Brizlee Tower* stands high on Brizlee Hill, near Alnwick, and overlooks Hulne Park, a detached pleasure ground close to the Duke of Northumberland’s principal park at Alnwick Castle. It was built in the late 18th century as a prospect tower and eye-catcher, and also as an object to be visited on a drive from the castle through Hulne Park. The park was designed by ‘the inimitable Brown’, aka Capability, working with local engineers and designers, and was also home to the ruins of mediaeval Hulne Abbey, embellished and repurposed by the Duke and Duchess as a banqueting house, pleasure garden and menagerie for exotic pheasants. This is one of The Folly Flâneuse’s favourite follies: the detail is just so joyful, or as historian Alistair Rowan so wonderfully put it: ‘at Brizlee there is fantasy and flamboyance’.
Brizlee Hill had been landscaped in the previous decades, and there were already plantations and a network of rides. A tower had been planned for the hill during the Duchess’s lifetime, but she died in 1776 before building had started, and it was left to her husband to erect it in her memory. Many early accounts of the 87 feet high tower are at pains to stress that the tower was ‘planned entirely’ by Hugh 1st Duke of Northumberland (1714-1786) . But whilst the location and the Gothick style were probably his choice, he did have just a little help with the detail from his friend Robert Adam. Adam’s drawings for the tower, prepared in 1777 and 1778, survive in the collections at Alnwick Castle and the Soane Museum, London.
Although the tower carries the date 1781, the ‘celebrated Tower at Brizlee’ wasn’t completely finished until 1783. The exterior is decorated with carved stones showing the Duke’s Order of the Garter, 12 coats of arms representing the couple’s lineage, and at first floor level two Coade Stone roundels showing the profiles of the Duke and Duchess. The finishing touch was ‘a curious grate on which a bonfire is kindled on extra-ordinary occasions’. This ironwork basket was made by industrialist James Sharp at his factory: Sharp grew up at the rectory in nearby Rothbury, where his brothers included the anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp.
Visible from the first floor platform is a plaque inscribed:
Ego omnia ista sum Dimensus;
Mei sunt ordines,
Multae etiam istarum arborum.
Mea manu sunt satae
(Look around. I have measured out all these things; they are my orders, it is my planting; many of these trees have even been planted by my hand).
The inscription begins circumspice which roughly translates as ‘look around’; the Latin word was most famously used in Sir Christopher Wren’s monument in St Paul’s Cathedral. His epitaph reads si monumentum requiris, circumspice: (if you seek (his) monument, look around), which instruction guided the reader to look up at the beauties of the cathedral, Wren’s great achievement. The Duke was surely echoing this when asking visitors to gaze out upon the castle, pleasure ground, and productive farmland he had improved or implemented at Alnwick. The second part of the inscription is from the ancient Greek account of Lysander meeting Cyrus, the King of Persia. The words are Cyrus’s response to Lysander’s admiration of his gardens.
Most early visitors waxed lyrical about the Duke’s work, with one describing it as ‘well-imagined and in an excellent Taste of Gothick Solidity’ and another writing that the ‘elegant and lofty Belvidere […] will ever remain a noble specimen of his skill in Architecture’. One less generous tourist agreed the tower was elegant, but thought the inscription savoured ‘too much of vanity’.
From the top of the tower the view was bounded by the North Sea in one direction, and the Cheviot Hills in another. Looking south-east the mid-ground was dominated by a stunning view of Alnwick Castle and its park, with the River Aln running through. This is best illustrated in Girtin’s view from Brizlee of c.1800 and in a verse from one of the pastoral poems so beloved of the Victorians. Composed by John Lamb Luckley of Alnwick, and published in 1848, ‘Beautiful Brizlee’ extols the wonders of the spot:
Here Warkworth rears her ancient towers
Above the winding dale;
There Cheviot’s frowning summit lours
Far o’er the cultivated vale;
Hulner with her ruin’d altars lies
Beneath the mountain tree;
And varied views delight the eyes
From beautiful Brizlee.
By 1999 there were severe problems of water penetration and rusting ironwork which had left the slender stone balustrades unsafe and a range of other problems, which put the tower ‘at risk’. The Northumberland Estates commissioned specialist conservation architects Robin Kent Architecture & Conservation to carry out repairs with grant aid from English Heritage. After thorough investigations work started in January 2004 and the grade I listed tower was reopened by the Dowager Duchess of Northumberland on 21 November 2005.
The tower can be seen from walks in Hulne Park, and there are occasional charity open days, but there is no vehicular access. At the time of writing the park is closed due to the COVID19 pandemic, but in due course will reopen and you can find out more here http://www.northumberlandestates.co.uk/the-estate/walks-trails/
* aka Brislee, Brisley, Brislay, Briesley, Brislaw…
Note: The Folly Flâneuse is continuing to Stay Home. Special thanks to all those who have helped with images and expertise so these posts may continue to appear. This week particular thanks to Robin Kent.