“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.
That gentleman was Thomas Nicholson. In 1803 he had bought a large part of the ancient Roundhay hunting park in partnership with fellow Quaker Samuel Elam. Whilst Elam hoped to profit by developing homes for the burgeoning professional class in Leeds, Nicholson intended to build his country seat on the northern portion of the estate.
By 1806 Nicholson gave his address as Roundhay Park, although it is not clear exactly when his new mansion house was complete. A plan of the park made at the time of the purchase in 1803 shows that Nicholson worked with the existing topography, and retained the plantations already in situ when developing the new pleasure ground. By 1807 it was said that Nicholson was ’embellishing’ estate at ‘no small expense’, and the sham castle, top lake, and a haha had been created by 1811 when they are mentioned in a newspaper report of trespass within the grounds.
The castle was constructed as an eye-catcher from the mansion, and also functioned as a belvedere and summerhouse. It is an elaborate construction with squat towers, a central arch, and a cross passage within. Above is a room that was used for shooting lunches and picnic parties, and the battlemented roof offered views of the woodland and lakes (a second, the Waterloo Lake, was added by damming a beck in 1815). The construction is attributed to George Nettleton, stonemason, of Roundhay, but the name of the designer is yet to be discovered.
By 1871 the family no longer wished to reside at Roundhay and the park was offered for sale. The Mayor of Leeds, John Barran, was determined that the people of his city should have access to a park, and he began the process of purchasing the estate for this purpose. It was a complicated process, not without major obstacles and some acrimony, but that has been covered in detail elsewhere*. The process even involved the Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw being commissioned to paint views to help the cause.
Barran and his supporters within the Leeds Corporation eventually achieved their goal, and George Corson was commissioned to design the new public park with all the necessary accoutrements: boathouse, bandstands and shelters. With work barely underway Prince Arthur, 3rd son of Queen Victoria, visited the city to declare the park open on 19 September 1872.
To commemorate his visit Mr William Joseph Booer, of the Leeds glass merchants and stained glass manufacturers Booer &Co., presented painted glass to be installed in The Castle’s window. Booer had made the ‘art of Glass Staining his life-study’ and his work was much in demand in the Leeds and Bradford area. For The Castle he designed and painted a three light window (the shape visible in old photos) in the centre of which was a ‘bust of Prince Arthur in appropriate attire’ which was ‘charmingly represented in medallion form’. Booer also designed and installed stained glass windows in a number of local churches and in private homes as far afield as Africa**.
A commemorative handbook was published which included lines by the Yorkshire dialect poet Joseph Eccles, although perhaps in honour of the royal visitor he stuck to the Queen’s English. Previously known simply as The Castle, the folly was now romantically renamed ‘The Ivy Castle’, and Eccles’ ode included the lines
Yet what a rich and charming view
From off its towering walls,
Of woodland, lake, and village spire,
That to the mind recalls
Some ancient tower in bygone times,
When watchers gazed below,
Ready to mark the first approach
Of some advancing foe.
The 1872 handbook noted that the upstairs room was in a ‘dilapidated’ condition, although public access to the roof was possible, if one avoided the ‘rush of tourists’ clogging the spiral stair. Sadly, this treat is denied to today’s visitors, and The Folly Flâneuse and her Curious Confidante had to be content to appreciate the view from ground level.
By the 1960s the Castle had deteriorated and the section of wall above the arch had collapsed, destroying the window. The folly was restored to its present appearance later in the 20th century and remains a popular attraction within the park.
Roundhay Park remains a hugely popular visitor attraction in Leeds and the Friends of Roundhay Park work with Leeds Parks to maintain it for future generations.
* For a full history of the park see Steven Burt’s volume online at http://www.thoresby.org.uk/content/townships/roundhay/illhist/rp01i.php
** Sadly largely lost or forgotten but Booer’s career deserves further research. His quirkiest production was a window (now lost) in Grove House, Pudsey, depicting the story of the Pudsey Pudding, a giant confection which was created to celebrate the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. There’s more on this great event here http://www.pudsey.com/clanvis/loc/pudpud.htm