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.
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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