Steeped in history, the Grim’s Dyke is London’s premier country house hotel and is a Grade II listed building set in 40 acres of beautiful formal gardens and tranquil woodlands yet just 12 miles from the West End.
The hotel takes its name from an ancient defensive earthwork which runs for three miles from Pinner Hill to Bentley Priory and which dates back to Roman times. The earthworks formed part of the boundary of the territory belonging to the Catuvellauni tribe of Ancient Britons and was constructed to help keep out marauding Romans.
The earthworks were originally known in Anglo-Saxon times as Grim’s Ditch but the word ‘Ditch’ evolved over the ages into ‘Dyke’ for reasons that are not known. The origin of the name ‘Grim’ is also shrouded in mystery but it was common for Anglo Saxons to name features of mysterious or unexplained origin ‘Grim’. Many scholars believe that ‘Grim’ is derived from the old Norse word ‘Grimr’, an Anglo Saxon alias for the Norse God of War and Death, Woden, meaning the ‘masked one’. This is possibly why Woden is often depicted in drawings as The Devil.
The outline and main contours of the Dyke can still be clearly seen running parallel with the hotel below the wall of the sunken rose garden. The land on which the hotel stands is carved out of the estate of the ancient Augustinian Priory of St Gregory which was founded by Ranulf de Glanville who subsequently became Chancellor and Chief Justiciar of England. The original Priory building is thought to have stood in nearby Clamp Hill and in 1248 it was renamed the Priory Bentley in memory of a monk who had been accidentally killed there.
In later history it belonged to the Dean of Canterbury before falling into the hands of Henry VIII, not by reason of the Reformation but because it was swapped by Thomas Cranmer for lands in Wimbledon. Granted by the Crown to William Sacheverell and Robert Needham in 1546, the land passed through many hands until 1788 when it was purchased by the 9th Earl of Abercorn.
As a private house prior to becoming a hotel the Grim’s Dyke’s 140-year history was very much tied up with the fortunes of four famous Victorians – an artist, an architect, a banker and the greatest comic dramatist of the age.
The building that is now the hotel was designed by the architect Norman Shaw as a country house for the eminent Victorian artist Frederick Goodall. Goodall in 1856 had purchased 100 acres of land at Harrow Weald from the 2nd Marquess of Abercorn which included the site of the present building. Shaw and Goodall were kindred spirits and were both members of a social circle that met throughout the 1840s at Redleaf in Kent.
Goodall’s popularity and reputation were growing and his works, especially his biblical scenes, in both oil and water colour were much sought after. At the time he lived in London’s Camden Square but longed to live in the country having always been fond of gardening. Shaw, meanwhile, was developing his own particular style of romantic mellow brick Old English country house and Goodall was happy for him to create what was effectively a prototype for the Gothic influenced designs for which Shaw subsequently became famous.
Building work on the house started in 1870 and Goodall and his family took up residence two years later but they only lived there for a few years. For both professional and family reasons Goodall missed being so far out of London and in 1880 he sold the house to Robert Heriot, a partner in the private bank CJ Hambro & Son, and moved to St. John’s Wood. Heriot was effectively in day to day control of the bank particularly when its then chairman Everard Hambro was either hunting in Scotland or at his home in Biarritz.
In 1883 Heriot added a billiard room designed by Arthur Cawston adjacent to what was formerly Goodall’s studio. This room included an inglenook fireplace but it was designed in a coarse Gothic style quite out of keeping with Shaw’s original scheme. Ten years later, Heriot put the house on the market, retaining Shaw’s services as an agent. By now the grounds were showing signs of neglect but this did not deter Sir William and Lady Gilbert who were to become the house’s last and arguably most illustrious owners. They viewed the property while touring in the neighbourhood and then set about organising the purchase for £4000 in August 1890.
Gilbert had an international reputation as one of the foremost English dramatists and his collaboration with Sir Arthur Sullivan resulted in one of opera’s most enduring and successful partnerships. His plays, both comedies and drama, had been a popular feature of London theatrical life since 1867. At one point he had five shows running simultaneously at different London theatres and in addition, touring companies were taking his work to the suburbs of the metropolis and to the provinces.
He had developed stage management and direction, taken costume and language to a new level and created family entertainment that was acceptable to Victorian morals. In doing so he had become extremely wealthy by the standards of the era and during his time at the house he wrote his last ten plays which included with Arthur Sullivan ‘Utopia Limited’ and ‘His Excellency, The Grand Duke’.
From September 1890 until the end of that year Sir William supervised the various internal alterations he wanted, employing the architects Ernest George and Peto who had designed his London home in Harrington Gardens. A new suite of bedrooms was built over the billiards room (now the hotel’s restaurant) and the exteriors of both floors were matched to the main structure. The dairy was converted into a small hall for servants, the kitchen was completely re-arranged and the original drawing room became Gilbert’s library (now the hotel bar).
Goodall’s studio was made into a new drawing room to which was added a vast Cornish alabaster chimneypiece which was almost certainly based on a sketch prepared by Gilbert and then worked up by a French sculptor and finished by Peto. It is the only feature in Grim’s Dyke which is at all reminiscent of the many neo-Flemish flourishes at Harrington Gardens.
