Grottesque Posted on June 27, 2016

Shellwork at Ballymaloe

Would you like a grotto? Do you warm to the idea of a cool shell-lined cave, water dripping from stalactites, mysterious reflections in a dark pool? They’re back in fashion. I went to what must be the most beautiful grotto of modern times at the Ballymaloe Cooking School near Cork, a crustacean mosaic, a pristine masterpiece of a summerhouse (no water, admittedly) that perfectly expressed the spirit of what? Grotteity? Grottiness?

Last year’s winner of the PJ Redouté Prize for the best garden book* in French is a tombstone of a volume on grottoes, illustrating a score of magnificent creations, some glistening bright, some spooky, all cool retreats from the sunlit world. It classifies them as, for example, Primordial, Diluvian, Labyrinthine, Sacred, Tellurique, Profane, Underworldly – and the Introductory chapter is called Ouvrir L’Ombre – opening the shade.

As it happens, we have a grotto of our own, deep in the Welsh woods; a rocky tunnel a hundred yards long that set out to be a goldmine but drew a blank. Its mouth, protected by an iron gate, is a gloomy hole overhung by ferns and issuing a dark and gleaming stream. Penetrate the depths (take a torch) and you are in a world of black, dripping rock, with here and there a little cascade to cool your collar.

The grotto spirit, though, can be expressed in less ambitious ways. I have been looking round this tiny garden for a corner to transform into an alcove plastered with shells, with perhaps a pretty dribble into a basin. For now we just have a tank with a Mr Spit like a Green Man and four goldfish; two tiddlers and two gorgeous ‘comets’ with wide waving tails called Halley and Haley (Bopp).

*The book is ‘L’Imaginaire des Grottes dans les Jardins Européens’by Herve Brunon and Monique Mosser. Oh yes; moss. Another essential.

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