Shell huts, Grosvenor Gardens

Hazelle Jackson’s lovely little book on Shell Houses and Grottoes inspired me to discover more about the two unusual shell huts in Lower Grosvenor Gardens, just across the way from Victoria Station. With more than a little help from Westminster City Archives and one of the current gardeners, the Londonphile has pieced together the story of these intriguing little structures.

The shell huts were built in 1952 as part of a re-landscaping of the Lower Grosvenor Gardens in a French style to commemorate Marshal Foch and Anglo-French understanding. The gardens already had a statue (by Georges Malissard) of Foch – the French hero of the First World War – which was erected in 1930. During the Second World War, Grosvenor Gardens was covered with air raid shelters and littered with dust and debris, so a clean-up was in order. An initial one took place in 1948, at which time the photograph below was taken, giving us some idea of how the gardens looked at this point.

1948 view. Source: 'The Sphere', 4 September 1948.

As part of the new French look, a number of the existing large trees were removed, a large arabesque pathway formed with gravel, and a fleur-de-lis centre-piece composed with flowering plants. These changes were not to everyone’s liking, and it’s amusing to read newspaper accounts from the time, some of whose comments (‘inexplicable’, ‘completely useless’, ‘perhaps they are going to stand the thing on end’, ‘wallpaper patterns turned into paths’) seem to express a certain lack of regard towards French design and certainly a sense of loss about the shady, grassy areas that were no more. The official opening ceremony for ‘London’s French garden’ was held on 18th July 1952, when the French Ambassador dedicated it to Foch’s memory.

1952 view. Source: 'The Builder', 1 August 1952.

The two shell huts – and indeed the rest of the park – were designed by the then architect-in-chief of the National Monuments and Palaces of France, Jean Moreux, who also designed the Institut Francais library in South Kensington. Some of the shells adorning the huts were brought over from France, while it was thought that others would also be sourced from English beaches – making for a very cross-cultural construction indeed. The huts were said to be ‘in the style of those small pavilions that were known as fabriques in eighteenth-century France’  – the old French term for what is known as a folly in the U.K.

Under construction. Source: 'The Sphere', 24 May 1952.

Despite their whimsical decorations, the huts were in fact designed with a practical purpose in mind: they were for the use of the park’s gardeners, with one designated for the storage of tools and the other ‘for the attendant’. However, a very helpful current garder told me that they now only have access to the western hut – the eastern hut is kept locked. He was kind enough to unlock the hut still in use – and as the photo below shows, it is still used for garden storage today, including a lawnmower.

Inside the hut.

Intriguingly, the park seems to have changed yet again over time. The central fleur-de-lis motif has disappeared, and the curving arabesque gravel paths have been replaced by asphalt ones, still following circular lines but with a central path. This has meant that more of the grassy zones have been able to re-colonise the garden – which no doubt would have greatly pleased the aforementioned writer who bemoaned their loss. But the huts still remain – one has some graffiti on its door but otherwise they seem in remarkably good condition, with most of their cross-cultural shells still attached.

Westminster Council’s Lower and Upper Grosvenor Gardens page

Westminster City Archives’ website


St Dunstan-in-the-East

St Dunstan-in-the-East must be one of the more unique and atmospheric lunch spots on offer for City workers, who eat their sandwiches amongst the bombed-out remains of a medieval church. The church itself had a complex history, having been touched by two of the major historical events in London: the Great Fire and the Blitz.

Originally built in 1100, St Dunstan’s was slowly rebuilt after being badly damaged in the Great Fire, including the addition of a steeple designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who matched his design to suit the original Gothic style of the church. Serious structural damage was uncovered in 1817, which prompted another rebuild between 1817 and 1821. Finally, the church was hit in the 1941 Blitz, leaving only a shell  – and Wren’s steeple.

This was the final straw for St Dunstan’s and it was decided not to rebuild it yet again. Although the bells were replaced in the tower in 1953, they were deemed unsafe to use as without any support the tower would list greatly when they were rung. The bells themselves had a rather sad end – two were destroyed during the dismantling and relocation process in 1970 (one was actually broken up in the tower as it was slightly too large to remove), and they now grace a Californian winery.

The garden has fared much better – it was designed in 1971 by the then London Architects and Parks Department, who planted twisting creepers and exotic plants amongst the ruins and Wren’s steeple to create this secluded little haven in the City. The different areas of the church make for a nice choice of seating areas. The parish was combined with All Hallows by the Tower, who occasionally hold open air services in St Dunstan’s – such as the one this weekend for Palm Sunday at 11am.

You can find the garden between Idol Lane and St Dunstan’s Hill in the City.

Sydenham Hill Wood and Folly

‘A folly might be defined as a useless building erected for ornament on a gentleman’s estate’ – Barbara Jones.

‘The mark of a true folly is that it was erected to satisfy and give pleasure to the builder, and greatly to surprise the stranger’ – Sir Hugh Casson.

