architecture, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, landscape, Obelisk, pyramid, South Yorkshire

The Needle’s Eye, Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire

The palatial mansion of Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, is set in a landscape ornamented with towers and temples, pyramids and pavilions. One of the earliest is this slim, elegant structure pierced with an arch. Originally an eye-catcher, it later became an object on a drive to the house, but now once more stands alone on a swathe of green in a tranquil corner of the park.

Thomas Watson-Wentworth (1693-1750), created Baron Malton in 1728 (and then Earl of Malton 1734 and 1st Marquess of Rockingham 1746), kept a careful note of expenditure on his estate, and noted improvements in a volume which survives in the family archive. His summary of activity in 1722-1733 included the building of what was then known simply as ‘Obelisk in Lee Wood’, but was later nicknamed ‘the Needle’s Eye’ as apparently the slim arch was thought to resemble the eye of a needle.

The obelisk (remembering that obelisk and pyramid were used interchangeably in the 18th century for any tapering 3 or 4 sided structure) is shown on an engraving of 1728, so must therefore have been built between 1722 and 1728, making it the earliest of the fanciful erections in the vast park. It is contemporary with work on the Baroque west front, and predates the building of the great Palladian east front.

Detail from John Cole’s engraving of Wentworth Woodhouse from the west, 1728, showing the obelisk. The position of the folly has been changed for artistic purposes to allow sight of the arch, which in reality frames a view down the avenue.

The square plantations of Lee Wood flanked the eye-catcher, and channeled views to the obelisk. One of the series of views of the estate painted for the family in the middle of the 18th century (private collection, not pictured), shows the tapering structure, cut through with a slim arch with woodland to each side. It could therefore only be seen from limited positions, and this is most likely why it was missed by many visitors, and is barely mentioned in contemporary accounts. A rare exception is the agriculturalist writer Arthur Young who visited in 1768  and saw ‘the arch’, which he thought was ‘raised as an object to decorate the view from the Ionic Temple’.

The Ionic Temple, with statue of Hercules.

The Ionic Temple sits on the great terrace which was constructed in 1735-6 along the southern edge of the garden. So Young got it a little wrong, as the Needle’s Eye predates the Ionic Temple, but his account does back up contemporary map evidence that there was a vista between the two buildings, now sadly lost.

The Needle’s Eye by Chris Broughton (1949-2015), courtesy of the New Arcadian Press. Broughton imagines a view down the late 18th century drive towards the house.

Towards the end of the 18th century the Needle’s Eye became a feature on a new drive from Rainborough Lodge on the northern edge of the estate (fans of geometry in gardens might be interested to know that Rainborough Lodge, the Needle’e Eye, North Lodge and the Ionic Temple can be linked with a dead straight line). Also known as the Lion Gate, because it features two large … stone lions, the lodge was built to a design by John Carr in the last years of the 18th century. It survives today, although the drive was later abandoned, leaving the obelisk once more as an isolated landscape feature.

By the time the first Ordnance Survey map was published the folly had become known as the ‘Needle’s Eye’, and is marked as such on the 1st series map of 1841. This was a fairly common nickname for structures cut through with an arch in the Victorian period, and was also used for a pyramidal lodge at Nostell Priory (see link below), and Thornhill Lodge at Calverley, both in Yorkshire.

In 1849 a group of excursionists (the name coined for groups taking day trips on the new railways) arrived at Darfield Station. They walked to the Rainborough Lodge, and on up to the ‘Needle’s Eye, an arabesque monument’, and took advantage of the seats inside the arch before exploring Wentworth. The prospectus for their excursion also tells that the pyramid was ‘surmounted by an earl’s coronet’. This description of the Needle’s Eye seems to have been taken from a piece published in the Leeds Mercury a few years earlier, and which remains something of a puzzle. The 1728 view shows it topped by an urnand a decorative urn can be seen today. Was there once a coronet, or is the article simply mistaken? The mystery remains to be solved.

As ever, a seemingly useless landscape feature needs a good back story. Local legend tells that the building was erected so that the 1st Marquess of Rockingham could prove his boast that he could drive a carriage ‘through the eye of a needle’. Another version has it that guiding a horse and trap through the arch was a right of passage for young apprentices in the stable-yard, hoping to win promotion. No-one knows if there is truth in any of the tales, but they continue to entertain.

The grade II* listed Needle’s Eye is in the care of the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Amenity Trust, and was restored fairly recently. There is full access, courtesy of the trust, via a public footpath from Coaley Lane.

For the mansion and gardens at Wentworth Woodhouse

For the follies in the care of the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Amenity Trust see

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12 thoughts on “The Needle’s Eye, Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire”

  1. Peter Brophy says:

    I hadn’t realised until I saw your reference to Thomas Watson-Wentworth as Baron Malton that the Wentworth Woodhouse estate was in the Fitzwilliam family, which still owns much of Malton. Malton is, of course, close to Castle Howard which also saw eye-catching monuments built in the early part of the 18th century. Was this just all the craze of the moment, I wonder, or did the Fitzwilliams eye their neighbour’s building activity and decide “we’ll have one of those”?

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Peter. Well, it was certainly the fashion of the age to decorate ones park with temples and eye-catchers, and of course owners took inspiration from buildings they saw at home and abroad.

  2. Garance says:

    Fabulous Broughton illustration and many thanks to New Arcadian Press for sharing. It really gives that sense of passing through the needles eye in anticipation of the reception ahead. Perhaps not a Christmas Gathering though!

    1. Editor says:

      Afternoon Garance. One of the joys of follies, added to the list of late, is that one seldom needs to worry about social distancing! Thanks for your appreciation of this post.

  3. Christine U says:

    This is my local folly (well, my son’s local folly – he lives in nearby Harley). It’s also one of my favourites – aesthetically pleasing and a well-placed eye-catcher – a classic folly. As a family we choose to believe the “drive a carriage through the eye of a needle” story!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Christine. Great that you can see it whenever you visit your son. And part of the fun of follies is the chance to pick your favourite associated story!

  4. Mark Bloodworth says:

    Years ago, the needles eye used to be a dense woodland. We used to do the follys in the area before they became famous. We started at keppels Column and worked down to Wentworth.
    But where has all the woodland gone around the needle?

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Mark. Very pleased to hear that you are a long-term fan of the Wentworth follies. I assume the woodland was cleared to reopen the view to the Needle’s Eye. It’s great that the follies are restored and accessible.

  5. Christine U says:

    I think it’s great that sightlines have been opened up so the Wentworth follies are visible from a distance again. Meanwhile I presume you are aware that Keppel’s Column is now being restored? It’s covered in scaffolding at the moment and the work is due to be completed by the spring. It is intended to make the inside safe so that the public can be given access.

    1. Editor says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I went to have a look at Keppel’s Column as the scaffolding went up. Further great news for the wider Wentworth estate and top marks to Rotherham council.

  6. david aronsohn says:

    Is this an aristocrats Humour as in Mathew 19;24
    The Rich Young Man
    …23Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”…

    1. Editor says:

      Hello David. That wasn’t the original intention, as the folly was originally just called the ‘obelisk’. But I’m sure it would have been in the minds of the later generations who christened it ‘the Needle’s Eye’.

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