had mentioned the morbid side, so I can only go by the reports that I saw.
      I am well aware that the basement was a kitchen, that was the reason Cerberus was placed where he was, over the fireplace.
      The Gardens Trust and Garden History Society were upset that the grotto was removed without any chance to comment or to properly record what was left.
      The main point of my article was to point how fragile gardens are and to at least leave my memories of the grotto.
      Is the Menagerie still open to the public? I would like to visit if it is.

      • Hugues says:

        Preserving heritage constantly requires choices as to what we consider more important. The question is to what state, to what period we restore a building.To me the Menagerie in its 18th century state is more important than the grotto. It would probably have been the same to Gervaise.
        As you mentioned, the grotto was not built to last.It had decayed and was crumbling when I moved in . I view it more like a artistic performance than like an architectural feature.
        Rest assured that it was extensively documented by me and by English Heritage before it was removed. Regarding visits, at the moment we are not opening as we are doing some restoration work. I will let you know if and when we decide to reopen.

    • Stephen Wain says:

      Is it possible to visit and view the Chapel?

  4. Michael Brown says:

    As Gervase had the grotto built in the first place, probably not Hugues; but we can never know for sure.

    I am glad that the grotto was recorded. I shall include your comments in any future talks that I give about the Menagerie, so thank you for letting me know why things were done.

  5. Julian Munby says:

    Let’s be absolutely clear (and not to decry the work of GJS); Horton has an amazing history overall (never fully explained) and a mountain of bogus history and ‘heritage’ laid on top of it by a series of enthusiasts, with real or imagined features being dreamed up, from roccoco gardens to volcanoes and grottoes. Could we get real and find out what was really there?

    • A lot of the evidence has been lost. I asked for an archaeologist to be called in when I found the remains of cobble floors and water pipes leading across the garden. I was told it wasnt important, by Gervase himself, who knew he was dying, but we didnt. He wanted the job finished. I recorded things of a rough sketch map. I have no idea what happened to them. I left them at the office when I left. there were certainly pools behind the Menagerie building and some must have been lined with glazed bricks as I found quite a few along with the remains of a bonfire that included some burned wood, metal and period nails, some of which were about 6 inches long.
      Getting real is probably not an option unless more records can be discovered.
      Meanwhile, the Green Bridge has become seriously derelict since I worked at the Menagerie. I suspect the Ice House has too. Neither the responsibility of the owners of the Menagerie.

      On an earlier point of respecting the Georgian building; it is worth remembering that the Menagerie building was never intended as a property to be lived in and that the back two rectangular turrets and the intervening walls and roofs are modern additions added by Gervase and also carried out in a very temporary manner. I think the back walls had to be replaced a few years ago.

  6. Stephen Wain says:

    I wish I had found this information before I tried to visit. I travelled for two hours to view and photograph the thatched chapel (one of only 100 in UK). I was told to go away as it was private property or they would call the police.

    The man would not have a conversation with me.

    • Sadly, I have no photos of the interior of the chapel as it was changed by a later owner than Gervase. I have photos of the outside. I was allowed to see the interior a few years later,but we were not allowed to take photos. The current owner seems to have no plans to open the garden in the near future.

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