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The Ballroom Under The Lake

by James Brown
8 October 2012 25 Comments

The Eccentric English comedian Vic Reeves, who was my landlord at the time, leant over to me and said: “It’s true, it’s in my book, a ballroom under a lake near Godalming, Surrey.”

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Photo by Marc Roberts

And off he trotted into the depths of his house and returned with a small old book listing some of England’s finest follies.  And sure enough there it was: a seemingly fictional description of a ballroom under a lake. To get there you entered through a doorway in a tree, went down some subterranean stone steps, took a short rowing boat ride, and then opened two large doors to find a large space beneath a murky green skylight. Its hue presented by the many tons of lake resting above it.

Never too sure whether it really existed of whether it was merely a Through The Looking Glass fabrication I didn’t think much more of this until I was discussing the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes movie with film director Guy Ritchie. We were talking about old parts of London he would film in and I mentioned the ballroom under the lake I had read about twenty years ago. The more I mentioned the less real it seemed, and I decided to actually try and find it. No-one I had ever asked who lived in the area had heard of it, and without a specific name the internet provided little help. Eventually by Googling the simple phrase ‘ballroom under a lake’, I came up with a story in a motoring magazine by a journalist who had admitted to visiting the place for a car launch and to have partly flooded the room.

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From this fleeting mention the mystery slowly unravelled itself, there was indeed a man made estate named Witley Park, developed from 1889 onwards by one Whitacker Wright on grounds formerly known as Lea Park. Wright had made a fortune in the mining industry and built himself a majestic home with a theatre, a ballroom, artifical lakes and underneath them a glass-roofed billiards room not a ball room as I had originally believed. In addition there was an under-water conservatory for guests to view fish and swimmer alike. Each of the rooms were connected by tunnels and were totally hidden beneath the huge lakes. Even the building of the project caused wonder amongst the locals who reported hearing and seeing amazing mechanical diggers – which presumably was the same equipment Wright had used in his mines.

Wright’s business empire subsequently collapsed and in 1904 he took his own life on the eve of a major fraud trial. The estate was later owned by Lord Pirrie who built the Titanic so it would seem the place didn’t always bring the best of luck.

In more recent times Witley Hall has been used as a conference and corporate entertainment venue but it’s current owner, a communications mogul named Gary Steele,  has turned his back on such ventures and once again the rooms under the lake are cloaked in a degree of secrecy. Use Google images and you see a lake, that is the beauty of the place.

It was built at a time when Britain’s millionaires were outdoing each other with ultimately pointless but noticeable towers on a hill some distance but with-in eyesight of their main residences. Folleys served to signify wealth, eccentricity and character. Whereas most were visible the under-water rooms at Witley Park could only be seen from within. Not only were they invisible they also served some purpose. How often Whitacker Wright and his pals popped down for a game of billiards and a look at his carp is unknown but it is it’s lack of visibility that gives this story it’s mystique.

Rather than use the perfectly legitimate reason of location finding I never ventured down to Godalming to have a look at these curious rooms. I prefer to leave them as I found them, an implausible notion that could well have fallen from the pen of Lewis Caroll.

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Paul Birch 4:32 pm, 16-Jul-2010

I ran a series of courses at Witley Park about fourteen years ago and it was, at the time, an astounding conference centre. The rooms under the lake are every bit as wierd and wonderful as your description although access was actually through an arch shaped tunnel. This tunnel was narrow enough that both of my shoulders touched the sides walking through it. The size of the room is much more billiard room than ball room although playing billiards in the green lighting under the water would have been slightly strange. For me it was a high point of every course when I told people about the rooms and they dismissed it as nonsense.

rob 5:43 pm, 24-Mar-2011

Fascinating stuff. Malcolm McLaren claimed that there's an intact Victorian street beneath Selfridges in Oxford Street, as it was raised sometime during the 20th century. A couple of people have backed this up on forums but there's no proof (and Mclaren wasn't exactly averse to a bit of bullshit) so it seems unlikely. Great story though.

Jake Hanrahan 6:36 pm, 24-Mar-2011

I'd love to go there, it's all a bit cloak and dagger. Great read.

Matt H 8:10 pm, 29-Mar-2011

Here's a large group of photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cybergibbons/sets/72057594107271287/with/128621401/

Matt H 8:24 pm, 29-Mar-2011

Here's a lot more info on the estate: http://www.hegartywebberpartnership.com/the-gentleman-of-the-lake/

Rocco Siffredi 5:19 pm, 30-Mar-2011

ONE photo? WTF?? In a digital magazine you post ONE photo?

James Brown 11:32 pm, 30-Mar-2011

At the time this article was written there were no other photos available as it's on private land, we have since linked in the copy to people who've 'ventured' onto that land to take photographs.

Marc Roberts 12:38 am, 31-Mar-2011

The rest of my photos (where this image was snaffled from) are here (with their appropriate copyright notices intact): http://www.flickr.com/photos/largepig/sets/72157608806203392/with/3019037604/ There are plenty of other images on flickr and the urban exploration forums.

