The village of
Enstone, some 20 kilometres north–west of Oxford was home to one of the
most extraordinary collections of water powered special effects or giochi d’aqua as
they are termed in Italian, known collectively as the ‘Enstone
Marvels’. Completed in 1636 by Thomas Bushell they became known as one
of the wonders of the age and were subject to a well-documented visit
by King Charles I and his queen Henrietta Maria in that same year.
Their fame was enshrined in Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire
of 1677 which not only had detailed descriptions of the site but also
two memorably detailed engravings. Widely illustrated in most books on
garden history it has been assumed that the actual site of the Marvels
would have little to show given that they were comprehensively
demolished in 1846. A preliminary visit in March 2013 has shown that
while this may have been the case there is still plenty of material
around that, subject to archaeological investigation can reveal more of
the nature of this remarkable site.
Enstone, on Stoney Bridge looking south towards the River Glyme. The
Marvels were behind the trees, centre right.
The general location of the Marvels has never been entirely lost. They
stood on the northern side of a broad steep sided valley cut in the
underlying Chipping Norton Oolitic limestone by the eastward flowing
River Glyme. Plot tells us that a natural spring known as the Goldwell
was being cleared on the orders of Bushell when it became clear that he
had accessed something of a natural phenomenon, in particular a
‘petrifying well’ a source of water high in Calcium which is so ordered
that dripping water rapidly coats nearby objects in a layer of calcite.
It is unclear whether Bushell’s intention in settling here was from the
outset to create something special or whether it really just a
happen chance that Bushell decided to capitalize on. What is obvious is
that even today at least half a dozen springs bubble up out of the
Jardin des Fontaines Pétrifiantes near Grenoble in France, could this
resemble something Bushell discovered when he cleared the undergrowth?
As he is the pivotal figure in the story of the Enstone Marvels it is
worth considering in outline the career of their originator Thomas
Bushell. The information that follows is taken from the on-line version
of the Dictionary of National Biography. There is a more detailed
account of his life penned in 1932 by J.W. Gough
but I have not yet been
able to track down a copy. Bushell was born some time before 1600
to a family of minor gentry from Cleeve Prior near Evesham. He had a
chequered childhood with little education and a certain amount of
wayward behaviour before, at the age of 15, entering the service of Sir
Bacon. Bacon was one of the foremost natural philosophers of the day
and his interest in scientific method and technology must have done
much to form Bushell’s view of the world. Bacon clearly took to the
young Bushell and began to remedy some of the defects in his education.
They shared an interest in current technologies and became concerned in
the refinement of certain techniques for draining and ventilating mines.
Sir Francis Bacon and his protege Thomas Bushell
After Bacon’s fall from grace in 1621 Bushell took himself off, in the
face of allegations of corruption, to the Isle of Wight and then the
Calf of Man where he claimed to have lived the life of a hermit
subsisting on herbs and whatever else grew nearby for three years. He
was able to return to Bacon’s service in the final years of his life
and when his mentor died in 1626 Bushell was set up with a marriage to
an heiress and was able to take on the small estate in Enstone the
same year. He then spent the next decade in improving the property including building the grotto and
attached banqueting house, which even at the time astonished his
contemporaries with its extravagance given that he only had leasehold on
the property. One Lieutenant Hammond who visited in 1635 remarked that
it was all ‘a mad gim-cracke sure’. All this lead up to the royal visit
of 1636 when Bushell was able to make a pitch to Charles I for the
opportunity to take over the royal silver mines in Wales. Is it too
cynical to suggest that attracting this kind of royal patronage was
part of his motivation for creating the Marvels in the first place?
Bushell’s ambitious proposals for the mine workings were clearly not
costed and he rapidly ran up huge debts. He was obviously an
accomplished salesman for as Aubrey says in his Brief Lives, ‘his tongue was a chaine and
drew in so many to be bound for him and to be ingaged in his designes
that he ruined a number’. Nevertheless in 1637 the crown issued letters
patent to enable him to set up a mint in Aberystwyth. At the outbreak
of the Civil War the mint was moved to Shrewsbury and in 1643 Bushell
and his coining operation followed the king to Oxford. From there he
was sent to Bristol and ended the war as commander of the garrison on
Lundy, only surrendering to Parliament in July 1646. He tried to float
a variety of new mining ventures in the west country during the years
of the Commonwealth and like many Royalists was disappointed by the
lack of success he had in trying to press his claims for financial compensation with the
newly restored Charles II. All this lead to his final years being ones
of perpetual debt and occasional imprisonment. Finally in 1633 he was
granted a position of ‘gentleman of the privy chamber extraordinary’
which gave him some measure of protection. He died in 1674 and was
buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.
