Halifax has been much in the news recently following the restoration of the wondrous Piece Hall, a Georgian cloth trading centre on a monumental scale. But the town is also home to another amazing structure, the Wainhouse Tower, one of the country’s finest follies. Factory chimney turned witness to wealth, it thrusts 253 feet into the sky above the town.
“It is a pleasant delusion to think that this is the last fragment of a noble baronial pile” wrote the author of a guide to Roundhay Park in 1872. It was, he explained, simply ‘an object of interest’, the creation of a gentleman of ‘good taste’: in short, a folly.
Bramham Park, south of Wetherby and close to the Great North Road as it passes through Yorkshire, was built by Robert Benson, Lord Bingley, and completed in the early years of the 18th century. The estate has remained in the care of his descendants (with a couple of confusing name changes) ever since. In 1828, while the family were away at a funeral, fire broke out in the mansion causing serious damage to the fabric of the building. Happily, the quick actions of the servants and neighbours meant that some of the contents could be saved. Less fortunately, there was no money available to rebuild, so the house remained a ruin throughout the rest of the century.
In the 1760s Sir Thomas Wentworth* (1726-1792) of Bretton Hall, near Wakefield, set about landscaping his park. Initially, he employed Richard Woods, a professional landscape designer, but soon decided he could manage just as well on his own. In the 1770s he added to his grand design without recourse to even the most eminent landscaper of the age: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. A second lake would, he told friends, be completed without the help of ‘Capability or any such pretending Rogues’.
In the 18th century the Shaw family of textile merchants operated out of the magnificent Piece Hall in Halifax (recently restored and very well worth a visit) https://www.thepiecehall.co.uk. By the end of the century a new mill had been established at Holywell Green near Stainland, outside Halifax. It was greatly extended in the second half of the 19th century by Samuel Shaw, who also built a new family home nearby, which he called Brooklands. The house was almost ready for occupation in the autumn of 1868 and the grounds were being laid out at the same date. The landscaping included a pond with fountain and a series of 3 curious towers linked by a wall. The Halifax Courier described the scene in 1877, noting that the three towers gave ‘the impression that a castle of somewhat imposing dimensions’ overshadowed the grounds.
The Secret Garden in Wakefield’s Thornes Park features these architectural fragments which have popped up at various locations across the Wakefield district. The pinnacle is a bit of a mystery, but is believed to have been salvaged during a restoration of Wakefield Cathedral. The columns were originally part of the Wakefield Market Cross which was demolished, against the wishes of the people of Wakefield, in 1866 as part of the corporation’s ‘public improvements’. The furious scenes at the public auction of the cross in September 1866 made the papers across Britain. It was bought by a no-nonsense Mr Armitage who said ‘It will do very well for my garden’.
In 1752 the architect James Paine provided plans to remodel New Grange, Walter Wade’s seat in open country outside the then town of Leeds. The views were ‘most beautiful and extensive’ and the dramatic ruins of the cistercian Kirkstall Abbey were included in the prospect. By the end of the century the Wades no longer resided at New Grange, and the house was let before appearing on the market on a number of occasions. In 1829 George Robins, famed as the the man ‘of auction renown, who made a great fortune by knocking things down’, offered the estate for sale and with his usual hyperbole stated that it was ‘uniformly accounted THE DISTINGUISHING FEATURE NEAR LEEDS’. His newspaper advertisement went on to describe the Terrace Walk as ‘incredibly beautiful’ with a ‘Panorama’ of THE VENERABLE ABBEY OF KIRKSTALL AND ITS MASSIVE RUINS’.
New Grange was purchased by the Leeds banker William Beckett in 1832 and renamed Kirkstall Grange. Beckett was an eminent man in Leeds and entertained luminaries from the aristocracy, the church and the mercantile world at his home. He had however set his sights on hosting the most important personage in Britain: Queen Victoria had agreed to preside over the inauguration of the new Town Hall in Leeds, which was scheduled to open in autumn 1858, and Beckett hoped she would stay at Kirkstall Grange.
In preparation for this event Beckett remodelled the mansion, and erected this monument at the end of a walk in a plantation that became known as Queen’s Wood. Although the arch is now engulfed in trees, at the time of its completion it was on the edge of the woodland with a vista to the abbey. The arch may have been built out of fragments from the rebuilding of the house and it was decorated in the same Minton tiles that were used extensively in the new Town Hall. The lettering reads: TO COMMEMORATE THE VISIT OF QUEEN VICTORIA TO LEEDS SEPR 7 1858 FOR THE INAUGURATION OF THE TOWN HALL.
Beckett was to be disappointed. His ‘large house party’ did not include the monarch, who chose to stay elsewhere.
Kirkstall Grange, now better known as Beckett Park, is a campus of Leeds Beckett University. The arch is grade II listed.
In the later decades of the 18th century Parlington, near Aberford, was improved by Sir Thomas Gascoigne, 8th Bart, and it was he who built this arch to a design by Thomas Leverton. Construction was underway in 1781 when the Leeds Intelligencer reported that ‘some evil-minded Person or Persons’ had maliciously damaged the partly- built arch and destroyed two capitals and other mouldings in the mason’s shed. A reward of £10 was offered to anyone who approached Sir Thomas or his Head Gardener with information.
In 1920 the Yorkshire Post published a letter about a mysterious cave, or grotto, at West Nab on moorland above Meltham on the western edge of Yorkshire. The correspondent believed the structure had been built around 1500 years earlier as the dwelling of the pagan god Baal – hence it’s being known as ‘Bellman’s Castle’.
A great stumbling block in the understanding of follies is the attempt to define what exactly one is. Must it be useless? Wildly expensive? Weird? One of my favourite summaries comes from Barbara Jones, the first person to study the genre in depth in Follies and Grottoes, published by Constable 65 years ago today
She wrote that a folly ‘is built for pleasure, and pleasure is personal, difficult to define.’