Rydal Hall Grotto
By marianveevers, Aug 18 2017 10:06AM
Elizabeth Bennet's northern tour was shortened because of her uncle's business commitments and did not reach as far as the Lake District. Though initially disappointed about this, Elizabeth did not, of course, regret in the end the alteration of plan – for she found more than enough to amuse her in Derbyshire!
But I do sometimes find myself wishing that she had been able to travel a little further north. And sometimes I amuse myself by wondering about which places she would have visited, the course her journey might have taken, the views she might have stopped to admire.
Elizabeth's creator was – according to brother, Henry Austen – 'enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque'; so Elizabeth would probably have carried a copy of that gentleman's Observations on the Lake District and the West of England with its instructions for appreciating picturesque beauty. And picturesque beauty, according to the rather didactic Reverend Mr Gilpin, was 'that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture'.
So I like to imagine that Lizzie and her aunt and uncle might have found their way to one of my favourite places in the Lake District: a place where a scene is actually turned into a picture – and even has a frame around it.
The grotto beside the small waterfall at Rydal Hall was built for some of Westmorland's earliest sight-seers in the seventeenth century, and, by 1797 when William Gell made his tour of the area, it was one of the accepted places to visit. In his journal he describes how, under the shrubbery, 'is conceald the lower cascade, and it is so artfully contrived as to make what is really nothing in itself at least pleasing if not grand.'
Walking away from the hall itself – which he describes as 'handsome and spacious' – he says,
'We passed along a short winding path, closely bordered with young spruce or Silver firs, till we came to the door of a little low summer house, which on opening, presented us through a large square window in the opposite wall with a miniature of as beautiful and romantic a fall of water as the imagination can conceive, within so very limited a compass.'
I even like to think that this exquisite little view would have been so memorable as to ensure that it, at least, would be remembered exactly and not 'jumbled together' with other experiences, in the way which Jane Austen had clearly found insufferable as her acquaintances recounted their own travels.
The grotto still exists in the grounds of Rydal Hall and has recently been beautifully restored. Standing in it and looking out at the scene, the modern visitor is taken back two hundred years or so to share a delightful experience with travellers such as the Gardiners and their niece.