‘Follies Can Be Fun’. So read the headline of an article in the Times in October 1959. But apparently not all follies: the anonymous author* dismissed sham ruins, grottoes and shell rooms, and expressed a preference for towers and columns. The Folly Flâneuse, who wholeheartedly agrees with the headline, thought it might be ‘fun’ to revisit some of the follies featured in the piece, to see how they had fared more than 60 years later.
Somerset has more than its fair share of folly towers, but one of the most audacious examples is sadly long gone. This was the slender tower built by John Turner in the hamlet of Faulkland, near Bath, in 1890. It stood for less than 80 years, having become progressively shorter before its eventual demise in the 1960s.
On Sunday 18 June 1815 the British and Prussian armies, commanded respectively by the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal von Blücher, won the Battle of Waterloo. There were immediate demands for monuments across Britain to celebrate this great victory, but none were so quick to respond as William Kerr, the 6th Marquis of Lothian, and his family. By the end of June funds had been raised to erect ‘a monument on the summit of Penielheugh’, a lofty hill on the Marquis’s Monteviot estate.
The arrival of an updated volume in the Buildings of England series is always a cause for celebration. Better known simply as ‘Pevsners’, after Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983), the author of the earliest volumes, the books are regularly revised. The latest volume to be painstakingly brought up to date covers the county of Wiltshire, and is the work of Julian Orbach. The first edition of the Wiltshire volume appeared in 1963, and was close to Pevsner’s heart, as he had a home in Clyffe Pypard where he and his family spent much of their time: his dedication calls Wiltshire ‘the county of the cottage’.
On the edge of Alnwick, in Northumberland, stood Swansfield House, an elegant villa that in the late 18th century was home to Henry Collingwood Selby (1748-1839), agent to the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland of Alnwick Castle. Following the lead of his monument-building patrons, he embellished his small estate with a tower, a column, and a curious gothic structure.
One of the most curious collections of structures in Britain can be found on a ridge behind the house called Sorrelsykes*, near Aysgarth in North Yorkshire. Often cited as fine examples of follies because of their strange form, and apparent lack of function, the eccentric edifices seem to have lost their history. What are they? Who built them? When? And above all why?
In 1738 Langley Park was purchased by the 3rd Duke of Marlborough (1706-1758), and one of his first projects was the construction of an elegant casino with views to Windsor Castle. In the middle of the 19th century that temple was demolished, and replaced by an equally charming monumental column. That too survived for only a century, but happily a pictorial record helps tell the story.
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’.
In the middle of the 18th century the area around Dunston was unenclosed heath, and travel was a dirty and dangerous business, especially in the dark winter months. Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781), 2nd baronet, of West Wycombe and Hell-fire Club fame, came into property in the area when he married Sarah Ellys of nearby Nocton in 1745. Dashwood erected the Dunston Pillar in 1751 as a beacon to guide ‘the peasant, the wayfaring stranger, and the horseman with his dame on pillion’.
Halifax has been much in the news recently following the restoration of the wondrous Piece Hall, a Georgian cloth trading centre on a monumental scale. But the town is also home to another amazing structure, the Wainhouse Tower, one of the country’s finest follies. Factory chimney turned witness to wealth, it thrusts 253 feet into the sky above the town.