Virginia Water's Lost Grottoes

Virginia Water Lake
Windsor Great Park
Virginia Water
near Englefield Green
United Kingdom
GU25 4QF
Telephone: 01753 860222

Virginia Water is located on the southern edge of Windsor Great Park, near Ascot. There have been two grottoes in the vicinity of the cascade over the centuries, neither of which have survived.

Picture above right - Thomas Sandby's second grotto.

Windsor Castle was begun in the 11th century by William the Conqueror as it afforded a good defensive point over the River Thames. A vast area of Windsor Forest to the south of the castle became reserved by the King for personal hunting. King Henry III officially set out the borders of the "Park" which was much larger than the current Great Park. Except for a brief period of privatisation by Oliver Cromwell, the area remained the personal property of the monarch until the reign of George III when control over all Crown lands was handed over to Parliament. Today the Park is owned and administered by the Crown Estate, a public body established by Act of Parliament in which the monarch and family members associated with its particular parts have non-executive, advisory roles.

Picture - The Roman Ruins

Virginia Water Lake lies within Windsor Great Park. It was created from a body of water of the same name: originally little more than a stream, which existed from at least the 17th century and may well be named after Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. The lake is mostly in Surrey, though the western extremities are in the civil parishes of Old Windsor and Sunninghill and Ascot in Berkshire. Virginia Water was first dammed and flooded in 1753. Until the creation of the great reservoirs, it was the largest man-made body of water in the British Isles.

Picture - The Original Grotto and cascade

The original dam or cascade for the lake at Virginia Water, created in the 1750s, was destroyed by torrential rainfall in September 1768. The adjacent grotto was also lost. In August 1781 the King himself announced that the water in the Great Park and Windsor should be restored with considerable improvements. Thomas Sandby was closely involved in the designs for these works. When the new dam collapsed soon after completion, he was nicknamed 'Tommy Sandbank'. A stronger dam was then constructed, which incorporated a new cascade and grotto - similar to the original 1750s arrangement. Work on the new cascade was completed by the time of the King's return to Windsor in March 1789.

Thomas Sandby, 1721-1798, occupies a unique position in artistic patronage during the reign of George III. From 1746 he was a member of the household of the King's uncle, William, Duke of Cumberland. He served the Duke as Draughtsman, in Scotland, the Netherlands and at Windsor. He was appointed from 1764, as Steward of Windsor Great Park. The Duke had been appointed Ranger in July of that year. Sandby in effect acted as Deputy Ranger to both the Duke and later his nephew (and successor as Ranger), the King's brother Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland. Sandby was therefore resident in the Great Park for much of his adult life.

Picture - The Cascade in 2014

Today there is a pleasant walk around the lake, encompassing many curiosities, including a 100 foot totem pole, the cascade, an obelisk raised by George II, and the Leptis Magna Ruins, a 'Roman temple' built from columns and lintels brought from the ancient North African city of Leptis Magna in the early 19th Century. Unfortunately the original grotto alongside the dam/cascade was destroyed by the floods of 1768. When both were replaced in the 1780s the new grotto was similarly positioned as the earlier one, located to the left of the cascade looking upstream. Today the later grotto is blocked and not accessible.

Virginia Water lake is 2 miles from Englefield Green and 6 miles from Windsor town centre. Virginia Water car park is located on the A30, close to the M25 (J13). It is open all year around, from dawn until dusk. Virginia Water is free to enter on foot, but parking charges apply. The car parks are open from 8am to 7pm (or dusk, if earlier). To discover the cascade enter the park at the car park and turn left, walk for about 500 yards to where the path heads downhill to the left. This leads to the cascade. The Roman ruins are about a mile distant from the car park along the same pathway.

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GRADED ZERO - no grotto survives

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