Root houses, so named because they incorporated natural materials such as tree trunks, branches, bark, moss or heather, became key features of gardens and parks in the 18th century. Richard Payne Knight summed up the genre in his poem The Landscape in 1794
The cover’d seat, that shelters from the storm,
May oft a feature of the landscape form,
Whether composed of native stumps and roots,
It spreads the creeper’s rich fantastic shoots;
Often such structures were associated with solitude and being, literally, at one with nature. Walter Spencer Stanhope of Cannon Hall, near Barnsley, was struck by the lyrical muse in such a building and composed ‘Verses wrote in a Root House’ which begins:
Beneath these shaggy Roots grotesque & rude
A Spot retired for lonely musing made
Let all be peace – no lowering thoughts intrude
No passions fierce disturb ye gentle shade.
Spencer Stanhope’s poem describes how the country brought solace to his ‘harassed mind’. It is not dated but in June 1778 he wrote that he ‘retired to the root house and wrote some verses’. The location of his retreat is not made clear, but it may have been the Deffer Wood summer house, a short ride from Cannon Hall. The wood was a favourite retreat and Spencer Stanhope continued to develop the plantations in the early 19th century when he laid out new rides in the wood. [NB this paragraph was updated 01 April 2019].
The poem concludes:
Such the loved leisure, such the genuine Joys
Of rural life ye healthful happy lot
Haste then from London’s wealth & smoke & noise
To Simple pleasures and the Sylvan Grot
The simple pleasures of Deffer Wood were threatened with smoke and noise in 1950 when a plan was announced to start open-cast mining in the wood. The local councils worked together to obtain a preservation order for Deffer Wood as a local beauty spot. The summer house had fallen into disrepair but was listed as Grade II in 1987 and then beautifully restored in 1991. The wood is owned by the Cannon Hall Estate which allows public access.