Driving through South Yorkshire on the A1, it is possible to catch a glimpse of a small square structure just off the south-bound carriageway. This is Robin Hood’s Well, near the village of Burghwallis, and it is probably the smallest structure in the canon of the great architect Sir John Vanbrugh. It was commissioned by the Earl of Carlisle and Vanbrugh probably dashed off the design from his carriage, en route between London and the earl’s seat of Castle Howard in North Yorkshire.
A well had existed on the spot long before the earl decided to cover it over early in the 18th century. No doubt the earl, like other travellers, had been unimpressed with the dusty roadside waterhole and commissioned Vanbrugh to offer it some protection. In 1725 a traveller in the party of the Earl of Oxford saw the ‘new stone building’, but thinking it a little plain suggested that it be adorned with statues of Robin Hood and Little John. He also composed a few lines on the subject of the well:
If parch’d with toil, or heat, thou burn
Invited taste this limpid flood;
And boast wherever thou sojourn,
Thou once hast drank with Robin Hood.
Originally the well was built against a park wall and there were steps down to the water. An elderly retainer was on hand to serve water to travellers, although there was also an inn, ‘at the sign of the Robin Hood’, for those wishing for more sophisticated refreshments.
In the early 1960s the road was converted to a dual-carriageway, and the well cover was carefully dismantled with the stones numbered ready for re-erection. The Earl of Ross, of nearby Womersley, stored the stones in his stables until the works were complete and the building could be reconstructed. In 1964 it was rebuilt around 300 metres away from its original position at the water source. In 1993 a stainless steel frame was inserted to support the roof and safeguard the well’s future.
This view of Robin Hood’s Well by S.H. Grimm shows another ornamental building in the background (look closely). This is the Barnsdale Lodge, or Summer House, still a prominent eye-catcher high above the road when heading north on the A1, especially when it catches the sun. This landscape feature was designed by John Carr of York for Bacon Frank of Campsall Hall in around 1784, and its ‘extensive and beautiful prospect’ was much admired.
Incidentally, Barnsdale also gave its name to the nearby Barnsdale Bar services, once one of chic roadside eateries pioneered by the Forte family. Like the well it too has disappeared, and today’s motorists thunder by in search of refreshment elsewhere.