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?
A prominent feature in the extensive demesne of Alnwick Castle is the Observatory on Ratcheugh Crag, a ‘stupendous and romantic rock’. The building was one of a number of landscape features planned by Hugh and Elizabeth, 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, in the 1770s, but the sham-ruined eye-catcher was not completed until after her death.
On the edge of Edinburgh stands a wonderful stone tower. A first glimpse of its crenellated parapet over the roof of a vast industrial shed was followed by a few wrong turns, but eventually The Folly Flâneuse found herself in a field with a herd of cows and a very fine folly.
High in Hampshire stands this imposing monument. It marks the resting place of a heroic horse, which managed not only to survive a leap into a deep pit, rider intact, but went on to win a great race the following year. That rider was Paulet St John (1704-1780) of Farley Chamberlayne. Alongside his sporting exploits, he found time to be a Member of Parliament and Mayor of Winchester, and was rewarded in 1772 when he became Sir Paulet St John, baronet.
But to go back forty years to 1733: when out ‘a foxhunting’ St John misjudged the terrain and found himself leaping into a chalk pit which was 25 feet deep. Somehow, neither man nor mount was injured, and the horse went on to win the Hunters’ Plate at Winchester the following year. The tale, as told on the monument, is that St John celebrated his lucky escape by entering the horse in the race under the name of ‘Beware Chalk Pit’, although a diligent writer in the Sporting Magazine of 1840 searched back in the records and concluded that the horse was actually better known as a chestnut called (unimaginatively) Foxhunter.
Exact dates for the death of the horse, and the erection of what became known locally as ‘the ‘Horse Monument’, seem to be lost. The mound on which it stands is thought to be Bronze Age, but with modern interventions, and it was once the site of a beacon. Most sources suggest the monument was built in 1795, but as this was 15 years after St John died it must be earlier, and almost certainly before 1772, as the inscription does not record St John’s baronetcy. On Taylor’s 1759 map of Hampshire the site is marked as ‘Beacon Hill’, but no building is indicated (although frustratingly this doesn’t mean it wasn’t there). However by 1791 when Milne’s map of the county was made, ‘Beacon Hill’ is shown complete with a building on the summit. By the time the 1st series Ordnance Survey map was published in the 1810s the building had become known as the ‘Farley Monument’.
In 1863 the monument was described as ‘somewhat dilapidated’ and it was covered with graffiti as a result of ‘vulgar Vandalism’ (presumably it had stood strong against the weather, because of course in Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen…). It was restored by the Rt Hon Sir William Heathcote, Bt, of Hursley in 1870, and it seems that it was actually more of a rebuild than a repair. In 1846 it was described as a ‘miniature pyramid’ and an engraving published in 1861 (above) shows a cube with a pyramid roof, much simpler and squatter in form than the current structure. A most unexpected source, of which more later, described it in 1848 as ’20 feet high’, whereas the present pyramid reaches over 32 feet (10m).
Post-restoration, the cube base had disappeared and an elegant elongated pyramid had appeared in its place. There are porches on each face: one contains an entrance and the other three are blank. Inside a room was constructed so ‘way-farers and picnic parties may rest and be thankful’. Heathcote replaced the original inscription with two plaques (one inside, one on the exterior), adding for posterity his own role in the building:
UNDERNEATH LIES BURIED
THE PROPERTY OF PAULET ST JOHN ESQ
THAT IN THE MONTH OF SEPTEMBER 1733 LEAPED
INTO A CHALK PIT TWENTYFIVE
FEET DEEP A FOXHUNTING
WITH HIS MASTER ON HIS BACK.
AND IN OCTOBER 1734 HE WON THE
HUNTERS PLATE ON WORTHY DOWNS
AND WAS RODE BY HIS OWNER
AND ENTERED IN THE NAME OF
“BEWARE CHALK PIT”
THE ABOVE BEING THE WORDS OF
THE ORIGINAL INSCRIPTION
WERE RESTORED BY THE RT HON.
SIR WILLIAM HEATHCOTE BARONET
SEP. A. D. 1870
The monument needs regular maintenance. It was restored in 1950, and again at the beginning of the current century, when the question of whether it was actually an equine mausoleum (which it had been called since at least 1798), was raised. A basic investigation found no trace of the horse, but it did confirm that the building had been constructed in ‘two phases’. This restoration involved stripping off the old render and removing and replacing the decayed outer skin of brickwork. Once rebuilt the pyramid was re-rendered with lime mortar and painted. In 2014 further renovation and repainting was required to keep the monument looking its best. Since the early 1970s the surrounding land has been a country park with the grade II listed monument dominating the landscape.
But to return to the unlikely source of the measurement of the tower: in 1848 a Geometry and Mechanics examination paper for the Winchester Diocesan Training School, asked the following question: ‘The “Horse Monument” on Farley Mount is a pyramid of brick-work 20 feet high, built upon a mound 30 feet high; supposing the materials to weigh 8 tons, how many units of work were expended in raising them from the foot of the mound to their present position?’
If that’s too taxing, have a listen to a brief 1937 clip about the folly on Pathé News. Having sneaked Professor Henry Higgins into the text earlier, he would surely have approved of the clipped pronunciation of “Hempshire” https://www.britishpathe.com/video/horse-monument/query/Farley
The fabulous colour photos used here are all courtesy of John Malaiperuman, the conservation architect who led the 2014 restoration. You can see more of his work here http://johnmal.com/farley-mount/
For Farley Mount Country Park https://www.visit-hampshire.co.uk/things-to-do/farley-mount-country-park-p1414861
In 1752 Richard Trevor became the new Bishop of Durham. A perk of the post was two palaces: one in the city and a country seat at Auckland Castle, on the edge of the town of Bishop Auckland. In around 1760 he erected there this gorgeous gothic Deer House in the park at Auckland. As is so often the case with garden buildings, it combined the functional with the frivolous – as well as sheltering the herd it also provided a banqueting room with extensive views and served as an eye-catcher in the park.
Nostell Priory, not far from Wakefield in West Yorkshire, is a magnificent 18th century mansion built adjacent to the site of an Augustinian priory. Architect James Paine worked at Nostell for around 30 years, before Robert Adam was called in to add new wings and other works. Adam also designed one of the most luscious of lodges to be found on a country estate.
High above Ashton, and visible from miles around, is the curious tower called Hartshead Pike. It was built in the 1860s to commemorate the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and to honour Queen Victoria on the occasion of her son’s marriage.
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.
Just outside Richmond in Yorkshire is the Aske estate. The grounds were landscaped by successive owners in the 18th century, and various ornaments added to the park. The most curious is Oliver Ducket*, a folly high above the park with many a tale attached.
In 1791 Francis Newbery, bought Bailey Park, an estate in East Sussex, which he renamed the Heathfield Park Estate. Almost immediately he set to work constructing this elegant tower on high ground in his park. The Folly Flâneuse has joined forces with The Garden Historian to elaborate on its history.