Archive for the Caves Category

The Grotto, Stourhead

Posted in Caves, Fountain, Gardens, Grotto, History, Landscape, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2016 by mysearchformagic

In the autumn I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful gardens at Stourhead in Wiltshire. With its pretty lake surrounded by wooded hillsides dotted with follies of all shapes and sizes, Stourhead has a dream-like quality about it, an eighteenth-century recreation of an ancient Roman paradise. It’s got its own version of the Pantheon, complete with grand portico, dome and marble sculptures, a medieval cross, and a even a quaint ‘Gothic’ cottage with rustic windows and a thatched roof.

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The beautiful Georgian landscape of Stourhead, Wiltshire

But surely the most atmospheric spot at Stourhead is the Grotto, constructed in 1748 for then owner Henry Hoare, and designed by Henry Flitcroft. Wealthy Georgian gardeners, it seems, had something of a taste for magic, and a dark and creepy underground cavern was an important element in any grand garden of this period.

From a distance the Grotto at Stourhead, which sits right of the shore of the lake, looks like nothing more than a huge pile of mossy rocks. On closer inspection, however, a set of twisting steps can be seen leading down to a shadowy doorway.

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The twisting staircase down to the Grotto at Stourhead

Beyond lies a dark – very dark – underground passageway, the only light coming from small apertures in the roof and the side, the latter offering wonderful views over the lake outside.

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Looking out onto the Stourhead Lake

Lined with flint, pebbles and tufa, the interior of the Grotto is constructed to resemble a rough natural cave. Since Henry Hoare was rather taken with ancient Rome, the grotto is inspired by the poetry of Ovid and Virgil, both of whom wrote numerous tales of magical, poolside caverns, which were often home to nymphs, monsters or even gods and goddesses. Neo-classical sculptures in the Stourhead Grotto add to the atmosphere of ancient mystery, with a gushing spring and pool decorated with a water nymph and some poetry inscribed into the floor:

Nymph of the Grot these sacred springs I keep,
And to the murmur of these waters sleep;
Ah! Spare my slumbers, gently tread the cave,
And drink in silence, or in silence lave.

Further along, hiding out in a gloomy, water-filled cavern, sits a dramatic bearded river god, a spring from the River Stour pouring noisily from his urn.

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The river god in the Grotto at Stourhead

I may have visited the gardens at Stourhead a little to late to see the amazing autumn leaves which attract thousands of visitors every year, but in a way I was glad to catch it at a quieter moment. Wandering alone through the tunnels of the Grotto, the weak November sun setting over the damp Wiltshire hills, it really was possible to experience the sublime wonder of this magical place, and feel the thrill that has been enjoyed by visitors to this place for over three and a half centuries.

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The magical Grotto at Stourhead

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Return to the Lost Gardens of Penicuik

Posted in Castle, Caves, Gardens, House, Ruins, Scotland with tags , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2015 by mysearchformagic

It’s been well over a year since I made my first trip to the Lost Gardens of Penicuik, but I have thought a lot about this wild and wonderful place since that visit. Last week I was able to visit again, and explore more of its magical corners.

First on my list of things to see was Knightslaw Tower. Although it may look medieval, the tower was actually built in the middle of the eighteenth century by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, an enthusiastic antiquarian with a taste for the ancient. When first constructed the tower could be seen from miles around, and dominated the rest of the Penicuik estate. Since its heyday, however, the tower has fallen into disrepair, and the high trees which have grown up around it hide it from the outside world. The result is a rather melancholy, but definitely quite magical ruin.

The magical ruin of Knightslaw Tower, Penicuik

The magical ruin of Knightslaw Tower, Penicuik

Next I walked on past the majestic ruins of the huge mansion of Penicuik House, built by Sir John’s son James in the 1760s, and into the valley below. Here I found the river Esk, which babbles its way down from here to nearby Roslin Glen, another of my favourite spots. Once over the river I crossed a field, heading uphill until I reached the Hurley Ponds.

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds are another of Sir John Clerk’s creations, part of his ambitious plans to landscape his park at Penicuik. Once used as fishing ponds, they have now largely returned to nature, spookily quiet apart from the odd quack from the resident flock of ducks.

