Stonehenge boulders form ‘fairytale’ Grotto at campus
13 December 2022
As the Winter Solstice draws people to Stonehenge, it might be a surprise for visitors to the University of Reading to learn that the giant boulders used to build the 4,500-year-old structure can also be found closer to home.
‘The Grotto’ is hidden away at the University’s Whiteknights campus and is made up of sarsen stones from the same area as those used at Stonehenge in Wiltshire.
A Grade II listed structure, The Grotto is not the type you would expect to find Santa Claus in this Christmas. It looks like a pile of rocks, but in fact it was once the centrepiece of a number of ‘fairytale’ designs devised for the Duke of Marlborough’s garden in the early 1800s. It is one of a handful of items from his gardens that is still standing more than 200 years later.
The Duke of Marlborough rented the 300-acres of land and a house at Whiteknights in 1798 when he was still known as the Marquis of Blandford. It is believed the Duke ordered the transport of the boulders to his new home in 1810, when the stones arrived at Whiteknights after they were loaded into a wagon from a field near Avebury, Wiltshire. They were then transported down the new Kennet and Avon Canal, - which had opened that year and revolutionised transport in the south - through Hungerford and Newbury and onwards to Reading.
Katy Whitaker, a PhD Archaeology student who has researched the role of sarsen stone in Southern Britain, stumbled across the boulders at Whiteknights while carrying out a project in 2017.
She said: “I hope that the Whiteknights stones remember their origin and their journey. They were brought up to Whiteknights to fulfil The Duke’s design for the most fashionable, exotic, interesting, beautiful garden that he was designing here.
“The Grotto was an integral part of that design, with its spring and the fountain that it used to have, sending the water down as part of the lake construction that snakes through Whiteknights today.”
The Grotto is located in the woodland - now known as The Wilderness - at Whiteknights campus at The University of Reading. The area was simply called ‘The Woods’ by the Duke, who was known as George, Marquis of Blandford, at the time. It was a landscape he spent 21 years transforming into a ‘fairytale garden.’
It has lost all bar its huge sarsens, and now stands overlooking marshy hollow. But it used to have branches of coral hanging from the upper stones, seaweed mixed in with the ferns, and was decorated with shells and crystals. It contained a series of gardens within a garden, featuring walks, lawns, plantations, themed flower borders, bowers, and romantic garden buildings, including one for his orchestra to play in.