In the furthest reaches of Northumberland, close to the Scottish border, stands the romantic ruin of an ancient family seat. This is not a particularly unusual sight in this region of skirmishes and sackings, so why has this particular building become known as a folly? It is of course an elegant eye-catcher, seen over the single span of the ancient bridge over the river Till, but there is more to the story, and as Barbara Jones wrote, Twizel Castle falls into the ‘foolishness-type folly’ category – a picturesque but purposeless palace.
North Seaton Hall stood in the hamlet of the same name, just inland from Newbiggin by the Sea on the Northumberland coast. The house and ancillary buildings were demolished in the 1960s, and the land developed for housing: only the road called ‘Summerhouse Lane’ gives a clue to a fascinating feature which once ornamented the grounds.
Alexander Davison (1750-1829) of Swarland Park, near Felton in Northumberland, erected this obelisk to Nelson in 1807. A closer look at the inscription reveals that he was not only celebrating the admiral’s victory at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, but more particularly their personal friendship. Davison had made a fortune supplying the government during the wars with America and France, but he was later charged with ‘public peculation’ – in other words the court believed he had his hand in the till.
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.
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.
Starlight Castle is a folly on the grand Seaton Delaval estate close to the Northumberland coast. Today only a small section of wall survives, and historic photographs and postcards show it already in ruins a century ago. It was probably built by Sir Francis Delaval (1727-1771) in the middle of the 18th century. The story goes that Delaval wagered he could build a castle overnight, and this was the result.
The Revd Dr Thomas Sharp (1693-1758) was a son of Dr. John Sharp, Archbishop of York. He followed his father into an ecclesiastical career and became Archdeacon of Northumberland, Prebendary of Durham and Rector of Rothbury. During his incumbency in Rothbury he built this tower as an observatory, and to create employment for the local population.
One of the few upsides to the current situation is that there is time to rootle around in the attic and find all sorts of forgotten files full of treasure. Opening one box revealed this invitation to the private view of The Sitooteries, 20 years ago this month. What’s a sitooterie you may ask? Well it’s as simple as it sounds – a building to sit out in (the term is supposed to originate in Scotland, so try saying it in your best Caledonian accent).
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’.
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.