During the 18th century, it was very fashionable to have your own grotto in your garden – which is believed to have represented the descent into the underworld. Few are as mesmerising as the one found in William Champion’s Gardens in Warmley, however, thought to be the most extensive man-made grotto still surviving.
Just on the outskirts of Bristol near Kingswood, you’ll find Kingswood Heritage Museum. Once the home of the zinc and brass works of William Champion, the area is home to Kingswood Heritage Museum’s permanent exhibits, William Champion’s luscious gardens, a tall windmill tower and, of course, the grotto – which is not usually accessible to the general public.
William Champion’s Gardens are truly weird and wonderful. Laid out in the then-popular Dutch style, the focal point of the gardens was originally a large lake formed by the damming of Siston Brook. This has long disappeared, but a 30-foot-high statue of the god Neptune that stood at the lake’s centre is still there.
The Warmley giant, as it is affectionately sometimes called, is believed to be the largest garden statue in the country. It is also almost made entirely of cement and black clinker (the residue of burnt coal) from Champion’s works. Swallowed by ivy in the past, Neptune was recently recovered from the overgrowth but has lost his arms, trident and crown.
Elsewhere you’ll find the garden brought to life with wildflower meadows and an orchard planted with fruit trees from Champion’s time. Or discover the rare ‘snail’ viewing mound, the Echo Pond – an echo may be heard immediately in front of the pond facing the back wall – and Champion’s ‘summerhouse’ in the woods. But the grotto remains the garden’s most unique feature.
It was likely based on the grotto found at Goldney House in Clifton, built by Champion’s uncle, but is far more unique. Rather than Bristol diamonds and shells, the walls comprise the same black clinker waste that’s on Neptune. A central pool is surrounded by six gruesome faces with gaping jaws forming archways into subterranean tunnels.
William Champion’s Gardens’s grotto usually only reopens for Bank Holidays, but you can visit this weekend too (September 16 & 17) for Bristol’s Heritage Open Days. The gloomy warren of passageways and cave-like structures, including a complex water system, will come alive once again. There is no need to book, just turn up between 11 am and 4.30 pm either day.