Monday, 2 April 2018

Headingley Bear Pit

A little while ago, someone I work with casually dropped into the conversation that Headingley had an old bear pit where they used to keep, you know, a bear. This was news to me and I was pretty indignant about it too, given that I used to live right by Headingley and also worked just round the corner for almost a year and never knew it was even there. So many wasted lunch hours! We finally managed to make a pit stop there the other day and have a little look around.

What remains of the bear pit is on the east side of Cardigan Road, and there's a little bit about it in this book by Susan Wrathmell (which I find myself referring to quite a bit): '[the bear pit is] built of large blocks of rusticated masonry with two circular castellated viewing turrets. The circular pit had a gateway in the form of a Serlian arch and cages in the basement in which eagles were reputedly incarcerated.' Wrathmell also explains that this whole area is the site of the short-lived Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens which opened in 1840, designed by William Billington, a Wakefield engineer, and Edward Davies, a landscape gardener. The gardens didn't do very well and closed in 1848* to become a tip. Lovely.

Now this part I like, because I can cite a source. As an - albeit somewhat lapsed - medievalist, I do like a good, solid source. Unfortunately, some of this post is going to be sourced a bit less thoroughly, so rather than 'a book by an architectural historian' it might just be 'some guy I've never met on the Secret Leeds 2 Facebook page', but I've linked to things where I can.

It was a bit of a miserable day when we went, but you can see that it must be really nice in the summer when all the trees are green and it looks charmingly overgrown rather than just a bit sad and forgotten. You can see the stairs going up to the viewing turrets and the cages at the front leading to the pit - keeping eagles in there just seems completely excessive - but the gates are very firmly locked from the front. There's a fence with barbed wire all round the sides, almost like they don't want you to go inside a potentially dangerous ruined structure or something? Weird!! Anyway, I slithered very elegantly through the fence to get a proper look at the pit and the viewing platform.

It's very overgrown and forgotten, but the stairs seem pretty intact (I didn't test them) and the turrets are also still in full castellated form. This is quite interesting to me, as I can see from this photo in 1956 that the left hand turret at least did suffer some damage at some point. This must have been repaired when the Leeds Civic Trust bought and restored it, as the next photo in 1985 has it looking much like it does now. I can see from older photos (but as recent as 2006) that there used to be a plaque with this information, but we couldn't see anything of a plaque now. I wonder if it was removed?

As you can see, the right turret now has the words 'SOPHIE 4 TABS' on the inside, and then on the left, 'TABS 4 SOPHIE.' We weren't sure if Tabs was a romantic partner of Sophie's, or if Sophie was just a big fan of nicotine. The left tower, 'TABS 4 SOPHIE', appears to give Tabs more agency than one might expect of a cigarette, but who can say? Who was Sophie? Did it last between her and Tabs? When were these inscriptions made? We may never know the truth, such is the shroud of history.


The pit is very overgrown, but I think even without that, it's still sort of... small... for a bear. And not all that high. I don't really know much about the leaping power of bears, but I just feel like a particularly bouncy bear could jump right out. If it hadn't been such an obviously terrible idea, I would've quite liked to climb in and have a proper look. You can just about see the passageway that would've led back through the front castle-esque facade.

The bear, according to Some Guy I Don't Know On Facebook, was called Sir Bruin, but he also says that he was a Russian Black Bear, whereas this book claims the bear was a brown bear, so who knows? I know I'm an institutionalised recovering postgraduate but I just tend to trust sources with full and correct capitalisation a little bit more, not to sound like a terrible snob. (Although, the dates* in this book don't match up with my architectural history book, so maybe my instinct is wrong!) The author also says that it cost 6d for entry to the gardens (which is about £2 in today's money, but apparently that was too expensive and one of the reasons it ultimately failed and had to close) and had many exotic plants - which are still in situ, apparently! - as well as monkeys, swans, and eagles. There was a similar garden in nearby Wakefield, where apparently their bear escaped and killed someone and injured another. Facebook Guy is also claiming there was briefly an elephant and lioness in Leeds, but I can't find that corroborated anywhere else.

I also read in various (not really citable) places online that the Leeds bear had a tree or a pole in the middle of the pit which they either liked to and/or were made to climb, where apparently the public would feed it bananas, or pelt it with hard buns. This sounds both ludicrous and also very believably Victorian. I hope Sir Bruin got more bananas than buns, the poor thing. It seems as though he was auctioned off when the gardens closed, though I suspect not for a relaxing retirement.

I found this wonderful design plan from 1837 on the old Secret Leeds forum, but saved the image for myself because I don't have a lot of faith in long-term forum image hosting and I didn't want to lose it. It's actually an incredibly expansive garden, there's even a 'lake with islands for water fowl, with a fountain on the largest one', it covers a really large area of now-Headingley:

The bear pit has been a Grade II listed building since the 80s, but nothing seems to have happened since the 60s when it was restored. It's a shame really, but I don't know what could be done with it. I've never been to Sheffield's bear pit (although it's now on my hit list) but it would be lovely to get some of the overgrowth cleared and have something similar. I don't know how realistic that is, I'm just an Admirer of Old Stuff but my preservation/restoration knowledge is mostly limited to medieval vellum and/or fashion dolls from the 70s.

On a related note, I did have a little 1:6 friend at the bear pit with me...

* Some sources I found seem to indicate it was 1858 was when the gardens/bear pit closed, but I'm sticking with the 1848 date unless proven otherwise.

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