50: The Pulhamite Cascades at Battersea Park

Panorama of The Cascades ©GMH2022

Following on from the Building London introduction to Pulhamite, https://buildinglondon.blog/2022/09/01/49pulhamite-pt1-an-introduction/ the best place to go and see Pulhamite artificial rock in London is in Battersea Park. [1] There is an amazing area of ‘rock’ faces and a waterfall called The Cascades though currently, sadly, dry, and a smaller ‘rock face’ nearby called The Owlery!

The Owlery Sadly no obvious Owls though maybe they appear at night! ©GMH2022

Battersea Park was opened in 1858 and The Cascades became one of it’s main spectacles, using the in-vogue Pulhamite artificial rock, but while some sources state they were there at the opening [2] most sources state they were constructed between 1866 and 1870.  

“ … artificial rockwork and cascade made by W Pulham (1866). The rockwork on the north side of the lake has basins and ledges for the growth of alpines and other suitable plants. Water continues (1998) to flow down the cascade (renovated c 1990) into the lake” [3] [4]

The Pulhamite on show is not the terracotta made in the kilns at Hoddesdon but the cement covered clinker and rubble construction to mimic rock. Wandsworth’s conservation plan states:
“4.8 The cascades are an artificial rock structure to the north of the boating lake which were fed by water via the Pump House They are made from Pulhamite, a type of cement developed by the Lockwood and Pulham firms in the 1820s to replicate natural rock outcrops. The cement covered a purpose made masonry core, the whole of which was built and worked to resemble natural rock complete with defined strata, projections, recesses, fissures, dips and cracks.

4.9 Another Pulhamite rock structure in Battersea Park is the Owlery which is situated by the lake but further west than the cascades. Rockeries had become a key component of the naturalistic Gardenesque style that was used in Battersea Park.” [5]

From a pedallo! ©GMH2022

The cascades seem to have been working continuously for 100 years or so but with the park getting very run down in the 1970s and 1980s sources state they had to be restored in 1980s  (maybe re-opened in 1990) but now in 2020 they do not appear to have been working for many years. Nb the Pulhamite expert Claude Hitching, a member of the Pulham dynasty, at Pulham.org states that the “Restoration undertaken by Wandsworth Council during 1980s was so bad that English Heritage decided that all future Pulhamite restorations should be preformed to required standard.” [6]


There has been talk over the last couple of years that they will be restored again but nothing seems to be happening currently. Again from Wandsworth council: “A feasibility study has been carried out into the restoration of The Cascade – an impressive Victorian waterfall set over a large rockery – which needs investment for the water to flow again.

The Cascade dates back to the mid-19th Century and was one of the park’s original features when it opened in 1858.

In Victorian times, rock gardens and ornamental rockwork featuring alpine planting were popular and using artificial Pulhamite stone it was possible to create cascades, rocky streams and even bridges.

The Cascade was created using this patented anthropic rock material, which was invented by James Pulham (1820-1898), and was so realistic it fooled some geologists of the time. While the recipe went to the grave with Pulham, it is thought to be a blend of sand, Portland cement and clinker sculpted over a core of rubble and crushed bricks.” [2]

Maybe an example of the 1980s restoration with a spray on concrete. ©GMH2022

For now though they are a fine set of, albeit artificial, rocks, very unusual to see in London, and on the visit of Building London were being well used by visitors, young kids with their parents practising rock scrambling, older kids chilling and tourists, and bloggers, sitting and having a quiet beer overlooking the boating lake! ( and thank you Sophie from Sydney for the beer! 😀 )

As noted above, that the restoration was badly done, it’s possible that some of the surfaces now visible are not Pulhamite but spray-on concrete from the 1980s restoration. There are places though where the ‘concrete’ is clearly Pulhamite and the base of burnt bricks is visible.

Burnt brick substrate visible here where the covering has cracked off ©GMH2022


There is much more in Battersea Park than the Cascades and Owlery. It’s a large park and has a grand riverside walk and there remain a few vestiges of the glorious Festival of Britain Pleasure Gardens, [7] including the fountain. There is also a functioning boating lake, indeed Building London took to a pedallo for some of the photos, and a number of works of art including Henry Moore’s Three Standing Figures ( of Darley Dale, sandstone ) [8]  which was once part of the much bigger Open-Air Sculpture Exhibition of 1950 [9] and Barbara Hepworth’s Single Form ( Memorial ) [10]  which dates from the 1960 exhibition, and a Japanese Peace Pagoda built in 1985! [11]

Photo by and copyright Ethan Doyle White Creative Commons Licence https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Moore%27s_%22Three_Standing_Figures%22_in_Battersea_Park_%2803%29.jpg

You may also find the statue of The Brown Dog, the original of which, or rather the anti-vivisection wording on the plaque, created riots between medical students and anti-vivisectionists, joined by suffragettes and others,  in the early 1900s! [12]

Photo of the 1985 Brown Dog statue by and © Copyright PAUL FARMER 
Creative Commons Licence. https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2740563

And there is the 1861 Pumphouse which drove the waterfall and boating lake and is now an art gallery. “The Pump House (Grade II listed) of 1861 by William Simpson was built to supply water to the boating lake and cascades. It is a fine Classical building in stock brick with rusticated quoins that was built to house a coal-fired steam engine to operate the stem pump. The single storey part of the building was built in 1909 to cover the well which supplied the water. The building fell into disrepair after the war but was restored between 1988 and 1992 and converted to an art gallery.”  [5] [13] [14]

Photo of Pumphouse by Garry Knight 05/03/13 CC2.0 from https://www.flickr.com/photos/8176740@N05/8609377549

Two much loved features no longer remain, the Adventure Playground was demolished in 2013 after a short occupation by those trying to save it [15] though there is a small playground as a replacement, and the large funfair that was part of the Pleasure Gardens which lasted till 1974 after an awful disaster on the Big Dipper that killed 5 children in 1972, and nothing of it remains, [16] though there is a ‘petting zoo’ for the kids [17] and various cafes and toilets!

The residential streets that surround Battersea Park are now “very desirable” so it’s strange to think it was once probably the most Left Wing working class part of London! [18] with the first Left Wing council in the UK and Left Wing MPs [19] with mass demonstrations often held in the park and maybe the participants whiled their way past the Cascades, admiring them, on their way home!  

For more information on the park visit  https://www.friendsofbatterseapark.org/the-park  
and https://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/batterseapark  

Getting There

Battersea Park is easy to get to from anywhere in London, by foot, cycle and by public transport. Nearest railway stations are Battersea Park and Queenstown Road and the 2021 Northern Line extension to the new Battersea Power Station station! ( The only station on the underground to have station in it’s name! [20] )


[4] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000283
[13] https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1225940

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