An Aberystwyth silver threepence minted by Bushell
We have little information about Bushell's relationship with Enstone
during the Civil War years and afterwards except to note that according
to Plot the works had fallen into disrepair and things were not put
right until 1674 when presumably upon Bushell’s death the lease
reverted to the landowner the newly promoted 11 year old Earl of
Lichfield. Sir Edward Lee, the fifth baronet Quarrendon was created
earl by Charles II on the occasion of the boy’s betrothal to the King’s
illegitimate daughter Charlotte Fitzroy.
Although Bushell was clearly the originator of the Enstone Marvels some
of the more remarkable features were added by the Earl of Lichfield
which of course poses a number of questions. Given his tender years one
wanders on whose advice the decision was taken not only to restore but
also extend the Marvels. Was this by way of acknowledging and
celebrating the arrival of a new earl by means of a high profile
building project which demonstrated how much in touch he was with
current technological wonders? It has to be said, however, that by the
time of Plot’s visit in the 1670s such things were already looking
slightly old-fashioned, perhaps the young earl had not been
particularly well advised.
We need to look closely at Robert Plot’s account of his visit for it is
one of the most exhaustive descriptions we have of a seventeenth
century wonder and together with the detailed engravings presents us
with an unparalleled picture of such effects. Plot, born in 1640, was
an Oxford scholar who began work on his Natural History of Oxfordshire
in June of 1674 completing it three years later. Such a full account
particularly as far as the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the Marvels are
concerned are invaluable, especially when we come to reconstructing the
arrangements for the House of Diversion at Hanwell. There is one
curious error, Plot says that the spring was discovered by Bushell ’73
or 74 years since’ which is odd because this would make Bushell active
on site at the age of 5 or 6 over 20 years before he leased the
We also have a publication; The Several Speeches and Songs at the Presentment of the Rock at Enstone to the Queens Most Excellent Majesty which details the celebrations which quite
typically greeted their majesties Charles and Henrietta, a performance
which included a hermit arising from the depths, a playing no doubt of
the special effects and sundry sonnets and songs set by one Simon Ive.
We are even more fortunate in having from1857 the extraordinarily
detailed 465 page and exhaustively titled: Parochial history of Enstone, in the county
of Oxford: being an attempt to exemplify the compilation of parochial
histories from antiquarian remains, ecclesiastical structures and
monuments, ancient and modern documents, manorial records ...
&c., &c by the Reverend John Jordan. It is worth
reproducing the full text of his comments on the Marvels as it gives a
remarkable and unusually full account of the monument’s latter days and
So much for the literary and historical background, what is there to see
on the ground today and beyond that what may be revealed by further
archaeological study? The property described by Jordan as
being built from the remains of the banqueting house remains on site to
this day and is part of a house known as the Wells. As this was built ‘adjacent’ to the ruins one might expect the
location to be close by although presumably not so close as to run the
risk of subsidence into the subterranean grotto which was still in
existence. One must assume that during the course of demolition useful
stone would have been carted away as would any surviving pipes and
other fittings and the grotto itself filled in with loose rubble and
other less usable materials on site. It is questionable what else was
removed from the grotto and it is possible that some of the decorative
material was reused elsewhere (see below), however, it seems likely
that structurally the grotto still could survive substantially intact below ground and
that the material used to fill it would tell us much about the
superstructure that Plot illustrated.
So where was it? There has been some additional development around the site and the
current landowner has observed that no structural remains were found
during related ground works so this narrows down the areas under
consideration. The other factor which must be taken into account in
locating the site of the grotto is the local topography as illustrated
by Plot. This shows the way in which the building is terraced back into
the valley side and how it relates to the level of the water in the
adjacent pond. On the admittedly big assumption that Plot’s picture is
reasonably accurate and given the number of visual clues to scale we
can convert this drawing into an admittedly speculative plan.
In the foreground perspective 2 metre squares are overlaid on the plan,
this data and other measures such as the likely length of the table and
the width of the door have been used in the plan.
If we now transfer the plan to an aerial view of the site we
can begin see what options best fit the current topography. One
important additional feature is that in the garden of the property is a
small enclosed tank containing a spring and edged with stone coping
very similar to that shown around the 'spaniel and duck' cistern. Could
this be that cistern still amazingly preserved in position? Well it
seems unlikely, the size is wrong, the construction rough and the
location seems too high above current water levels. Nevertheless it
could be a feature reconstructed roughly in place as a memento of the
now vanished structure. Whatever the case the plan can be dropped
into place in roughly the same location to give us a starting point
for further debate about the exact position.
