Cothelstone was an ancient seat of the Stawel family. In the second half of the 18th century it was the property of Mary Stawel (1726-1780), the sole surviving direct descendant. In recognition of her ancient lineage, George III made her a baroness in her own right in 1760, with the title to pass to her sons from her first marriage to Henry Bilson Legge, Earl of Dartmouth. After the death of her first husband in 1764, Mary married Wills Hill, the Earl of Hillsborough (he would be created Marquess of Downshire after her death).
Sometime around 1770 Mary built a prospect tower in the park, which was known as Cothelstone Lodge. A correspondent with the Taunton Courier in 1899 quoted from a press cutting dated ‘around 120 years ago’ in which it was reported that ‘Lady Hillsborough has lately raised a small structure for the prospect’. This panorama was apparently the envy of the neighbourhood, and Lady Hillsborough is said to have declined the munificent proposal by ‘several gentleman of the county’ to knock down her tower and spend £2,000 on ‘something more conspicuous’. The architect of Lady Hillsborough’s unassuming little belvedere is not known, but the local artist and designer Richard Phelps (c.1710-1785), who designed the nearby hilltop towers at Dunster Castle and Willet Hill, seems a likely candidate – the two-stage buttress was certainly a feature he used.
In 1791 the Somerset historian Collinson described the lodge as ‘standing on a high hill justly celebrated for commanding one of the finest prospects in this part of the country’. Collinson reported that a total of 14 counties could be seen from the tower, and if equipped with a telescope it was possible to see 150 churches ‘on a clear day’. The panorama included the Vale of Taunton, Exmoor, the Quantocks and looked out over the Bristol Channel to Wales. It was sketched by Peter Orlando Hutchinson in 1833, at which date he described it as ‘ruinous’: the roof, door and windows were gone.
It was named as ‘Lodge’ on the county map produced by Day and Masters in 1782, and on the earliest Ordnance Survey map of 1802 as ‘Cotheleftone Lodge’. The title of lodge seems to have drifted out of fashion in the 19th century in favour of Cothelstone Tower or Cothelstone Beacon. Throughout the 19th century it was a landmark for the hunt, and a favoured destination for hikers and picnickers who, after exploring the hilltop tower, could enjoy the whortleberry jam and cream teas served at the lodge at the foot of the hill.
In 1913 the poet Edward Thomas saw the ‘blunt tower of a beacon’ on Cothelstone Hill, but he was one of the last to record the tower in situ. Towards the end of the First World War, the ‘people of Quantockland awoke to find their tower had collapsed and the skyline […] had changed overnight’. After the war there were discussions about where to place a Somerset war memorial, with the suggestion that £20,000 be expended on the project. A Captain Benson thought this a somewhat excessive figure and reported that people ‘in the western part of the county’ would prefer to see a little tower erected on the site of Cothelstone Lodge at a cost of £550. This plan never came to fruition, and today only a few stones mark the site.
The tower is a sad loss, but the hillside does have other attractions. As well as the truly astonishing panorama you might be lucky enough to meet some Exmoor ponies.
The manor house at Cothelstone is currently being renovated as a holiday let for large groups. Its setting is idyllic, and can be appreciated when visiting the delightful church of St Thomas of Canterbury.
There is a waymarked trail to the site of the tower from Cothelstone Hill car park https://www.cothelstonehill.org/things-to-do
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