I am never sure what I am going to write about until I have actually started and often the tale ends up very different from the one that I intended. Normally I put a title in and then start, but usually I have change the title to match the memories that make the final tale. This time I am going to write about a place that has been a part of my life from 1954 until I left Leeds in 1992 to move to Perth, in Western Australia. It took me about thirteen years to return to visit, and when I did, Roundhay Park was very much as it had always been during my early life, but with a few changes and in some cases improvements.
Roundhay Park holds some of my very earliest memories. I was taken there as a baby and with my older brother, Andrew, we would be taken on the lake for a boat trip. At these times in the 1950s the large lake, Waterloo Lake, was a busy venue for families. Courting couples would hire the rowing boats and the men would try and impress with their rowing skills, whereas the families tended to opt for one of the two motor launches. There was a metal turnstile that was quite intimidating and you bought tickets for either the hiring of a rowing boat or a ticket for a launch. I seem to remember one was called the Mayflower, but I could be wrong. The launches held about thirty passengers and they gently cruised the lake, amongst the swans and ducks, whilst we stared down into the depths of the lake. Rounday Sea Cadets also had a couple of whaler boats on the Waterloo Lake, but I never saw them used.
The lake was and still is, popular with anglers and scores of fishers would edge the lake, rods balanced, keep-nets ready, sandwiches and cups of tea keeping them company along with hope. As a young lad I fished with my brother many times, but we never caught anything. We never complained as there was no better way to spend afternoon, and I am not sure what we would have done if we had caught anything. I did see many others pull fish in, but we were never lucky.
Roundhay Park land was given by William the Conqueror in 1069 to Ilbert de Lacy, who built Pontefract Castle. The gift was for his efforts in subduing the North after the invasion. Waterloo lake was built by returned soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars, in order to provide them with employment, hence the name. The land that became the park was bought by Thomas Nicholson and the remains of coal mining and quarrying were covered up with the creation of the two lakes. Leeds City bought the land in 1871 and created the public park.
Of course, I knew nothing of this and just enjoyed the park for its adventure. As a young lad my parents would take us for a drink and cake in the Lakeside Cafe. The Cafe was adjacent to the new playground across from the Boathouse Cafe. In my earliest memories the current cafe was just a boathouse and primarily filled with junk and bits of boats and oars. The Lakeside Cafe was a long wooden shed and I believed it was the old tram shed, though it wasn’t as trams never went to that part of the park, but it was where the bus crews would stop and have a bite to eat, a cup of tea and a smoke. It was always a strange place, a vast open wooden shed, but we didn’t care. There was a kiosk near the entrance and it did a roaring trade in ice-creams and the like. Just behind the Lakeside Cafe was a small funfair that ran for years. It had a helter-skelter, swing boats, a small roundabout, with a double-decker bus and I loved to go in or on the top deck as a toddler. I took my eldest son there many times, years later. There were one or two other rides, but they changed over the years, whereas those I have mentioned were constant for many years.
Across from the small funfair was a rise that led up to a clear area that overlooked the big lake. Here was the site for a range of major events. Fairs were held here and these were always popular and they had various gymkhanas over the years and other exhibitions where the services would have displays, you could climb on an artificial climbing wall, sit on an army tank and a host of other things. Behind the Lakeside Cafe was the arena, bordered by Hill Sixty, named after Hill 60 battle near Ypres in the First World War, where large numbers of Leeds soldiers were killed. The arena was planned to be a third lake but Thomas Nicholson, the owner, died before it was started. There was a cricket pavilion opposite Hill 60 and next to that was a maze. It was a hedge-lined maze and I know they charged for entry when I was very little and there was a wooden observation platform at the centre. As I got older it was just left open to visitors and it began to decay. Gaps were forced through the hedges and it became a haven for courting couples in the evening. I believe there was an incident that occurred many years later and it was removed on safety concerns.
The Little (Upper Lake) was more for children and there were paddle boats that could be hired. The lake was full of tadpoles in season and minnows and stickleback fish. My older brother and I would spend many afternoons trawling our fishing nets on can rods, collecting the poor fish in jam-jars. We occasionally took them home, but they never survived for long, or if they did my dad would return them. There may have even been the odd newt in my early days there. One or two years the lakes froze solid to the point that people could safely walk on the ice, but often there were signs prohibiting it.
