Geoff Manaugh, author of BLDBLOG, posted recently about a Times article documenting the trend for London's nouveau riche to burrow underneath their posh Kensington residences (which after all, are only so big, and apparently not big enough) to add baths and tennis courts, parking garages, swimming pools, gyms and private cinemas. A reader posted the follow-up that "When I lived in Los Gatos in the late 80s, my neighbor, Steve Wozniak dug a cave in the hillside in his back yard and held "grotto" parties."
Wozniak et al. are only continuing a long tradition of the underground pleasure palace, or grotto, which traces its lineage back to the mystical nymphaea of Greece and Rome, and where, it seems, the rich have always been inclined to idle away hours in cool subterranean surroundings with perhaps a mechanical fountain or two or three to amuse them.
In the 1630s, the Earl of Pembroke is said to have spent 10,000 pounds on his grotto at Wilton House, the equivalent of around 700,000 pounds today, or at current exchange rates about a million and a half US dollars, for a suite of rooms that though above-ground were nonetheless dotted with artificial stalactites, carved marble bas-reliefs in watery themes, statues that wept and moved, and jets of water to surprise the ladies.
So today, I give you the Enstone Marvells, where in about 1600 Thomas Bushell, formerly secretary to Sir Francis Bacon, found...a rock. And saw his main chance.
The rock was "so wonderfully contrived by Nature herself, that he thought it worthy all imaginable advancement by Art" and so posthaste he added Cisterns, and Pipes, and Mirrors, and a Banqueting House above it, all painted round with biblical scenes relating to water. When it was finished, he invited the King and Queen, as one did when one was in possession of a Wondrous Rock, who visited on August 23rd, 1636 to be greeted by : "a Hermite [who rose] out of the ground, and entertain’d them with a Speech; returning again in the close down to his peaceful Urn. Then was the Rock presented in a Song answer’d by an Echo and after that a banquet presented also in a Sonnet, within the Pillar of the Table".
The Queen graciously consented to allow the rock to be named 'Henrietta', after her most gracious self.
I find this story endlessly entertaining, but the technical prowess of the place, of its waterworks and sound effects and rainbows, shouldn't be ignored. It was a feat of early modern engineering that astonished and amazed its visitors and which, quite frankly, we would be hard-pressed to duplicate today. The fountains of the Bellagio would be roundly trounced by the Marvells of Enstone.
Robert Plot's "Natural History of Oxfordshire" of 1677, the main documentary source for the Marvells, is now online (thank you Google books).
For your weekend pleasure, as I won't be able to post again until next week, I've included the pertinent parts of the text (the description of Enstone begins at the top of page 241).