In modern times we tend to hear of grottos only at Christmas time; secluded corners of departmental stores and large toy shops where white bearded gentlemen in long red cloaks hide away to enchant children of every age.But although that nature of event is more generally found about the streets a little to the south of here; Rudolph never pranced in the gardens of Grotto Passage and it is unlikely that Father Christmas ever knew of its existence.
[T]o find Santa’s Grotto from Baker Street Station cross to the south side of Marylebone Road and walk down Baker Street. Cross Porter Street and in about 135 yards turn left into Paddington Street. Cross Chilton Street and continue past the gardens. Grotto Passage is about 65 yards on the right just before Marylebone High Street.
The Passage has its foundations in less seasonal entertainment and owes its origin to one John Castle, creative artist and entrepreneur. After a Royal acknowledgement of his superior skill when he presented the King with an intricate replica of his Arms in shells, Castle was invited by Sir Robert Walpole to construct a grotto in the Royal Hospital garden at Chelsea.
Newspapers published glowing reports on his achievements raising him overnight to the status of famous. One day in 1738 he was aroused by a vision of thousands of people queuing to view his work and it became apparent that his rise to celebrated heights could be used to advantage by opening a gallery and charging the public to view his creations. His dream came to fruition when he leased a one acre site of pasture land on the west side of Marylebone High Street where he erected wooden sheds and tents for the exhibition of the numerous elaborate displays of shell-work.
At a few pence entrance fee Mr Castle’s Grotto took off with immediate success. The show received a boost in popularity after a spontaneous visit by members of the Royal Family, which also provided an ideal opportunity to double the entrance fee.
As John Castle was getting on in years when he rose to celebrity status, he enjoyed only a few years of fame before extinguishing this life in 1757. The Grotto continued to attract a diminishing crowd but without the leadership of its creative master the sparkle behind the attraction had gone. It soon became unviable and closed in 1759.
That sparkle never returned to Grotto Passage and today it lies as a cramped corridor where the only creations on view are Kathleen House at numbers 1-4 and the plain fronted and rather insignificant building of the Royal British Legion Club. Despite its lacklustre it is not an unattractive passage, but on the other hand it is not really attractive. Branching from Paddington Street through a hole in the wall, the Passage continues on an undeviating path to Garbutt Place, named after William Garbutt, the first Town Clerk of Marylebone when it was made a Borough in 1900.
Much of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.