Saturday, 13 November 2010


It being a sunny Autumn day, one where the afternoon sun is  making it warmer out of doors than in the house, we decide to get out and kick our circulations into gear. We had heard that in nearby Oakworth there is a park with some sort of Victorian folly in it. We thought it may be worth a look and the walk over there is always good-especially the bit where we can get off the beaten track and follow the river for a while, lots of mud down there! So off we went, totally unprepared for what awaited us in Holden Park.

Eccentricity is a trait for which we as a nation are known throughout the world-though in our 21st century identikit society such singularity of character is increasingly frowned upon. And eccentricity is something that the Victorians did so well that it has become a byword for that era, perhaps inaccurately. It was, after all, a time of great change scientifically and culturally. With so many new ideas and possibilities suddenly being developed it is little wonder that some of them, by later standards, seem a bit wild and whacky. At the time they were quite normal. So when in 1875 Issac (later Sir Issac) Holden spent £120,000 creating a system of caves and grottoes in the grounds of his home, Oakworth House, it was probably seen as just a rather grand bit of landscape gardening very much in keeping with the age. Sir Issac was an inventor and a wool manufacturer, so successful at both of these things that in 1859 his company had become the largest wool combing business in the world. He died at the ripe old age of ninety in 1897 and ten years later Oakworth House, still in the possession of his descendants, was destroyed by fire.  After a further twenty years had passed the family gave the land which the house and grounds had occupied to the local council, to be used as a public amenity for Oakworth. So was born Holden Park.

On the spot where the house once stood is now a bowling green, where the Turkish bath and the billiard room were situated is now a children's play area. As for the rest, it is the wonderfully preserved grottoes and caves-which are more extensive than they appear to be at first glance. That first glance, it has to be said, takes us completely by surprise: we had expected to find a run of the mill folly (whatever that is!) and instead there is this whole garden where follyness abounds. The starting point for Issac's grand plan was in the fact that the piece of land around the house was, many centuries ago, a stone quarry. This meant that the sides and back of the property were bordered by a rock face some twenty foot high. Into this he created a series of interconnecting caves running right around the garden, open to the sky in places where stone steps were cut to lead up to a  garden on top. Throughout the caves various openings large and small lead into the grottoes, some of which can be entered by squeezing through a gap on one side and exited by an equally tight gap on the other side. Much use has been made of hypertufa (look it up-we had to!) blended in with the natural rock to give the impression that cave roofs are supported by fossilised tree trunks, so realistic that it had us wondering if this is what they actually were. Here and there on the cave walls are the evidence of pipework and brass jet fittings which, with the drainage points on the floor, show that the whole complex was also a water feature. Water was also a feature in the top garden where walkways wind around planted areas through which streams were created. These lead to a central point where a waterfall would have dropped down into a large grotto facing  the back of the house-it must have been incredible to see all of this in full flow!

Holden Park is one of those places where you could spend a lot time in wandering and never knowing which way to turn next, not wanting to miss something which may be tucked away out of sight. That it was created a hundred and fifty years ago, the result of one person's vision, gives it an iconic air. It is also cool to realise that this is not a tourist attraction for which an admission fee is charged (it could well be, and then they would probably go and build a tacky gift shop in one of the caves). It is there in a public park, open to anybody to walk in and enjoy and this is how it will stay. A secret garden, one of the country's hidden gems.