The Gyllyngdune Shell Grottoes: a Workshop Experience

by Katrina Barnicoat

In the dark recesses of my kitchen cupboards there are various tins and containers filled with shells and little pieces of glass that I have picked up on the beach for many years. This dusty collection represents a fantasy that idles around in my imagination that I hope will one day miraculously transform itself into some magical shell masterpiece in my garden. As usual, I had done absolutely nothing about this dream and justified my inactivity with the excuse that I didn’t really know how to go about it. Then, last year, I was presented with a challenge when an email from the Cornwall Gardens Trust informed me that the Gyllyngdune Gardens Restoration project were looking for volunteers to help restore the shell grottoes in a series of ‘masterclasses’.

I arrived one morning in June last year to find myself in the middle of a building site where my CGT partner and I were issued with hard hats, ‘hi-vis’ jackets, gloves and goggles and then inducted into the world of health and safety. Our teachers were the conservation specialists Sue and Lawrence Kelland who had already begun work. We were led down to the lower grotto in the quarry and issued with buckets, scrapers and little brushes to start the laborious task of cleaning off the years and years of dirt that had obscured the floor of the grotto. The ‘undesirables’ referred to in the previous article by Nigel Mathews had clearly made themselves at home in the grotto and their sanitary arrangements were primitive to say the least. It was very smelly and we crawled about on our hands and knees washing and scraping away the grime. Gradually, as we carefully cleaned the shells, a beautiful star shaped pattern of limpets and winkles began to emerge. We gently cleaned the dirt away and by lunchtime most of the floor was revealed and the subtle beauty of the design which had been meticulously created with native shells demonstrated the enormous attention to detail that had been taken.

Shell grottoes had become a popular feature in the gardens of the wealthy in the 18th century as classical architecture and Arcadian landscaping became the fashion. Shell work was considered a suitable hobby for young ladies and we discussed the possibility that the Reverend Coope’s daughters had created the grottoes at Gyllyngdune.  Whoever made them it is clear that they had taken a tremendous amount of time and trouble over them.

The next day we were quite relieved to be working on the upper level where the domed seat, now divided into two, is set into the hill looking out to sea. This lookout wasonce encrusted with shells but sadly most of the original work had been destroyed, so our task was to restore the walls and ceiling as best we could. We selected shells and tried to replicate the harmonious patterns that had once decorated the area around the seats. The Kellands showed us how to mix the lime mortar which turned out to be frustratingly tricky. It was either too runny or too firm instead of the perfect consistency to set the shells into place. All too often I found that I had placed the shells into the mortar only to find that, ten minutes later, they had slipped down into a sticky mess. At the end of the day we stood back to admire our designs. Our efforts weren’t too bad considering our lack of experience but it was clear to me that those 18th– and 19th-century ladies were working on a whole different level. We packed up and went home with aching knees and lime dust in our hair, eyes, and ears and I am afraid to say that my shell collection is still in the cupboard and my grotto is still at the planning stage.

Work in progress on restoring the shell seats that look out to sea
After careful work scraping at the decades of grime, the original star pattern begins to emerge on the grotto floor.

Intricate shellwork on the grotto’s ceiling