Bretton Hall, near Wakefield, is now best known as the home of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where artworks have been displayed in the open air, and in purpose built galleries, since 1977. But long before these works arrived, the park was home to a collection of ornamental garden buildings, including the enchanting tiered tower called Bella Vista.
‘An ill-treated folly’, wrote folly supremo Barbara Jones of the Carnaby Temple in 1953. The late 18th century landscape ornament, on high land above Boynton Hall, was by then disused and dilapidated, but remarkably intact considering the years of neglect. And so it remains.
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.
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’.
Now near neighbour to a Rotherham housing estate, Keppel’s Column originally stood in open ground on the edge of Scholes Wood on the Wentworth Woodhouse estate. An obelisk had been proposed for the site as early as 1769. Its original purpose was as an eye-catcher to terminate the southern vista from the new principal front of the Wentworth House mansion, balancing the pyramidal Hoober Stand to the north which is dated 1748. Keppel’s Column was clearly visible from the top of Hoober Stand, as was the Lady’s Folly, which featured here recently https://thefollyflaneuse.com/ladys-folly-tankersley-south-yorkshire/. All three ornamental buildings could be seen from each other, and when guests were taken by carriage to climb a tower, or take tea in a summer house, they served to display the vast size of the Marquis of Rockingham’s estate.
Born 200 years ago this month, on 8 February 1819, John Ruskin was a polymath; an artist, writer and critic who believed that culture should be available to all, not just the elite. As a new exhibition in London beautifully illustrates, Ruskin had strong opinions on most subjects. As he thought the architecture of Palladio ‘virtueless and despicable’, and the Houses of Parliament ‘effeminate and effortless’, we can probably assume that garden ornaments such as classical temples and gothic towers would not be his ‘thing’.
A 1770s map of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate marks a building called ‘The Marchioness’s Summer House’. The noble lady in question was Mary Bright, wife of the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, twice Prime Minister of Great Britain. The summer house was situated on high ground in Tankersley Park which was home to a large herd of red deer.
By the early 18th century Hornby Castle was a seat of the D’arcy family, earls of Holderness. Robert D’arcy, the 4th earl, began to improve the estate from around 1750 with John Carr of York remodelling the castle and associated buildings, including three eye-catcher farmhouses to be viewed from the castle and the network of rides around the estate. Capability Brown was paid for his services in 1768 and although it’s not known exactly what he proposed, as no plan survives, the series of lakes in a very Brownian style were constructed over the next decade.
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’.
Barbara Jones, the first person to write a comprehensive account of follies in Britain, saw this building and was underwhelmed. In the 1953 first edition of Follies & Grottoes she described it as ‘gutted’ and full of pigeon’s nests, and concluded that ‘no amount of bird life can divest this folly of its ordinariness’. If only she had seen it in its prime; a sketch by the itinerant artist and drawing master J.C. Nattes dated 1807 shows an enchanting little building.