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.
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 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.
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 urn, and 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 https://wentworthwoodhouse.org.uk
For the follies in the care of the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Amenity Trust see https://wentworthestate.co.uk/visiting/monuments-follies/
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