The small cistern in the garden of the Wells, view from south-east.
pool to the south of the Glyme, view looking west.
Garden pond, view looking west, modern
landscaping but a pool is shown in this position in the 1881 OS map
There is a large open area
to the south of the river which is currently flooded and may have
formed part of a larger pool associated with the works but this
exercise does demonstrate that the whole thing could have been fitted in
north of the current river course. If we relocate the site further to
the west it overlaps with an existing pond which may reflect part of
the original and a round picnic table would lie close to the site of the island!
Plan of Marvels superimposed on aerial view, north to top. Passing
the cursor over the picture shifts the location to an alternate position
Whatever the precise location of
the Marvels further investigation is likely to concentrate on detailed
survey and careful examination of the gardens at water level to try and
pick up traces of the walling round the island or the edging to the pool.
Indeed there a stub of wall a little further to the west which could
prove interesting. Other fragments are scattered around the immediate
area all of which really need careful recording at some point in the
future but for further clues about the Enstone Marvels we may need to
look further afield.
west of garden pond looking west.
Piece of calciferous stone
beneath picnic bench, looking north.
Triangular coping stone on wall south-east of house
well as features in the immediate vicinity of the grotto Bushell also
had a grand house somewhere nearby and there were walks and terraces
laid out around the extensive grounds. Little of this apparently remains
field which flanks the property to the north and east does have some
interesting earthworks most of which appear to be medieval ridge and
furrow, relics of the open field system of cultivation, however there
are other indications on the ground of some additional features that
again could benefit from careful surveying.
Wells is towards the bottom left. Ridge and furrow is clearly visible
running almost north south as is a possible track way which cuts
obliquely across it.
and furrow, view looking west.
Bank to possible track way, view looking
Given the scale of the demolition
it would not be surprising if elements from the Marvels had been
scattered round the village in the late 1840s and indeed there are a
couple of notable features, however, it is important to recall that
Church Enstone in particular had a number of other fine buildings, now
lost, which could have contributed to these. The first is found attached to end of a cottage in
the village which boasts its own grotto - a remarkable and unusual
addition by any standard. Today it consists of what is in effect an open
ended extension to the cottage. The arched opening, now glazed is
flanked by two pairs of roughly formed niches and is crowned by a fifth
niche which originally accommodated a stone bust
post card which show this also reveals the structure to have had a
coarse string course paralleling a shallow gable surmounted by a
made of rough stones set on end. Inside there is a modern opening into
the present day cottage and the interior also has a pair of niches
facing each other from the side walls. The end wall is slightly
wider than the body of the grotto and so has two stub walls which
protrude a few centimetres at either end. The fabric of this structure
is almost entirely composed of various forms of calciferous rock in a
range of crystalline forms. The current owner was told that the stone
came from a local quarry which is certainly possible and the grotto
could have been
erected as a small testimony to Enstone's former fame. Alternatively
the materials could have been obtained from the removal of the Marvels
themselves, there are certainly questions that need looking into here.
have to say the lions had a very baroque feel to them, could they have
been recycled? Whatever the case it's rather nice to see, ten years
after the demolition of the Marvels someone trying to give a new
fountain a special place in the village
grotto, view from south-west.
earlier view from a local postcard.
Detail of the walling material.
final port of call for the day, not counting the excellent local pub,
The Crown, was a fountain or water trough on the north side of the
Bicester Road down towards Stoney Bridge. This is an unusually
elaborate edifice for a village cattle trough. There is an inscription
flanking the central cross which we unfortunately had neither the time
nor resources to decipher. Oddly this impressive little structure
does not seem to figure in the Oxfordshire Historic Environment Record,
a curious oversight, but fortunately the ever reliable Buildings of England volume comes to the rescue:
FOUNTAIN. Memorial to Eliza Marshall, died 1856. Designed by G.E. Street and carved by Earp.
A trough with a lion's-mask spout surmounted by an inscription with a
Maltese cross and a frieze of acanthus. (Sherwood and Pevsner 1974: 594).
memorial fountain, view from south-west.
Detail of upper lion's-mask spout.
Well, what a productive morning out and many many thanks to the members of the Enstone Historical Society and
local residents who did so much to facilitate the visit and share their
time and knowledge with me. I am sure that the Enstone Marvels will
yet have the capacity to amaze and astonish us.