Root houses, so named because they incorporated natural materials such as tree trunks, branches, bark, moss or heather, became key features of gardens and parks in the 18th century. Richard Payne Knight summed up the genre in his poem The Landscape in 1794
The cover’d seat, that shelters from the storm,
May oft a feature of the landscape form,
Whether composed of native stumps and roots,
It spreads the creeper’s rich fantastic shoots;
John Sharp became the incumbent of Hartburn, near Morpeth, in 1749 and this curious tower was built soon after; it was originally used as a schoolhouse and to house the parish hearse. Sharp contributed to the cost from his own pocket, but reaped the benefits as the tower also served as an eye-catcher from his ornamented grounds in the valley of the Hart Burn that gives the village its name.
The grandly named Mount Snever Observatory, also known as Oldstead Tower, stands on the edge of an escarpment, high above the village of Oldstead, near Thirsk. An inscription on the building tells us:
JOHN WORMALD IN THE FIRST YEAR OF THE REIGN OF QUEEN VICTORIA CAUSED THIS OBSERVATORY TO BE ERECTED. J. DODDS BUILDER
The tower was built at Snever Point, the highest spot on the Oldstead estate. Work was underway in October 1837, and there was great excitement locally when a human skeleton was discovered as the foundations were being dug. The observatory was complete by the following summer when Wormald threw a party to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria on 28 June 1838. All of the village was invited; loyal toasts were drunk, a band played and a royal salute of 21 guns was fired from the terrace of the tower. ‘No one has shown more loyalty to their Queen and Sovereign, than Mr Wormald … and the inhabitants of the village’ wrote the local paper.
There’s a second inscribed stone on the south elevation which contains several lines of poetry adapted from ‘Windsor Forest’ by Alexander Pope:
Here hills and waving groves a scene display
And part admit and part exclude the day
See rich industry smiling on the plains
And peace and plenty tell VICTORIA reigns!
Happy the MAN who to these shades retires
Whom NATURE charms and whom the muse inspires
Who wandering thoughtful in this silent wood
Attends the duties of the wise and good
To observe a mean, be to himself a friend
To follow NATURE and regard his end.
These lines were presumably chosen, or composed, by Wormald. He was not alone in honouring the new monarch with an adaptation of Pope’s ode; Thomas Roscoe included similar lines in Windsor Castle and Its Environs in 1838:
Rich Industry sits smiling on the plains,
And peace and plenty tell (Victoria) reigns.
There has been much confusion over the identity of John Wormald. He was in fact John Smith Wormald, son of the Samuel Wormald who was Lord Mayor of York in 1809 and who died in 1814. John was one of the ‘six surviving children’ who erected a memorial to their parents in St Margaret’s, York. Samuel Wormald was a tanner and timber merchant and the family are remembered in the name of the offshoot of the River Foss built to service their business: Wormald’s Cut.
John Wormald must have retained some interest in his father’s business as he was praised as a benevolent landlord to his tenants in nearby Navigation Road. He was also a Director of The Yorkshire Fire and Life Insurance Company and sat on the Provisional Committee of the Hull, Malton & Northern Union Railway. His principal seat was at Fulford, near York, but in 1829 he purchased Oldstead, presumably because it was ‘suitable for Gentlemen … who were ‘partial to Hunting or Shooting’. The house was described in sale particulars as an ‘elegant little mansion’ and the views were ‘picturesque’ with Byland Abbey a ‘prominent and interesting object.’ Wormald erected a new cottage for his Keeper and as a member of the North Riding Liberal Association, and a vocal supporter of reform, added the inscription: ‘To the Reformed rights of the people in 1832’.
Wormald died at Fulford in March 1848 and his collection of oil paintings, books and coins was sold at auction in June of the same year. The announcement of this sale in the Yorkshire Gazette was only a few column inches away from details of the sale of his Oldstead mansion and estate. The sale included 121 acres of woods and plantations, but there was no mention of the decade-old tower.
