Shell grottoes grew as a fashion in the 18th C. The grotto was a creation of somewhere ‘other’ than the formal country house and garden. A magical place embellished with exotic shells, corals, fossils, stalactites, stones and minerals. Its function in the country house rituals is not always clear. At the now demolished Oatlands grotto in Surrey, in 1815, a legendary party was held in it to celebrate the victory of Waterloo. It is said that at a candlelit table in the grotto, four kings sat down to dine.[i]

The trend for such grottos took off in the 17th C when Italian designer and craftsmen arrived from Italy. In Renaissance Italy the grottoes from classical Roman time had been revived in neo-classical villas and gardens. The trend reached England in the early 1600s. In 1624 James I had a shell grotto built in the undercroft of the Banqueting House at Whitehall as a drinking den. At Woburn Abbey in 1626 the architect Isaac de Caus designed and built an open-air shell room. In 1627 de Caus deigned another for Skipton Castle. However, the English Civil war destroyed nearly all such grottoes – the shell rooms at Woburn and Skipton being rare survivals.[ii]

Shell grottos were not necessarily static over time in terms of their design. The elaborate and labyrinthian Oatlands grotto was commissioned by the then Duke of Newcastle and constructed between 1762 to 1767. A second phase of activity took place between 1774 and 1778.[iii] The poet Alexander Pope’s grotto of 1725 at Twickenham was originally decorated with shells, mirrors and stones. There was a tunnel that linked the house to his shell ‘temple’. The temple and the house have not survived but the tunnel has. Before his death in 1744, Pope had remodelled his grotto to resemble more of a natural cave.[iv]

At the private estate of Jordans in South Somerset a charming shell house sits on a slight promontory in the landscape. The Georgian house of Jordans was built 1796, replacing a previous house of 1633. It was demolished in 1964.[v] The walled garden is still evident, but nothing remains of the house. There was originally an ornamental lake beyond the landscaped gardens, with the shell grotto sitting on its own island. Ladies could be rowed out to take tea in the shell grotto.

Site of Jordans (demolished 1964).

Walled kitchen garden of Jordans.

Shell Grotto – a lake once surrounded the promontory.

The shell grotto dates from 1828. Its external design is gothic-style cottage orne.

This cottage is nearby on the estate and is contemporary with the shell grotto.[vi] Built for the gardener. Cottage-orne style.

The shell grotto has a thatched roof and is constructed of rubble stone with dressed quoins. There is dressed stone detailing around the windows. Whilst there is no fireplace, there is a semblance of a chimney stack in the form of a lantern, adorned with stained glass and topped with a flying fish weathervane. The plan is of three circular bays, the central one being the larger into which the entrance doorway leads. The smaller flanking cells were used as aviaries, each with a central fountain and nesting boxes in the walls. Built into the window sills are slots for feed trays, enabling the birds to be fed from the outside. The ground floor windows have pointed arches as does the entrance door case and internal doorways into the aviaries.

Lantern with stained glass and flying fish weathervane.

The stone porch was built later in the 19th C than the original build. The piers are polygonal with a pointed-arch canopy.

The floor is constructed of sheep knuckle bones. A recent renovation replaced damaged sheep knuckles with resin imitations. The date can be made out in the centre of the photo (an ‘18’ to the left and a ‘28’ to the right – in lighter coloured knuckle bones).

The north aviary with fountain. Seed tray slots built into the window sills so that the birds could be fed from the outside. The pump for the fountains is external to the building.

In the shell design are built nesting boxes. Presumably for small birds such as canaries or finches.

Window with shutters and a fine metal grill. Stained glass adorns the upper part of the pointed-arch windows.


The central bay with small table and semi-circular seating. The central mirror with an ornate shell and coral frame is flanked by polished, ammonites and stone, surrounded by shells. The grotto entrance faces west, and the late-afternoon sun enables the mirrors and minerals to sparkle. The sunlight streaming through the windows would illuminate the colours, patterns and images of the stained glass. Notice how the plain central mirror is reflecting the stained glass.

