Few places in Harrow have as quite an expansive history as Grim’s Dyke does. Though now a hotel, the Old Redding estate has, as far back as two millennia, been the site of some of the most notable activity in the local area.
The house for which the land is now known for was built in the nineteenth century by the architect Richard Norman Shaw. Known for the Gothic influences of his style, Shaw originally designed and built the house for painter Frederick Goodall, but in 1890, the estate changed hands when William Schwenck Gilbert purchased it for £4,000.
Gilbert, one half of the famous theatrical Gilbert and Sullivan partnership, is known for having co-created and written various popular comic operas – perhaps most notably The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado in the late 1800s. During this successful period of Gilbert’s life, he lived and farmed on Grim’s Dyke estate alongside his wife Lucy and their numerous exotic pets – chief among them a pair of ring-tailed lemurs from Madagascar called Adam and Eve, who later produced a third lemur Paul.
Yet Grim’s Dyke was not just the site of W.S Gilbert’s life but also his death. In 1911, some two decades after his initial purchase, the famous and by-then massively successful writer drowned in the lake he had been constructing out the back of the estate – having been trying to rescue a drowning local girl who had been joining Gilbert for swimming lessons.
In the autopsy that followed when his body was finally recovered, it was revealed that, whilst trying to rescue the drowning girl, Gilbert had suffered a heart failure due to the physical exertion. Following this, the lake was closed off by Lady Gilbert and drained, and in the decades that have passed since – silt has gathered in the crater left behind, creating a number of smaller ponds that in 2011 was found to be home to a rare Great Crested Newt.
As the home of such an influential British artist, not to mention the site of his dramatic death, Grim’s Dyke is already made an important fixture of the Harrowvian historical landscape – and yet, the land’s history extends even farther back, into the first years of the very first century.
It was at this time that the land was not known as Grim’s Dyke but rather ‘Grim’s Ditch’ – a name which now refers to Iron Age earthworks that can be found across southern England. Dated to the fifth and sixth centuries, if not even further back, the earthwork consists of a V-shaped ditch that has visible remains stretching from Pinner Green to Harrow Weald Common – a swathe of land on which the estate was eventually built. This ditch is believed to have been a defensive structure built by the Catuvellauni tribe to aid in the ongoing struggle at the time with the Roman forces in the region.
As one of the most powerful Celtic tribes in southern Britain, with territory extending as far as the northern bank of the Thames to what is modern-day Hertfordshire, the Catuvellauni were leaders of the opposition to the Roman invasion until their eventual defeat and subjugation in the early first century. Grim’s Dyke remains one of the few remaining monuments to this prehistoric struggle – one which played a key role in shaping the foundations of the nation today.
Grim’s Dyke, then, is one of the most historically active places to be found in Harrow. Whether it’s as the site of the life (and death) of famous writer William Gilbert, or as the site of the doomed Roman resistance in the early years of the first century, Grim’s Dyke has a vast and expansive history – so expansive, in fact, that not all of it has yet been revealed.
The estate played a role in the Second World War, but what that role is exactly is remains classified – and will do until the 2040s (though rumours persist that the estate was a back-up site for Bletchley Park, the famous headquarters of British intelligence during the war).
Ancient, famous and with secrets yet to be shared, Grim’s Dyke remains one of the most interesting places in the local area, and well worth a visit for anyone interested in Harrowvian history, however far back that interest extends.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: Grim’s Dyke Hotel