Woburn Abbey Grottoes

Picture right- Woburn Abbey circa 1890.

United Kingdom
MK17 9WA
Telephone: 01525 290333

The Abbey has been the home of the Russell family since the 12th century. The buildings and gardens have undergone much alteration over the centuries and this process continues with restorations as well as new innovations.

Woburn Abbey has three contenders for the title of grotto. The first is in the house itself, the second is a lakeside folly in the grounds and the third is a cave beneath the Chinese pavilion also in the grounds. All three grottoes are within a short walking distance from the visitor reception and gift shop.

The First Grotto - Woburn Abbey Grotto Room

Pictures 2 (above and left) - interior styling of the Abbey Grotto with the Earl's coat of Arms above the door.

The grotto is an impressive ground floor room incorporated in the 4th Earl of Bedford's new wing to the house. It is believed to date between the late 1620s and 1641. The coat of arms of the Earl is incorporated in the interior styling over the doors. Isaac de Caus is the likely designer and Nicholas Stone the master mason who created the work. The latter was Master Mason to King Charles I.

Picture 3 - the ceiling of the Abbey Grotto

Three arches along one side lead to the outdoors. Facing north, these arches are now glazed. In fact glaziers bills for the 1650s confirm that the arches were glazed from an early date. The arches would have allowed the aristocracy to move from the house to the grounds while avoiding the sun at its height, thus perpetuating the fair skin appearance of the upper classes.

Picture 4 - the three arches, now glazed giving access to the grounds.

Opposite the arches is a large niche water fountain and pool, which once is believed to have included a statue of Neptune against a backdrop of dark grey and deep red tufa-like rock. The statue and the water are no longer present however above the niche a figurehead of Neptune is accompanied by Nereid and Triton. The whole chamber is extensively decorated with dressed stone, pebbles and shell work. When lit by candlelight the reflections from the water trickling over the tufa into the pool and shells would have been magical.

Picture 5 - Dionysos - nearly 2000 years old!

Today the niche is honoured with a statue of Dionysos dating from the mid second century AD. The grapes held by the marble figure remind us that he was the God of wine. The figure has undergone some repair having been purchased in Rome in 1763/4 by the Earl of Upper Cissory. It ended up in the hands of the 6th Duke of Bedford in 1822 after being presented to him by the former Earl's son, Lord Holland. Other mythological figures present include a relief of Papposilenus and two drunken satyrs, Minerva Custos, Ceres Goddess of corn, Matilda the niece of Emperor Trajan and Cupid the winged god with his bow. Many of these artefacts date back 2000 years thus perpetuating the ethos of the Renaissance revival of Roman and Greek art and learning. Also in the grotto there are numerous items of grotto style furniture dating from the 19th century.

The grotto is the earliest surviving room of its kind in Britain and is in remarkably good order. As such it is an indication as to the possible nature of the Grove of Diana and Henry VIIIs pioneering grotto at Nonsuch.

The Second Grotto - The Shell House Folly Grotto

Picture 6 - the Folly Grotto
is a grade 2* listed building. It was first listed in January 1961 by English Heritage. At the time it was described as a small octagonal building of single storey with embattled parapet featuring triangular merlons. It had pointed arched openings to alternate sides with a part glazed double door to the south with ornamental cast iron glazing bars.

The strcture was built for the 6th Duke of Bedford by Sir Jeffry Wyatville in 1811. A feature of the building is the unusual rocks and mineral specimens used to construct the exterior wall, many of which came from Devon and Cornwall. The grotto and rose arches have been recently restored. Inside shells adorn the walls but only where they have survived the ravages of time. The interior is in a sorry state but will no doubt be restored to former glory in due course. (written in 2014)

Picture 7 right - the interior of the Folly Grotto showing what appears to be a dry pool for a water feature, an urn and a mythological plaque.

Picture 8 below - the Folly Grotto from the lake

The Third Grotto - the cave beneath the Chinese pavilion

This is a comparatively new innovation. The cave and rock garden predate the pavilion and once there was a water feature on the mound of rocks by the lake. The pavilion was added in 2012 and a walkway was added in 2014 making the rocky stairs redundant. The cave in an S shape provides a route through the landscape feature from one side to the other.

Picture 9 below - the mysterious cave beneath the Chinese pavilion.





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Open set times only


Access by Road, Access on Foot, Disabled Access, Entry Fee, Grottoes - more than one, Part of a larger tourism attraction, Restaurant/Food, Retail Souvenir Shop, Toilets, Tourism Information


Country town/village, Rural


England - Central


+A created provenance that links it to ancient mythology or legend, +Cared for and maintained in good condition, +Crystals and/or minerals, either natural or simulated, +Dark and mysterious chambers and cave like spaces, +External rock structures, either real or simulated, +Fossils and/or shells incorporated into the decor, +Internal stonework that is natural, recycled or simulated to give a subterranean decor, +Stunning setting and location, +Viewing points from within to an intriguing landscape outside, GRADED NINE

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