‘The desire for knowledge and the love of mystery are two of the most powerful human impulses and Stonehenge satisfies both at once. That is why it has never lost its hold over our imagination or our curiosity’.
So wrote Rosemary Hill in her erudite and entertaining history of Britain’s most enigmatic ancient monument. If people were enthralled with this famous site in Wiltshire, how did they react when they found just such a monument in a quiet corner of Yorkshire?
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 only as ‘Mount Snever’ with no clue as to what might be found there. 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.
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.
Thomas Lister (1752-1826) of Gisburne Park, in the West Riding of Yorkshire (but now Lancashire), inherited the Malham shooting lodge from his father in 1761. The centrepiece of its surrounding estate was Malham Tarn, a natural lake said to be the largest in Yorkshire. The water had been criticised by travellers in search of the picturesque: ‘The Tarn has nothing beautiful in its shape or borders, being bare of trees, and everything else to ornament it’, wrote William Bray in a work published in 1783. Although surrounded by crags the rocks were deemed too distant from the waters edge, and the tarn tame, especially in comparison with the sublime limestone masses of Malham Cove and Gordale scar, just a short ride away, which tourists saw on the same day.
Clarkson’s History of Richmond, revised in 1821, recounts that Cuthbert Readshaw created a ‘highly romantic walk’ by the Swale in 1760. Cuthbert Readshaw, who died in 1773 was a merchant who lived in the Bailey (ie the market place) in Richmond, and according to his will he was in ‘the business of wine and spirits and other branches of trade’.
To access the walk 18th century visitors would have travelled downhill from the town centre and crossed the river via the Green Bridge. Promenading along the south bank of the River Swale they would have encountered the picturesque scene of leafy Billy Bank Wood (aka Bordel Bank) and occasional artful outbreaks of the craggy rock face behind. Tucked in the woods was the cleft or cave known as Arthur’s Oven, conjuring romantic images of ancient and wilder times.
The Cascade or fall of Water at Coghill-Hall near Knaresborough Yorkshire. Image courtesy of Cumbria Archive Centre, Carlisle (detail) D/SEN ACC4053/41.
Coghill Hall has changed hands, appearances, and names over the centuries. Known today as Conyngham Hall, it is situated on the edge of the town of Knaresborough and the house originally enjoyed views to the ancient castle and church, as well as of the wooded banks of the river Nidd. Knaresborough’s historian, Eli Hargrove, described the situation in 1789:
‘The lawn falls gently towards the river, on the bank of which a fine gravel walk winds through a thick grove to a retired and pleasing spot called the hermitage, where a rustic cell built of stones and moss is placed near a natural cascade, which the river forms by falling over a ridge of rocks.’
The Folly Flâneuse can’t take the credit for this wonderful photograph but she can encourage you to get to Studley Royal before 4 November to see Folly!18, a collection of new follies dotted around the estate and complementing the Aislabie family’s 18th century towers, tunnels and grots. This is Polly by architect Charles Holland, a tongue-in-beak tribute to the Georgian mania for housing exotic birds within a landscape garden
Dated 1792 the temple in the park of Swinithwaite Hall was built as a banqueting house and belvedere to enjoy ‘the most strikingly beautiful and picturesque scenery of the valley and the whole range of its western mountains’. The valley in question is that of the river Ure, and the most dramatic feature of the vista was the ‘grand and majestic falls […] over the rocks of Aysgarth’, a view that is still partially intact today. The temple was a short ride away from the hall and set within its own miniature pleasure ground with ‘ornamental timber and shrubberies.’ A panel above the door shows a talbot, a breed of dog associated with hunting, suggesting that the temple may also have been used as a grandstand for watching the chase in the valley below.
The National Trust has applied for Listed Building Consent to place two replica busts in the Temple of Piety at Studley Royal.
Construction of the temple overlooking the Moon Ponds took place in the 1730s, probably under the direction of the stonemason John Doe. The architect is not known although the building is identical to a Palladio drawing of the (long since destroyed) Temple of Piety in Rome. This sketch was once owned by Lord Burlington, a friend of John Aislabie who owned Studley.
Barbara Jones, the first person to write a comprehensive account of follies in Britain, saw this building and was underwhelmed. In the 1953 first edition of Follies & Grottoes she described it as ‘gutted’ and full of pigeon’s nests, and concluded that ‘no amount of bird life can divest this folly of its ordinariness’. If only she had seen it in its prime; a sketch by the itinerant artist and drawing master J.C. Nattes dated 1807 shows an enchanting little building.