Sir John was obviously rather partial to a magical experience himself, and evidence of this can be found in his construction of the Hurley Cave, a rock-cut underground passage which leads from the side of the hills closest to the house into this secluded valley. The original entrance to the cave was over a bridge across the Esk, where a cascade waterfall was constructed to add to the sense of drama. Visitors would presumably have been guided through the cave with candles or burning torches, and half way down would have found a carved Latin inscription Tenebrosa occultaque cave, beware dark and hidden things. The other end of the cave emerges from a rusticated stone doorway in the hill, and can still be seen today.

The entrance to the Hurley Cave, Penicuik

The entrance to the Hurley Cave, Penicuik

Unfortunately vandalism and structural problems mean that the Hurley Cave has had to be locked up. Its heavy metal door does, however, have a large gap at the top which allows a glimpse of the dark depths beyond. I couldn’t resist sticking my camera into the gap and taking a picture. It offers an enticing hint of what lies beneath.

A glimpse into the spooky Hurley Cave, Penicuik

A glimpse into the spooky Hurley Cave, Penicuik

Much work has been done to consolidate and preserve Penicuik House and its estate in recent years, largely thanks to the hard work of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust. Apparently both the cave and the tower are on their list of works for the future, but restoring both will be an expensive job, and fundraising is ongoing. In the meantime I was happy to enjoy the overgrown, rather sombre mood of the lost gardens, and imagine the dingy depth of the Hurley Cave. I like to think Sir John would have approved!

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

The Hurley Ponds, Penicuik

For details on how you can support the sterling work of the Penicuik House Preservation Trust, click here.

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, History, Legend, Museum, Sculpture, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If there is one thing I love more than a spooky mystery, it is an unsolved spooky mystery. I recently discovered one such mystery on a brief visit to Edinburgh, where I wandered into the wonderful National Museum of Scotland. There I found the intriguing Arthur’s Seat coffins, a spooky mystery if ever there was one.

The Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Discovered in 1836 by some boys in a cave on the side of Arthur’s Seat, the impressive craggy hill that dominates the city, these tiny handmade coffins were arranged carefully in three tiers. Each one is intricately carved, and wears custom made clothes with little painted boots. To this day nobody knows who made them, or when, or even why, but there are a few interesting theories.

A detail of the Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

A detail of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Some people have suggested that the coffins were used by witches to cast spells on their victims, rather like a Scottish form of voodoo. Another theory is that they were kept by sailors as good luck talismans. There is even conjecture that these strange little dollies represent the seventeen victims of notorious Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare, and that local inhabitants made them in order to allow the stolen and dissected bodies a decent burial.

Interesting ideas indeed, but of course the real purpose of these rather cute (but also rather creepy) coffins will probably always remain a perplexing, but definitely very magical, mystery.

The Chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Caves, Church, History, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2015 by mysearchformagic

The Blavet valley in Morbihan is famous for its picturesque views and peaceful countryside. Probably its most magical location can be found near the pretty village of St Nicholas des Eaux, at the sixteenth-century chapel of St Gildas.

The magical chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

The magical chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

This tiny chapel fits snuggly under a huge craggy cliff just next to the river itself. The best view of it can be found on the other side of the Blavet, from the river-side path that snakes its way from the village.

Legend has it that the chapel was built on the site of a cave inhabited by the hermit Gildas in the sixth century. The site became a place of worship, and Gildas would call the local people to prayer by hitting a ‘ringing rock’, which gave a loud, bell-like tone.

The pulpit rock outside the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

The pulpit rock outside the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

Outside the building can be found a rock pulpit from which St Gildas used to deliver his sermons. Just below, a tiny spring reputed to have curative properties emerges from a crack in the rock.

The holy spring emerging from a rock below the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

The holy spring emerging from a rock below the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

The chapel also has some wonderfully weird carvings on its exterior, including strange faces. With its buggy eyes and chubby cheeks, this sculpture reminded me of the ancient Celtic stone heads that are found throughout Europe. And is it just me, or is that a rather impressive handlebar moustache?

A carved face on the exterior of the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

A carved face on the exterior of the chapel of St Gildas, Morbihan

The chapel was locked on the rather drizzly day that I visited, so I didn’t get a chance to see the famous ‘ringing rock’ which is still preserved inside. Apparently much of the interior is formed from the original cave, which sounds distinctly magical. The wonderful setting of the chapel made it well worth the visit, but I slightly fell in love with this place, so I am determined to go back in the summer, when it will hopefully be open for further investigation…

The Lost Gardens of Penicuik

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, Gardens, History, House, Landscape, Ruins with tags , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2014 by mysearchformagic

Nestled at the feet of the Pentland Hills not far from Edinburgh, Penicuik is a fairly quiet, unexceptional town, not the kind of place you would expect to find magic. But on its outskirts lies the estate of Penicuik House, a grand mansion which is now a stately ruin. The huge gardens which surround it were once some of the most impressive in Scotland, but since the house was gutted by fire in 1899 they have been slowly returning to nature. The result is a wonderfully wild and picturesque landscape now known as the “Lost Gardens of Penicuik”.