Jasper investigates the grotto. Semi-circle of woven wicker seating.

The delicate arrangement of the shell frame surrounding the central mirror.

Engraved mirror, appearing embedded into the shells surrounding it. The raised parts of the mirror design reflect the light.

Detail of the engraving. What is possibly an imagined native, stands holding a spear in a formal entrance with two pillars supporting a rounded arch. Suns with rays are engraved in the spandrels of the arch. Above is an entablature and a pediment within which is a quatrefoil leaf designs in rows. By the figure is growing a plant.


Engraved mirror with natural looking plant and ornate design above.

Looking upwards to the lantern. A stella design on the ceiling.

The mixture of shells, fossils, minerals along with tree and fan corals gives an effect of being in an underground sea cave with the light of the sun being above. The pattern on the ceiling dome is carefully arranged against a plastered ceiling, and the shells have been placed in a light, feminine design. Lower down in the grotto the design is less formal with heavier objects close together, suggesting a cave. The cornice is a base of corals, above which is a wave design of shells with quatrefoil or cinquefoil shell ornaments.

Stained glass in the 3 upper lozenge-shaped windows above the doorway with ornate shell designs set in the plaster.

I am told that the shells, minerals, fossils and corals arrived at the port of Bristol from a variety of places across the seas. It must have taken some co-ordination to acquire and transport them to Jordans in Somerset. I don’t know who designed and constructed the shell grotto. However, it is created with such detail and thought – it is certainly a marvel.


Note on John Hanning-Speke

John Hanning-Speke, who discovered the source of the Nile was born in 1827, a year before this shell grotto was constructed. He was born at Orleigh Court, near Bideford in Devon. The family later moved to Jordans.[vii] The metal gate at the shell grotto bears his arms, flanked by a hippopotamus and a crocodile. This was a later addition to the shell grotto, possibly at the time the outer porch was built.

Engraving by Samuel Hollyer of John Hanning-Speke, based on a photograph by the Southwell Brothers[viii]

John Hanning-Speke (1827-1864) – Memorial at Dowlish Wake Church, South Somerset. Features a crocodile and a hippopotamus.

I wonder if the young John Hanning-Speke was inspired for adventure by visits to the shell grotto. Its shells, minerals, corals and fossils linking to the far away and exotic.



[i] Martin Field, ‘The 4 poshes garden grottoes’, Tatler, 2015, [accessed 1 August 2021].

[ii] Hazelle Jackson, ‘In praise of the grotesque: Shell Houses and Grottoes’, London Gardens Trust, [accessed 1 August 2021].

[iii] Michael Symes ‘New light on Oatlands Park in the Eighteenth Century’, Garden History, Autumn, 1981, Vol. 9, No. 2 (The Gardens Trust: 1981), pp. 144-148.

[iv] Jackson, ‘In praise of the grotesque: Shell Houses and Grottoes’.

[v] ‘History’, Jordans Estate of Somerset [accessed 1 August 2021].

[vi] Julian Orbach and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: South and West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 149.

[vii] Roy Bridges, ‘Speke, John Hanning (1827-1864)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sep 2004, [accessed 1 August 2021].

[viii] ‘J.H. Speke’, [accessed 1 August 2021]


Bridges, Roy, ‘Speke, John Hanning (1827-1864)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sep 2004, [accessed 1 August 2021]

Field, Martin, ‘The 4 poshes garden grottoes’, Tatler, 2015,[accessed 1 August 2021]

‘History’, Jordans Estate of Somerset [accessed 1 August 2021]

Jackson, Hazelle, ‘In praise of the grotesque: Shell Houses and Grottoes’, London Gardens Trust, [accessed 1 August 2021].

Orbach, Julian and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: South and West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014)

Symes, Michael ‘New light on Oatlands Park in the Eighteenth Century’, Garden History, Autumn, 1981, Vol. 9, No. 2 (The Gardens Trust: 1981), pp. 136-156

‘The Grotto at Jordans’, Historic England List Entry 1057070, (1958, updated 2002), [accessed 1 August 2021]