‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Roundhay Park Lake Adventures – Boating, Piracy and a near Drowning.

Waterloo Lake 1
Waterloo Lake, Roundhay Park

As a young lad I spent a lot of time in Roundhay Park and I have many good memories of the wonderful place. In particular, the lakes were an opportunity for adventure and misbehaving. I have spoken about my grandma nearly sinking a little paddle boat on the small lake, but the large lake held more possibilities of fun. After saying that, I have very early memories of feeding the ducks and swans on the little lake. Bread was not recognised as the bad influence that it is today. I also remember having my cane fishing net and a jam jar where minnows and sticklebacks were scooped out of the lake around the edges and deposited into the jam jar. Usually we let them go back into the lake, but at least once took them home, only to find that they died within a day or two. The boats on the little lake were not challenging once you got a bit older and that is where the big lake (Waterloo Lake) came into its own.

Little lake frozen
The Little Lake Frozen

In the late 1950s and early sixties there were two motor launches that took trips around the lake and this was a must for families. The boats had names, but they escape me at the moment. I think about twenty or thirty people could fit on one and they would take a tour of the lake. At this time the boat area was fenced in and there was a large metal turn-gate that allowed access. Tickets were bought at a kiosk and then you lined up to wait for the boat to arrive back, the people disembarked and then you got on. It was always exciting when you were little.

As you got older there were other options and they were the rowing boats. Now these were much more interesting. The boats were wooden and sat low in the water. They had a seat with a back at the rear, but the oarsman or woman sat on a bench adjacent to the rowlocks. Courting couples would often hire these and the men would try and impress the ladies with their smooth rowing and ability to steer around the lake. About four adults could fit on so some families or two couples could share a boat. In this case two men would sit next to each other and use one oar each. The rules were quite strict and you were not allowed to stand or deliberately rock a boat. If anyone was seen fooling around then staff would appear in a small motor boat and give a warning or get the people on the boat to throw the mooring line to them and they were embarrassingly towed back to the quayside and evicted.

Boats on Waterloo LakeYou hired the boat for a set time, I think it was thirty minutes and each rowing boat had a number and every so often the motor boat would appear and using a megaphone let boat numbers know it was time to head back. Due to the size of the lake this could take quite a time, particularly if you were at the end near the castle and the fenced off island. The tricky part was getting on and off the boat. The helpers had boat hooks and they held it firm until you got in and out. They always had a certain swagger as they tried to impress the young ladies.

Waterloo Lake 8
Built on an old quarry Waterloo Lake was built by returned soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars and completed in 1815.

I have seen the lake drained on at least one occasion, whilst it was cleaned and repair done to the dam wall near where the outdoor swimming pool, Lido, used to be. There was a rumour that bodies were removed, but I don’t know if that is true, but the lake was quite deep and I believe there were drownings. I have also seen both of the lakes frozen in a thick sheet of ice and walked on them. Lots of people were on at the time and the ice must have been very thick. I have also been there when the ice was thin and warning signs told people to keep off the ice. I am not sure when was the last time the ice covered the lake as the climate has changed.

Waterloo Lake - Drained
Waterloo Lake during draining.

As teenagers though, the lake offered much more excitement and our main focus was the big lake. We were immortal, or so we thought. We were full of surging hormones and wanted to impress everyone with our skill, courage and bravado. This is not a good recipe for health and safety, and for some reason we assumed the rules were for everyone else but us. Groups of about twelve of us would hire the rowing boats and, of course, there would be every attempt made to outdo the others in the other boats. Races from one end of the lake to the other would take place and two teenagers on the oars could get up quite a pace and would frighten other rowers and wildfowl as we careened across the water leaving a wake behind. The no standing rule was seen as a challenge and standing and rocking the boat until water came in over the sides was the usual pastime. Hopefully you weren’t spotted by the boat workers or you would suffer the ignominy of being towed back to shore.

My friend, Peter, was on the lake with others from Allerton Grange School and the usual tomfoolery was taking place. It was a hot summer’s day and spirits were high. I wasn’t there on this occasion, but Peter has recounted the experience many times. One of the boats with about four lads in was being rocked, but this time it filled with water and the lads ended up in the lake. My friend’s rowing boat headed over and one boy was missing in the water. Peter gazed down into the dark water and caught sight of the boy’s head and he was floating below water and not moving. He reached down and grabbed hold of the lad’s hair. Thank goodness for long hair in those days. With a handful of hair he pulled the boy upwards and got his head above water and manhandled him into their boat. Luckily, there was a lot of coughing and spluttering and the lad was none the worse for the dunk. What I was told was that if he hadn’t been spotted then he would have drowned, as he was not moving or trying to get to the surface and was just immobile, suspended under the water. I am not sure the boy ever truly realised what my friend had done for him.

Waterloo Lake 5You would have thought that this cautionary tale would have modified our behaviour on the water, but not in the least. One Saturday afternoon we were rowing and there were four of us on the boat and we ended up near the island. The island was about four or five yards from the banks on its nearest side, covered in trees and thick undergrowth. The water around it was shallow and more mud than lake. It was fenced off from the lake with a wire strand and we chatted as we rested against the fence. We must have been bored as we looked at the lake, the fence and the boat and seemed to all come to the same idea. We would take the boat under the fence and hide it on the island, so that we could come back the next day and sail free of charge. Now, why we thought this would be a good idea I have no idea. We didn’t want to damage the boat and it was just a prank, I suppose. I seem to remember there was Peter, Chris, John L and me, but I could be wrong. Somehow we manoeuvred the boat under the wire fence and we got onto the island. The lake was covered in boats and I have no idea why no one reported us, but they didn’t. We dragged the boat onto the island and covered it in branches. It wasn’t a brilliantly hidden boat, but from a distance it was difficult to see. We were watched by a family on the lakeside, but they said nothing as we smiled at them and waded ashore. We put our shoes back on, rolled down our trousers and set off on the walk home.

Rounday Castle FollyWe had arranged to meet the next day to release the boat from the island and enjoy our prank. It was fairly early when we returned the next morning and there was a light mist over the water. The island was shrouded in it and we wondered if the boat would still be there. To our surprise, it was and the mist helped cover up our getting the boat back onto the water and under the fence. Once done, we headed out onto the open lake. The fact that we were the only boat on the water at this time was a bit of a problem. We assumed that the authorities must have known that a boat was missing, or maybe they didn’t. I would have assumed that they would have counted them back in, but maybe somebody was a bit slack and just missed it. If they were aware then goodness knows what they thought had happened. Anyway, we rowed about a bit and then chose the sensible option. We rowed to the lake edge; put the oars back into the boat and beat a hasty retreat before our misdemeanour was discovered.

As wicked deeds go, it doesn’t rank very high, but I was very pleased that we had got away with it. I wouldn’t have wanted to face my parents if we had been caught. In the end, no harm was done and the boat was later towed back by the motor boat. It wasn’t uncommon for boats to be abandoned if the crew didn’t want to walk from the boat house, as it was a much longer distance. Maybe they thought it had similarly been abandoned. I don’t suppose we will ever know.

A brooding instrumental rock track.


The first three episodes of my latest audiobook Blaze, can be listened to, at no cost, on the soundcloud player below. The next episode will be added weekely.

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