The stately ruins of Penicuik House

The stately ruins of Penicuik House

Penicuik House has long been the home of the Clerk family, and indeed they still live in the imposing stable block near the ruins of the late 18th Century house. Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, the famous antiquarian and politician who lived here until 1755, was responsible for much of what we see in the gardens today. A huge fan of ancient Rome, he littered the grounds with picturesque neoclassical fountains, and even built a dramatic cave leading to a lake based on the famous grotto at Pausillipo near Naples.

The view from Penicuik House towards the Low Pond

The view from Penicuik House towards the Low Pond

In the 18th Century the gardens at Penicuik were compared to the romantic landscape of Tivoli near Rome, famous for its huge waterfalls and rugged cliffs. Nowadays the place is rather overgrown, and on the day I visited the Pentlands were cloaked in heavy grey clouds, but this sense of brooding neglect only added to the magical atmosphere.

A picturesque gorge in the grounds of Penicuik House

A picturesque gorge in the grounds of Penicuik House

Some areas of the garden, including that ‘Roman’ cave, are still off limits to visitors, and in need of restoration. The opulent terraces are hidden in the overgrowth, the once proud gates are rusted and its crumbling walls covered in moss. The impressive ruins of Penicuik House itself are currently being consolidated, and a new project has also recently been launched to revive the large walled gardens which sit close by. It’s good to see the gardens of Penicuik being brought back to life, but I hope they still retain their wild, overgrown magic.

A neoclassical fountain with Latin inscription in the gardens of Penicuik House

A neoclassical fountain with Latin inscription in the gardens of Penicuik House

The inclement weather on the day of my visit prevented me from fully exploring the “Lost Gardens of Penicuik”, but you can be sure that I will be back there soon to soak up its unique, enchanting atmosphere of elegant, magical decay.

A lichen-covered gate in the grounds of Penicuik House

A lichen-covered gate in the grounds of Penicuik House

The Shell Grotto, Margate

Posted in Caves, History, Legend, Margate with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2013 by mysearchformagic

In 1838, workmen digging in the garden of the Belle Vue Cottage on the outskirts of Margate came across a stone slab which covered a narrow hole. On removing the slab they discovered that this hole led down to a tunnel. But this was no ordinary tunnel, for what they had found turned out to be the dome of what the Kentish Gazette described at the time as a ‘kind of Aladdin’s cave’. The complex of tunnels underneath the garden were lined with incredible shell decoration, the like of which had never been seen before. The mysterious Shell Grotto in Margate has been attracting visitors ever since, and indeed this strange attraction is still open to the public today.

The stairs down to the Shell Grotto, Margate

The stairs down to the Shell Grotto, Margate

A visit to the Margate Shell Grotto begins with the small museum at ground level, which gives some of the background to the discovery of the tunnels and the diverse theories that have emerged as to their origins. Next comes the really exciting part. The Grotto lies down a flight of stairs and at the end of a narrow rock-cut cave which descends into the darkness.

The rock-cut tunnel leading to the Shell Grotto, Margate

The rock-cut tunnel leading to the Shell Grotto, Margate

Once inside the grotto proper, every inch of the tunnel walls are decorated with elaborate symbols and patterns, a mosaic created from millions of tiny shells. The effect is breathtaking, particularly in the central roundel which is lit from above by an open dome. The amount of time and effort which went into building this grotto is immense; a similar but much smaller shell grotto created at Goodwood in West Sussex during the 1740s took seven years to build, and that has a floor space of only four square meters, while the shell mosaics in the Margate grotto cover seventy feet of tunnels. Even the task of collecting the many shells would have taken years, because although Margate lies on the coast, the nearest beach which could supply such large quantities of shells is located over six miles away.

