architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden, garden history, Lancashire, landscape, Summerhouse, Tower

Baby House Towers, Whalley, Lancashire (via a bit of trigonometry)

When the great folly builders of the 17th and 18th centuries were erecting statement buildings on the high points of their estates, they can little have known how useful they would be to the Board of Ordnance. The ‘Principal Triangulation of Britain’ was a trigonometric survey, begun in the late 18th century, which by determining precise coordinates of significant landmarks would enable highly accurate mapping. The main landmarks used were church spires, but ‘other remarkable objects’ were picked, and in the first decade of the 19th century over 50 towers, temples, obelisks, summer houses and follies made it into this category.

Were a convenient church spire not available, the surveyors would occasionally have to make do. Thus two of the more unusual locations were ‘Chimney on the north side of Mr. Evered’s House’, and the rather vague sounding ‘Clump of Trees near the Flying Bull Inn’. They must therefore have been delighted to find an elevated folly from which to carry out their measuring. Of the many landscape ornaments used as ‘stations and intersected objects’, some are very familiar and would be obvious choices if asked to suggest lofty towers: King Alfred’s Tower at Stourhead, Sturt’s Folly in Dorset, and Leith Hill Tower in Surrey to name a few. Obelisks were also favoured: Bramham in Yorkshire, the Frampton Obelisk in Dorset, and the now truncated Norris’s Obelisk in Surrey, are just three that feature in the report. The word ‘obelisk’ was often applied to any tall, thin structure at this date, and so the ‘Earl’s Mount Obelisk’ is actually Robert Adam’s lovely Brizlee Tower at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland (as featured here last week

Most intriguing to The Folly Flâneuse was a structure listed as ‘Justice Waller’s Pleasure House’. The context suggested it was in eastern Lancashire, and a little help from a friend* established that the coordinates led to Clerk Hill, between Whalley and Wiswell. This was the seat of James Whalley (1748-1805), one time High Sheriff of the county of Lancaster and a Justice of the Peace – hence ‘Justice Waller’. The incorrect spelling of his name may have something to do with local pronunciation: Whalley is pronounced Wall-ey. One of the earliest writers to mention the pleasure house made the same error; passing by in 1792 the Hon. John Byng grumbled that Mr Waller had ‘with miserable intention, built some strange ruins on a hill-top’. But then Byng, the most curmudgeonly of travellers, was seldom impressed.

View of the Baby Towers, c.1900, courtesy of Lancashire County Council’s Red Rose Collections.

James Whalley (Sir James from 1797 when he inherited the baronetcy from his brother) probably built the gothic folly in the 1780s after he moved to the Clerk Hill estate. Set in its extensive deer park, the folly was comprised of a two storey octagonal central tower linked by walls to flanking towers, forming a symmetrical composition. The battlemented central tower had an upper room for picnics and for watching the hunt, and the outer towers could only be reached by walking along the connecting walls. The whole had panoramic views across the valley of the River Ribble to Pendle Hill. Local legend says that some of the stone was taken from old beacons that formerly stood on the site, and the elevated site would certainly seem appropriate.

View off the central tower, c.1900, courtesy of Lancashire County Council’s Red Rose Collections.

The tower was still largely intact in 1944, although the roof and the floor of the upper room had collapsed. A few years later the folly disappeared in a rather dramatic fashion. Late in September 1948 the 510 Squadron of the Royal Engineers of the Territorial Army, with the permission off the landowner, blew up the structure because it had become ‘dangerous’. The local parish council was indignant, but the landowner was completely within his rights: the folly was not scheduled, and he argued that as it was not marked as an antiquity on the Ordnance Survey map, it could not be considered to be of historical importance. The 1st edition map shows the building as ‘Castle’ in a circular plantation called ‘Castle Wood’, and the central tower is shown as the triangulation point used by the surveyors some 50 years earlier. By the 20th century the sham castle had become known as the ‘Baby House Towers’, presumably because of its likeness to a toy fort.

There may be some good news. When follydom’s dapper duo Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp published Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings in 1999, they reported that the then owner of Castle Wood was slowly rebuilding the towers. Does anyone know if he finished?

UPDATE: thanks to the Whalley Local History Group for confirmation that the circular bases are extant on private land, but the towers were never completely rebuilt.

So the moral of this post is ‘never judge a book by its title’. Who would have thought that An Account Of The Trigonometrical Survey, carried on by Order of The Master General of His Majesty’s Ordnance, in the Years 1800, 1801, 1803, 1804, 1805, 1806, 1807, 1808, and 1809 could provide so much fascinating material?

*thank you Harry Beamish

The images are from the wonderful resource that is Lancashire County Council’s Red Rose Collection, which contains images of Lancashire people, places and events


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4 thoughts on “Baby House Towers, Whalley, Lancashire (via a bit of trigonometry)”

  1. Gand says:

    A great way to put follies on the map

    1. Editor says:

      Excellent response, as ever. Thanks Gand

  2. Gwyn says:

    Wonderful photographs. And very impressive research — clever you! But H&M have never before been described as ‘dapper’, nor could they ever be. Haystacks falling onto bowling greens is more like it.

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Gwyn. Hope someone can answer the question about current status. And delighted to be the first to call you dapper!

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