The lakes, arena and Canal Gardens are the places where most visitors go, but there are more hidden places that are well worth a visit. Behind the little lake in the Gorge is an area of woodland that has a steep, narrow valley. The lake drains into this and there is a steep waterfall that was hidden amongst the rhododendrons and my brother and I used to climb up and down, imagining that we were in the deepest darkest jungle in Africa. The gorge itself has a wonderful walk, where you could be a million miles away from the hubbub of Leeds. It often has the pungent smell of wild garlic, or is carpeted in a lavender sweep of bluebells. Blackbirds are common and grey squirrels dart around, never still for long. It borders the public golf course and this nine-hole course was where my father started to play and I was brought along as a caddy. In later years my mother would walk through the woods on the other side of the course, taking her dog, Ben, for a walk. She had the knack of collecting lots of wayward golf balls, much to my delight when I started playing. Of course those who attended Roundhay School will know the gorge as part of the cross-country course. The teachers never ventured into it and so it was a good place to stop for a cigarette. The senior course took you out the far side of the gorge, across the Ring Road and onto footpaths through the fields leading towards Shadwell, before heading back. This meant crossing the road again and running past the staff supervising beer and fag in hand, before climbing up Hill 60 and over the Soldiers’ Fields to school.
When I went with my dad to Roundhay Golf Course, I had to pull his golf buggy. The first hole was set above a small quarry and you hit over it and down onto the fairway. I used the drag the trolley down and, once away from prying eyes, I was allowed to hit the odd ball, using a shortened down three iron, but my father was always telling me to pick the ball up, if I was too slow and holding anyone up. I remember the hole where you have to ring a bell to let those behind know that you have finished and there is another very short hole where the tee is on the top of another exposed outcrop of rock. A great little course, full of charm.
The park is 2.8 square kilometres and so there are many places where you can walk and rarely see anyone else. At various times, extra attractions have come and gone. For a number of years there was a small train that ran along the back of the little lake and you could ride on it. The maze has gone, so have the boats for hire and the Lakeside Cafe, but there is large playground near the car park and over the years Canal Gardens has been improved. Canal Gardens originally had the small pseudo-canal and a large greenhouse. As a young child I always enjoyed a walk through the green house. It was full of strong scents of hyacinths, geraniums, honeysuckle and jasmine. Quite a long time ago now they added the Tropical World. I think it was originally a butterfly house, but it has grown and adapted to the fabulous experience it is now. The walled gardens have a cafe, and a great array of roses. The Canal Garden has wonderful herbaceous borders and for many years had two black swans. They were very unusual to us, as swans in England are white. I believe they were a gift from Perth, Western Australia, where I now live. The Swan River has large numbers of swans, but here swans are all black.
In the mid 1980s I moved my family to Papua New Guinea and when we left, my wife bought a spare set of contact lenses in case she lost any. She managed all year and we returned at Christmas for a visit. We stayed with my mother and we all went to Canal Gardens on a very cold and frosty night. She had decided it was time to use her new contact lenses and so she put them in. Five minutes after arriving at the gardens she got something in her eye and in the ensuing removal of the grit, the lens fell out. One year in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea was no problem, but five minutes in a Canal Gardens did for them. Such is life!
There is another part of the park facilities that is long since gone, and I have mentioned it before, and it comes up often as photographs on Facebook, and that is the swimming pool. At the end of Waterloo Lake there is a large boundary dam and a waterfall, for when the lake overflows. At the base of this was a lido. The open air swimming pool was only open during the summer months when the weather was good. I can remember going a few times, originally with my parents, and using the small paddling pool and later, as a teenager, where the attraction of large numbers of teenage girls in swimming costumes was reason enough. There were changing rooms on either side and I remember the boys on one side of the pool and the girls on the other. You were given a metal framed coat-hanger affair that allowed clothes to be hung on it and shoes in the basket at the bottom. Once changed, you carried it to the cloakroom and they stored them and gave you a token on a rubber band to wear which you returned when you collected your gear afterwards. If girls were the attraction, they had nothing to fear, as the water was always icy, completely unheated, and guaranteed to remove any ardour on contact with the body. We could never stay in the water long, but towels were stretched on the grass and sunbathing took over, but even then, few were the days that you managed to stay long.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the lido began to suffer disrepair and vandalism when it was empty at night. No amount of barbed wire was going to provide security and unfortunately the decision was made, probably on financial grounds, to close the pool. This was a real shame as it was a special place and the loss was felt by many!
There are still many parts of the park I have not mentioned so do yourself a favour and, if you have never been, try and take an opportunity to visit, and if you haven’t been for a while, go and take another look. The bandstands, Barran’s Rotunda, Mansion, Folly Castle and the new Boathouse Cafe are waiting for you. The park hosted many events that I enjoyed growing up in Leeds, and still hosts major events and concerts.