Inside the Shell Grotto, Margate

Inside the Shell Grotto, Margate

What is even more strange about the Margate’s Shell Grotto is that noone knows when, why or by whom it was built. Many theories have been put forward over the last century and a half, ranging from the eccentric to the utterly unbelievable. Many have compared it to other 18th Century shell grottoes, but if it had been built during the 1700s then why would it have been blocked up and totally forgotten by the mid 19th Century? If it was an extravagant folly like the example at Goodwood, then why did noone know about it, and why would it be located on what was previously undistinguished farmland? The strange symbols and patterns used in the decoration of the grotto are largely unique, and give few clues to their age. Some have suggested that this is a Roman temple, some believe it to be related to a possible Phoenician trading post, while suggestions that it can be attributed to Minoans, Hindus or Mexicans seem entirely fanciful.

The central dome, Margate Shell Grotto

The central dome, Margate Shell Grotto

Attempts to carbon date the shells have proved fruitless, as the rudimentary lighting used in the grotto in the 19th Century has coated the shells in carbon deposits, and extensive restoration over the years means that analysing the mortar and shells is probably only going to confuse matters further. The map given to visitors attempts to interpret some of the symbols on the walls as a skeleton, an owl, a god and a goddess amongst many others, but the interpretations require a vivid imagination and are frankly rather subjective. It seems then that the Margate Shell grotto is destined to remain an intriguing, magical enigma for many years to come.

To be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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http://shellgrotto.co.uk/

Roslin Glen, Midlothian

Posted in Castle, Caves, Edinburgh, History, Landscape with tags , , , , , , on May 20, 2013 by mysearchformagic

You will probably have heard of Rosslyn Chapel, an ancient and sacred place near Edinburgh. It has been well-known for years, centuries even, but ever since its appearance in the mega-blockbuster book and film The Da Vinci Code, visitor numbers have gone stratospheric. The sad result is that, with a modern visitor centre tacked on to the side and coach loads of visitors turning up every day, the Chapel has now all but lost its unique magic.

Roslin Glen, which lies just a short walk from the Chapel, is a different story altogether. For while the wild and dramatic scenery of this rocky gorge has long attracted attention from lovers of Romantic landscapes, including Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, the Glen still retains a magical atmosphere like nowhere else I have ever visited.

Beginning the journey into Roslin Glen

Beginning the journey into Roslin Glen

The best place to begin a journey down Roslin Glen is at the foot of the craggy ruins of Roslin Castle, which rise imperiously above the wooded valley floor. The air here is thick with the heady stink of wild garlic and the incessant rush of the nearby River Esk. The going is easy, although sometimes rather muddy, but the sinuous sandstone cliffs which line the edges of the river give hints of the drama that is to come.

The imposing walls of Roslin Castle

The imposing walls of Roslin Castle

Further along the Glen the path becomes steeper and more treacherous. There are rocks to be climbed over, and fallen trees to squeeze under. At one point a huge landslide has recently taken place, taking many of the tall trees with it, the slippery remnants of the path still passable, but only just. Further on again the path all but disappears, replaced by a thin stone ledge along the water’s edge. 

The dramatic cliffs which line Roslin Glen

The dramatic cliffs which line Roslin Glen

As you venture deeper into the valley, it’s easy to forget that you are only a few miles from Scotland’s capital city. There aren’t many, if any, people around. The cliffs and crags become more misshapen and bizarre, formed from millennia of water erosion into the strangest of shapes, the gnarled and knotted tree trunks which sprout from them twisting into picturesque forms. I even came across a small naively-carved face in the rockface of an outcrop known locally as Lovers’ Leap; curious and most definitely magical!

A mysterious carved face in Roslin Glen

A mysterious carved face in Roslin Glen

I had hoped to visit Wallace’s Cave, a large rock cavern with a neatly chiseled doorway, reputedly used by William Wallace at the time of the Battle of Rosslyn, which took place nearby in 1303. Unfortunately I found myself on the wrong side of the gushing torrent, with no access to the other side, so had to make do with a distant view of its temptingly shadowy entrance. The steep path down to it suggests that any future visit will require stout shoes and a lot of courage.

A dark doorway into Wallace's Cave, Roslin Glen

A dark doorway into Wallace’s Cave, Roslin Glen

At the far end of the Glen you will find another castle. Hawthornden sits atop a rock riddled with caves, most of them apparently man made, but as the fine house is now a private writers’ retreat, these are not currently accessible to the public. The origins of the caves are unknown, although they possibly date back to the Bronze Age and have been linked to Robert the Bruce. Like Wallace’s Cave, Hawnthornden will have to remain a distant, tantalisingly magical mystery, for now at least.

The distant rooftops of Hawthornden Castle

The distant rooftops of Hawthornden Castle