When Sir William acquired the house, the gardens had been seriously neglected but his wife set about restoring them and creating the haven of peaceful seclusion that it is today. During their 21 years at Grim’s Dyke Sir William and Lady Gilbert made many changes to the 40 acres of grounds surrounding the house. Sir William created a home farm which gave him plenty of scope to indulge his great fondness for animals. He grazed a small herd of thoroughbred Jerseys and also kept pigs and poultry.
Meanwhile Lady Gilbert turned her attentions to designing and creating the formal gardens and her passion for the gardens is still very much in evidence today. They include rhododendron bushes that she planted, 100-year–old Giant Redwood Trees, rare tulips and poppies and a thriving wildlife community which includes an unusual species of deer.
Over 10,000 Spring bulbs are now planted each year which when in flower compliment the bluebells that carpet the woods and flank the gently winding paths. The large sunken rose garden which adjoins the pond and stream that runs down one side of the gardens is reputed to have been Lady Gilbert’s particular pride and joy. Planted in it are many old fashioned roses, all originating from the late 1800s and including Boule de Neige, Belle de Crecy, Queen of Denmark and Louise Odier. There are about 15 different varieties of bushes and climbers, most of which only flower once each year but all of which have superb scents.
An orchard was planted and a series of substantial greenhouses built which provided in their appropriate season peaches, grapes, melons, nectarines and bananas. Close to the main building are the original kitchen gardens and beehives all of which today supply fruit, vegetables, edible flowers, herbs and honey to Gilbert’s, the hotel restaurant.
The hotel in conjunction with Harrow Council recently restored the orchard which had become seriously overgrown and neglected but has now been returned to the way it used to look in Victorian times. The orchard is home to many rare Victorian species of apple such as Ribston Pippin whose origins date back to the early 1700s and which went on to become a favoured dessert apple in the Victorian era and Warner’s King, a late season culinary variety which originated in Kent again in the early 1700s.
Lost paths are still being unearthed as a result of ongoing restoration work and in 2001 a labyrinth of cobbled pathways was discovered that link the boating lake to the dyke and home farm. The construction of the lake which had a surface area of around 1.5 acres was probably the biggest gardens and grounds project undertaken by Sir William and his wife but it was also the place where Sir William met his untimely death on May 29 1911.
He used to bathe there in the summer and one day gave two local girls permission to swim with him. However one of the girls got into difficulties and Sir William tragically drowned trying to save her. Lady Gilbert insisted that the lake was drained after her husband’s death but following the discovery in 2012 of rare Great Crested Newts on the site of the lake, parts of it have been cleared of unwanted vegetation and restored as a smaller lake in a joint project with the Froglife wildlife charity. This conservation initiative has resulted in a large number of aquatic birds, mammals and insects populating the new lake.
Lady Gilbert stayed on at the house until her own death in 1936 when it was acquired by the Middlesex County Council and the London County Council who jointly leased it to the North West Regional Hospital Board. It was used from 1937 to 1962 as a rehabilitation centre initially during the Second World War for women suffering from tuberculosis although after the war male patients were also admitted for rehabilitation.
Recently, it has emerged that the Grim’s Dyke was used for secret military work during the Second World War. Details of this work remain classified until the 2040’s but it is believed that the house was used to examine captured German machinery and parts of shot down aircraft which were analysed by Allied scientists from Bletchley Park. This secret work was so important to the war effort that it is thought that both Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower visited the house.
After the war the house went into a period of decline but for a while became a favourite location with film and television companies. Several well-known TV series and feature films at the time were filmed here and the house and grounds can be seen in several classic Hammer House Of Horror productions. In addition much of the iconic 70’s comedy ‘Futtocks End’, which was written by and starred the late Ronnie Barker who at one stage lived in nearby Pinner. was filmed at the Grim’s Dyke. The hotel is still used by film and tv companies. The wedding night scene from last year’s ‘One Chance’ about the life of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ winner Paul Potts was filmed at the hotel and location scenes for ‘Eastenders’ and ‘Holby City’ are regularly filmed here.
In 1969, Harrow Council was granted a 999-year lease on the house and the grounds and in 1971 hotelier Alberto Della Valle re-opened it as the Grim’s Dyke Hotel and Country Club. The hotel was then acquired by its present owners in 1996 and they immediately commenced a £3 million restoration of the exterior of the building and refurbishment of the house which was supervised by English Heritage.
Since 1997, the spirit of WS Gilbert has lived on at the hotel with performances twice a month by the Grim’s Dyke Opera Company of some of Gilbert & Sullivan’s best loved works. These performances are part of an extensive entertainments programme which runs throughout the year at the hotel and which also includes Gourmet Dinners, Murder Mystery evenings, Jazz On The Terrace events and Sabrage Dinners.
The hotel is a popular venue for weddings, other private functions and corporate events and Gilbert’s restaurant has a considerable reputation locally for fine dining at affordable prices.