While there is much debate about how exactly to define a folly, there’s little doubt that many visitors must be fooled by this folly in Sydenham Hill Wood. These ‘ruins’ actually only date back to the Victorian era, and were built as an impressive garden feature in the grounds of a large house once on the site – Fairwood, which was built around 1864. Its owner, Alderman David Henry Stone (later a Lord Mayor of London), contracted the firm of James Pulham & Son (inventor of the artificial Pulhamite rock) to construct these sham ruins. Ruins had been a popular type of folly since the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when wealthy landowners inspired by their Grand Tours of Europe wanted to re-create some of the classical sights in their own gardens.

The folly and rockery

The Sydenham folly depicts a ruined church or monastery – apparently remains of stained glass were still present in the windows back in the 1950s and early 1960s. It’s thought that the arch would once have been complete – although it’s hard to be precise when you’re talking about ruins, and fake ones at that! There are also the remains of a rockery leading down to what was once an ornamental stream. Previously a group of six or seven large houses, including Fairwood, had been built on this 9-hectare site, but these were demolished by the end of the 1970s and the area returned to a woodland state (with a few Victorian era plants thrown in for good measure). It has been managed by the London Wildlife Trust since 1982.

Although it was the folly that drew me to Sydenham Hill Wood, this little slice of woodland also has several other points of interest. As difficult as it is to believe given its rather pristine current state, a railway line once ran right through this area – and not just any line, but the Crystal Palace line transporting people from Nunhead to the Crystal Palace. Camille Pissarro painted the view from the Cox’s Walk Footbridge in the wood in 1871 (see picture below left), which looks remarkably different today (below right). You can also see the 1865 tunnel mouth that the railway once passed through – now home to a colony of bats. Much like the story in Vauxhall, this is an open space that has reverted to type, in this case with the wood and its inhabitants reclaiming the space.

Sydenham Hill Wood is located in SE26 – there are entry points on Crescent Wood Road and Sydenham Hill. Forest Hill and Sydenham Overground are the closest stations, while the buses that will get you here are the 363 and 356. It even has its own Twitter account: @SydenhamWoodLWT

London Wildlife Trust Sydenham Hill Wood page

If you’d like to see more photos of the folly you can visit the Londonphile’s Flickr set.

Bunhill Fields Burial Ground

Detail from John Bunyan's tomb, Bunhill Fields

It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but the area that Bunhill Fields Burial Ground occupies was once located on a moor that stretched between the London Wall and the ‘village’ of Hoxton. How times change. Today the crowded graves abut modern apartments and offices, while traffic from City Road is a constant presence, despite the surprisingly tranquil atmosphere the site somehow still manages to maintain. Burial grounds have in fact been a fixture – in various forms – in this district since Saxon times.

Bunhill Fields’ name derives from ‘Bone Hill’, possibly in reference to a period during the mid-16th century when literally cartloads of bones were brought here to free up space in St Paul’s charnel house and vault. Another influx took place in 1665 when plague victims were interred here by the City of London – it was at this point that the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground was officially established. As the ground was never consecrated, it became popular with nonconformists and is the last resting place of many famous dissenters, including William Blake and John Bunyan. As such, many of the graves are more plain and simple in design than you generally see in many of London’s older cemeteries.

Wesley’s Chapel (which has its own small burial ground, much of which is hidden away at the rear of the complex) can be found to the East just across City Road, while the old Quaker Burial Ground is across Bunhill Row to the west, forming a significant zone for London’s nonconformists. Not much is left of the Quaker Burial Ground – now Quaker Gardens – which suffered massive bomb damage during the Second World War. The 1881 Quaker Meeting House is still in use though, and is now the only remaining structure from the Bunhill Memorial Buildings (it can be found on Quaker Court).

Bunhill Fields itself was also badly hit during the Blitz, which ultimately led to the new landscaping of the site in the 1960s by Peter Shepheard and an extensive restoration of the remaining memorials. This saw the graves in the southern area fenced off and a large, green open space created in the northern section. The cemetery itself had been closed to new interments back in 1854 – it was declared to be well and truly ‘full’ after receiving something in the order of 123,000 burials. The Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington was to become the next cemetery of choice for nonconformist citizens.

In 1867 an Act of Parliament preserved Bunhill Fields “as an open space” for the public’s use, which is still very much its function today. When the Londonphile first stumbled across Bunhill it was a sunny afternoon and the seats were filled with local workers on their lunch break. When I returned to take these photographs children from a local school were using the lawn as a playing field. You can learn more about Bunhill on £5 City Guides tours that are held on Wednesdays at 12.30pm between April and October. Bunhill Fields itself is currently open at the following times, and access to the fenced-off areas can be arranged via an attendant between 1 and 3pm Monday-Friday:

October to March: weekdays 7.30am – 4.00pm, weekends & bank holidays 9.30am – 4.00pm.
April to September: weekdays 7.30am – 7pm, weekends & bank holidays 9.30am -7pm.

City of London’s Bunhill Fields page

City Guides’ Bunhill Fields walking tour