When the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey map was published in 1853, the site was marked as ‘Mount Snever Observatory’. Public access seems to have been allowed and in 1871 those who climbed it were promised a view of York Minster and the towns of Ripon, Harrogate and Richmond. At that date the tower was ‘in decay’ and clearly not cherished by the new owner of Oldstead Hall.
Barbara Jones saw the observatory in the early 1970s when researching for the revised edition of Follies and Grottoes. At that date it was abandoned and the base overgrown with wild plants. The more recent history of the observatory is told in a publication produced by Oldstead village to celebrate the millennium. It was restored by Noel Appleby of nearby Ampleforth, who used the building for stargazing and to entertain friends. After his death in 1984 it again deteriorated before being repaired by the Prest family who were custodians in 2000 when the village history was published.
The tower sits on a high platform, forming a terrace. Sadly the building is redundant and its role as a belvedere has been lost; there is no means to ascend, the tower is securely locked and inaccessible, and trees block the views of the rolling landscape beyond. But it is still a charming sight and there’s a lovely walk up from the village of Wass, with the tower appearing through the trees just when you are beginning to think you’ve lost your way.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Graham Fulton, a folly friend and friend of folly.
Born 200 years ago this month, on 8 February 1819, John Ruskin was a polymath; an artist, writer and critic who believed that culture should be available to all, not just the elite. As a new exhibition in London beautifully illustrates, Ruskin had strong opinions on most subjects. As he thought the architecture of Palladio ‘virtueless and despicable’, and the Houses of Parliament ‘effeminate and effortless’, we can probably assume that garden ornaments such as classical temples and gothic towers would not be his ‘thing’.
Postcard, early 20th century, courtesy of a private collection.
A 1770s map of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate marks a building called ‘The Marchioness’s Summer House’. The noble lady in question was Mary Bright, wife of the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, twice Prime Minister of Great Britain. The summer house was situated on high ground in Tankersley Park which was home to a large herd of red deer.
In the 18th century the Shaw family of textile merchants operated out of the magnificent Piece Hall in Halifax (recently restored and very well worth a visit) https://www.thepiecehall.co.uk. By the end of the century a new mill had been established at Holywell Green near Stainland, outside Halifax. It was greatly extended in the second half of the 19th century by Samuel Shaw, who also built a new family home nearby, which he called Brooklands. The house was almost ready for occupation in the autumn of 1868 and the grounds were being laid out at the same date. The landscaping included a pond with fountain and a series of 3 curious towers linked by a wall. The Halifax Courier described the scene in 1877, noting that the three towers gave ‘the impression that a castle of somewhat imposing dimensions’ overshadowed the grounds.
Ralph Allen of Bath, is well-known for his elegant Prior Park house and gardens and for the magnificent gothic sham castle, one of Britain’s finest follies, which he had erected on the skyline above the city in 1762. The sham castle and Prior Park remain popular attractions in Bath, but a quirky tower erected in Allen’s memory is sadly lost.
By the early 18th century Hornby Castle was a seat of the D’arcy family, earls of Holderness. Robert D’arcy, the 4th earl, began to improve the estate from around 1750 with John Carr of York remodelling the castle and associated buildings, including three eye-catcher farmhouses to be viewed from the castle and the network of rides around the estate. Capability Brown was paid for his services in 1768 and although it’s not known exactly what he proposed, as no plan survives, the series of lakes in a very Brownian style were constructed over the next decade.
In 1822 work began in Edinburgh to construct a National Monument to commemorate the men of Scotland who had lost their lives during the long years of war with France. Calton Hill had been purchased for the people by Edinburgh’s Town Council in 1724, making it an early example of a public park in Britain, and the elevated site was chosen for the new monument. After considering various forms the city decided to erect a replica of the Parthenon, giving Edinburgh its very own Acropolis. Charles Robert Cockerell was asked to design the building, with the Scotsman William Henry Playfair as executant architect in Scotland.
On Hogmanay the Folly Flâneuse set off to explore Harold’s Castle on the edge of Thurso. On this festive date a superlative structure was required, and this tower is a visual treat with a great history. It is also the most northerly folly on the British mainland.