Sue Rathmell 12:51 pm, 19-Apr-2011

In about 1970, whilst still at primary school, I was invited on a (posh) neighbours birthday outing from Winchester to their Uncles' house in Surrey. (I know that he owned Bentalls Department Store in Kingston). I can remember being in a rowing boat, going down a scary tunnel, then standing under a huge, very green and gloomy glass dome beneath a lake and being terrified that the glass would break and the water come rushing in. In later years I wondered where I had been that day but no-one seemed to have any idea. Having just read your article (as directed by yesterdays Independent)and done some of my own 'googling', not only have I found the secret domed room but also a picture of the really cool modernist house where the party was held.(The Architecture was lost on me at the time!): http://www.ribapix.com/index.php?a=wordsearch&s=item&key=WczoxMToid2l0bGV5IHBhcmsiOw==&pg=3. Thanks James!

Bob 12:34 pm, 27-Sep-2011

Not really relevant but hell why not, can't be arsed to work at the moment....It's just outside Brook, they have a really nice Fete there each year. One year a local garage provided a stall to win a car, all you had to do was roll 10 dice and get 10 six's, 50p a go, some bloke won the car on his second throw, they made £1.00 before the car was won! hahahahahaha.

Zaza 9:38 pm, 5-Oct-2011

The rust= water and thought of the water pressure on that ceiling is a bit worrying. The scene in titanic where the old sea captain is waiting to die in his room and the water comes crashing through the windows comes to mind.

Angie Beare 1:20 pm, 14-Nov-2011

I have lived in Haslemere for 17 years and I didn't realise there was another world behind the eeery gates of Witley Park. I would love to see the ballroom?

JR 7:51 pm, 28-Dec-2011

Radio friggin rental

Spock 12:32 am, 15-Jan-2012

Mark Roberts - oh the hypocrisy! 'Snaffled' 'Copyright' - these photos were taken by BREAKING INTO SOMEONES HOME

Marc Roberts 12:05 pm, 15-Jan-2012

Spock There was no breaking in involved, I'm sorry to say. No laws were broken and no damage was done. Copyright violation is illegal.

Spock 6:38 am, 16-Jan-2012

Interesting answer. You assert Copyright violation is illegal, as if I was questioning that. My comment was about hypocrisy - we AGREE about the importance of property rights. This folly is in the middle of a walled estate. The legitimate entry points to the estate have electric gates and signs saying 'Private'. 'Copyright' if you will. To obtain access they have climbed an 8ft wall: property rights are being infringed already at this point, though usually the ones climbing the wall justify it by saying it's a private trespass, not a criminal one, and so that's OK really. Finally I can assure you the follies are locked and alarmed and entry is obtained by breaking the locks/alarms, usually with some associated damage to the fine stone carvings.

Lee 2:31 am, 7-Feb-2012

I have to say that these guys that have been trespassing on Witley Park to take photos make me laugh..... Until Gary Steele bought Witley Park it was owned by the Brown family & the grounds etc were used as a conference centre, never did anyone involved there allow these late night expeditions. If nothing else then they were dangerous. The ballroom is not the only under ground building there, for eg there is a scarily deep ice house that seems to spiral down for hundreds of feet, there are old boat houses & jetties. ....... The place quite frankly is beautiful & probably once nicest private estate. I spent my childhood there.

Jools 5:42 pm, 19-Feb-2012

The Victorian street under Selfridges was used in the Pogues video

Boll Weevil 7:19 pm, 8-Oct-2012

There is a whole city under Seattle.

Alternativedayout 11:29 am, 10-Dec-2012

I read this 2 weeks ago and was totally intrigued , I had to go.. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfK6LtkG18o&feature=plcp full report and images http://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/showthread.php?t=24502

David Cook 11:40 pm, 25-Dec-2012

Sue Rathmell is fairly accurate in her descriptions of Witley Park. The park was indeed owned by a one Gerald Bentall (brother of Rowan Bentall owner of the department stores). Gerald was the rich land owning Dairy farmer. He had the modernist new house built on the estate in the late 1960s early 1970s. My Grandfather and mother both worked for the Bentalls for many years. The underwater ballroom/biliard room is exactly as I remember it from this time, if not a little more rundown and poor condition. Amazing to think it is still in existance after all this time. regards Dave

james 6:22 pm, 12-Jun-2013

that is weird

Seds 10:08 pm, 27-Aug-2013

My grandfather owned this beautiful estate and I had such a privileged childhood here, spending many happy hours exploring the follies and playing swallows and amazons. Learning how to skate, punt, row, sail, fish, walking through the bluebell woods or the primrose walks, the scents amazing, the colours of the rhododendrons vibrant,,,,, no wonder my grandmother wanted her ashes scattered here. So many wonderful memories.

MIchael 3:32 pm, 13-Sep-2013

I grew up there at Milford Lodge, one of the estate houses, and what a fab childhood I had. Yes did see the underground tunnel and seen the room under the lake. The Browns were there then.

George jr. 4:20 pm, 13-Sep-2013

I was lucky enough to get my first hand-job here. Will never forget it.

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