Charlie Day's exquisite shell grotto

Charlie Day talks to us about his inspiration behind the incredible shell grotto at the Talbot Hotel in Yorkshire, his upbringing in Kenya, art studies in Florence and how we might try our hand at some shelllwork too...  

Charlie, please tell us about what you do when not constructing shell grottos for hotels! What is Charlie Day Gardens all about?
Charlie Day Gardens offers a garden design and project management service. We work throughout the UK and abroad.  

I have been designing and building gardens for 16 years and started to specialise in grottos, shell houses and shellwork about 10 years ago. My preferred design aesthetic is inspired by classical renaissance gardens with a nod British style. I draft all our hand-drawn & water colour impressions to accompany the more technical digital drawings and sometimes produce models or maquettes for the client too.

How has your upbringing informed your choice of career and interest in the natural world?
I was brought up in Northern Kenya in the bush surrounded by endless acres of wilderness, wild animals and giant African skies. The farm was 3 hours from the nearest shop, this made one use materials found locally and learn how to ‘improvise’ with what was at hand. My mother is very practical and artistic and rebuilt our house after it was burnt down in a bush fire. I lived in a tent for 2 years between the years of 9 & 10; while this was ongoing, I would help the builders set in the stones for the walls that cover our house and I particularly enjoyed learning to tap the springs and create a tank around them for clean water.

The old 1950’s farmhouse which my mother clad in the local stone


This is now a (very comfortable) bedroom – it was created using local stone and wood 

I lived in a tent for 2 years between the ages of 9/10 while the house was rebuilt following a fire. 

How did your studies of art/architecture/history inform your foray into the shell grotto installation?
I studied sculpture in Florence for 3 years after I left school then moved to Rome and would ride a bike around the cities. On the way back on afternoons in the heat of summer, I would stop along the way at the different gardens – there was often a water feature, fountain, or grotto somewhere. The surprise of finding a ‘grotto’ was always a welcome one and those initial brushes and their recurrent theme of nature versus art have left an impression upon me that I am now exploring.

Details of the incredible Shell Grotto at The Talbot Hotel in Yorkshire.
Photo credits: Kensington Leverne 

Let’s talk about the shell grotto at the Talbot Hotel in Yorkshire  - what was the inspiration?
The inspiration is the ‘Grotta Grande’in the Boboli Gardens, Florence built by Bernardo Buontalenti between 1583 – 1593. 

This masterpiece has Michelangelo’s four slave’s (now copies) propping up each corner, giving an amazing sense of weight to the room, but also adding to the alchemy of the space, in their varied unfinished forms. 

I tried to imitate some elements by way of using tufa stone pillars in each corner supporting the weighty shell house. From these abstract forms are arched over a shell-encrusted alcove, leading to a face made from Tufa of the god Poseidon keeping watch over the grotto. He was an ode to the tradition of water in many grottos although there is none in this one. The roof was covered in Scallop shells converging to a central circle of rock, which is a tribute to the Occulus on the ceiling of the Boboli Grotto. 

Did it evolve organically or was it a lightbulb moment? A collaboration or a personal quest?
I was commissioned to build a shell house in what the hotel owners suspected was originally an old ‘spa’. They wanted to create something beautiful as part of a new garden design for visiting guests to enjoy. Luckily, the hotel liked the first proposal done in watercolour and also a clay maquettes. I was then given more free rein to develop the design to suit the materials and space. 

How long did it take to plan? And how long did it take to execute? 
Planning was quite quick once I had worked out the dimensions of the space and the materials to use. The construction was 47 days Working with traditional lime mortar you have to mix it and make sure it is cured and ready for application, which should be done the day before – then you must also allow it to bed in. It was quite challenging on the roof section. I had to get a bespoke scaffold constructed so we could work upside down. 

Talk us through the workmanship element - how did you learn this?
When I decided that it was something I would like to develop in my gardens – I went to train under Belinda Eade. I learnt the difference with working with shells & stones & how to set them onto one another and how to hide the supports for heavy rock formations. After a week with Belinda I returned to our house and built a small shell grotto arch of our own, combining my irrigations system to make a fountain with multiple jets within the arch. Since then I have been further experimenting with relief covered shells, sculpture in rock & shell fountains as well as some encrusted products soon to make an appearance…

Where have the shells been sourced from?
For this grotto we used only shells from the UK, collected nearby on the North Yorkshire Coast, on holidays with my family in Norfolk and Cornwall with a few more unusual shells coming from a supplier. 

Has there been a lifelong love of shells? Or is this a recent obsession?
The romance, mystique & beauty of a renaissance grotto reminiscent of my Italian years as a sculptor is essentially what lured me towards the medium of shells as a garden designer. There is something intriguing about a cave that appears to hang with natural stallectites, glimmer with shells and surprise the visitor with an archway or a beautiful sculpture - the realms of manmade and apparent nature overlapping in a dreamlike way - and yet! the magic is - it is all manmade. 

So, it is this quest for architectural alchemy that appeals to me so much – attempting to create the perfect contrast between rough and smooth, order and chaos - what nature depicts so effortlessly - and we humans have tried to emulate in so many creative fields. And, I would say my garden & grotto design style revolves around structure and perspective and less around colour, so I am particularly inspired by the intricate shapes, yet subtle hues & textures of shells and rock, which I carefully choose to look like they have sat alongside one another like a natural seam of earth, since time began. (Well, that’s the idea…) They are the perfect tools for creating that beautiful balance between symmetry and chaos, and hopefully a bit of magic too. That’s what I’m obsessed with. 

I also wonder if their sandy colours are a yearning to be reminded of the powdery tones of the savannah.

Below is a quote which I think illustrates the intrigue of Grottos or shell houses:

‘Above, too, is a background of shimmering woods with an overhanging grove, black with gloomy shade. Under the brow of the fronting cliff is a cave of hanging rocks; within are fresh waters and seats in the living stone, a haunt of Nymphs.’
(Virgil, Aeneid 1. 164-66)

The space is a place for respite, reflection, and romance - are there any stories that have emerged from this space?
A couple shared their first celebratory glass of post-wedding champagne and DMed me a picture, much to my delight. I hope that the guests of the hotel go down there on an evening with a glass of wine and take a moment to dream. 

If we wanted to try our hand at shellwork, what’s your best tip?
I would start with a quick ready-mix adhesive with good workability and a 12-hour setting time and start on a vertical test slab of 50x50cm. This way you can start to learn how to overlap & blend the shells in your own way and figure out when the mortar is ready to hold the shells or rock without them slipping down.  

What’s next for Charlie Day Gardens?
I am working on several landscape country house projects in the South and West of England, two large London gardens and I have two exciting upcoming grotto projects – one on a London roof terrace & another in the US. 

I also hope to launch a small selection of garden-related products, so watch this space…

Find more about Charlie at
Charlie Day Gardens 

Photo credit of Shell Grotto - Kensington Laverne

Interview by Emily Armstrong