​Cliffe Castle Park in Keighley is being restored with funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Work started on site back in June 2016 and I’m following progress and sketching whenever I can.

Tucked away beyond the Conservatory lies the Grotto… 

If you arrive at Cliffe Castle from the car park and make your way down the path towards the museum the first thing you come to is the mouth of the tunnel, dark and spooky; long ago the entrance was planted with ferns (which would have looked lovely) and more recently it was liberally draped with ivy which added to its darkly gothic tone. Up until now I have to admit that it gave me the creeps. 

But I’ve always found that drawing something is a good way to overcome any misgivings, and now I’ve sketched it from all sorts of directions I feel quite differently about it. 

As you come further down the path you realise the tunnel is part of a larger structure, a sort of conglomeration of rockwork that’s quite hard to describe. Most of the vegetation has been stripped off it and now you can see more or less what it must have looked like when it was first built and before it was planted – mostly with rhododendrons – and it’s very strange indeed. 

To understand it better it’s helpful to know a bit of its history…. 

In the late 1870’s when Henry Isaac Butterfield was executing his grand building and landscaping plans at Cliffe Castle, he employed a French stonemason Monsieur Aucante, a specialist in the field of ornamental rockwork to create a marvellous structure that would provide – 1. a cleverly concealed entrance by means of a tunnel, for tradespeople and goods to enter the house with their deliveries unseen by the family and guests;  2. an aerial walkway leading up to the flower gardens and glasshouses at the back of the Castle; 3. an intriguing rocky retreat rather like a natural cave, that would look eye-catching and romantic and serve as a cool place to sit in on a hot summer’s day; and 4. a striking piece of architectural landscaping that would shape the wonders of nature’s creation into something even more grand, and provide a support for an attractive natural display of flowering shrubs. 

Clearly Monsieur Aucante set about the task with skill and ingenuity, creating a striking feature with natural pockets in the rock to be filled with soil that would support plants, but it wasn’t until I was drawing the strange fluid shapes of this flowing convoluted limestone that I realised what I was looking at, and why it looks so strange. These swirling holes and curling channels have been eroded by churning water and pebbles – they’re exactly what you find for instance at The Strid – and they would have been formed horizontally, not vertically, which is what makes them look so odd in a vertical wall. It makes you wonder where exactly all this rock was collected from, and how it was extracted and transported from its original site, presumably by horse and cart. 

Nevertheless the skill of the craftsman didn’t stop there. Some of the stone has been worked – if you look closely you can see that the central pillar supporting the front of the cave is carved in the form of a tree trunk. Because it’s now closed off with locked iron gates you can only stand outside and wonder what it might have been like in its heyday, and speculate as to whether the bricked up wall to the right as you peer into the gloomy interior hides the beginning of the flight of steps that led up to the aerial path that wound its way to the gardens beyond. 

The whole place is a bit of a mystery. Although it’s referred to as the Grotto, this is one thing that it’s not; a grotto is a highly decorated, often shell-encrusted whimsy and this was never conceived as such a thing, but it’s hard to find a simple word to sum up what this whole feature is and the word Grotto has somehow stuck. And in a way it sounds right, I think, even though to be pedantic we should be calling it something else. Grotto. A strange, fantastical, weird place, full of possibilities and probably odd stories that we may never know. It deserves more attention and with some loving care, who knows what strange and beautiful things may develop in this rather forgotten corner? Only time will tell. 

More updates on the work of the conservation project, photos, plans, and background information here, and at the Cliffe Castle Park Conservation Group website and on the Parks Service page of Bradford Leisure Services.