On a prominent hill above the town of Faringdon in Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire) the ornate top of a tower peeps out above the trees. Faringdon Tower, often known as Lord Berner’s Folly, was built in 1935, but its site had been known as Faringdon Folly for generations.
Although the word folly is best recognised as meaning a foolish act, or in these pages as a quirky piece of architecture, it can also mean a leafy hilltop. Such is the case in Faringdon where the clump of trees atop Faringdon Hill has been known as The Folly for centuries. The hill, once home to a fortification marked on the 1898 Ordnance Survey map as ‘Cromwell’s Battery’, was part of the Faringdon estate, home in 1787 to then then poet laureate Henry James Pye (1745-1813). In that year Pye published his Poems on Various Subjects, in which the hill which is described as ‘a noted landmark’ and celebrated in a long (and rather dreary, so you have been spared) poem.
In 1918 the Faringdon estate was inherited by Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners (1883-1950), and in 1934 he decided that the arboreal folly should be home to one of the bricks and mortar variety. Some locals were in favour of this ‘admirable endeavour’, believing an Englishman’s home was his castle, and that Berners should be free to build whatever he chose on his land. Others were less than keen, and the town was said to be ‘hot and bothered’ about the plan. A Miss Lobb was convinced that Berners was going to install a siren and a searchlight on the top of the tower, and was concerned this was would disturb the sick and the infirm. This was never part of Lord Berners’s plan for the tower, but his friend Nancy Mitford’s satirised the idea in The Pursuit of Love, in which Lord Merlin is a thinly disguised Berners:
‘A marble folly on a nearby hill was topped with a gold angel which blew a trumpet every evening at the hour of Lord Merlin’s birth […] The folly glittered by day with semi-precious stones, by night a powerful blue beam was trained upon it’.
In a sop to his opponents Berners modified the design so that the tower was only 5 feet above the trees, but Faringdon Rural District Council, acting on the advice of the North Berks Regional Planning Committee, still vetoed the plans, citing their powers under the Town & Country Planning Act. Berners appealed, and an investigation was launched by the Ministry of Health (this government department being, as John Betjeman pointed out, ‘for some mysterious reason the arbiter of public taste in such matters’).
Eventually, in October 1934, the local paper could announce that Lord Berners was ‘to have his way’ after the Ministry granted the appeal (having been given a good lunch at Faringdon House). Work was scheduled to begin in spring 1935, using estate labour augmented by local men, and giving around 6 months of employment. The architect was Berners’ friend Lord Gerald Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington.
Edward Thurlow Leeds, the Keeper of Oxford’s prestigious Ashmolean Museum was asked to examine the site after human skeletons were discovered as the foundations were laid. In May 1935 he summarised his findings for the local paper: ‘a Castle existed on the Faringdon Folly some eight hundred years ago, and […] the skeletons found there are probably those of men killed during King Stephen’s successful attack on it’. The paper was pleased to report that ‘however varied may be the views on the tower […] there is undivided interest in the conclusions which have been reached by the prominent archaeologist’.
Berners was in Europe as the tower went up, and the story goes that he arrived home to find the austere classical shaft not to his taste. He immediately gave orders that the octagonal uppermost storey be flamboyantly gothic in style.
On Guy Fawke’s Night 1935 Berners threw a ‘Tower Warming Party’, with a host of glamorous guests. The evening also marked the birthday of his companion, Robert ‘Mad Boy’ Heber-Percy (1911-1987), and Berners gifted him the tower. Heber-Percy later recalled he had been hoping for a horse.
The opening ceremony concluded with fireworks which were appreciated by the whole town, and local children wrote excitedly of the display to ‘Uncle Ted’, who edited the childrens’ page of the North Wilts Herald. The more athletic local children might have made it to the top of the new tower at the carnival in Faringdon Park in August 1936: ‘Energetic entrants’ had to race from Faringdon House to the room at the top of the tower and back, with the winner apparently covering the distance in under 12 minutes. The journalist covering the fete was impressed – it apparently took him ten minutes just to climb up the tower.
The tower had already found fame as a result of the press coverage of the ups and downs of the planning process, but it became more widely known after it appeared on Britain’s roads. In 1936 the year-old tower joined the list of more venerable follies which appeared in the Shell petrol advertising campaign ‘To Visit Britain’s Landmarks’. 27 artists were asked to create a work featuring a folly, and these paintings were reproduced as posters which were pasted onto the lorries delivering oil and petrol. Berners painted his new tower, which by 1937 was already known as ‘Faringdon’s Famous Folly’.
Much has been written of the eccentricities of Berners – he dyed the feathers of doves in rainbow hues making his lawn ‘exotically gay’, and entertained Penelope Betjeman and her horse to afternoon tea, etc., etc.. But when not occupied with these larks, he was a talented artist and an accomplished composer and writer. His epitaph recognised his many talents, and a life well-lived, concluding ‘But, praise the Lord, he seldom was bored’.
The market town of Faringdon is very proud of its local eccentric, and tributes include coloured doves perched on a windowsill, and this wonderful stone bench which remembers Salvador Dali’s visit to Faringdon House. On that occasion the artist walked through the town wearing the diving suit which had been hired ready for his appearance at an exhibition of Surrealist art. The full text on the bench is a quote from Berners: ‘Mistrust a man who never has an occasional flash of silliness’.
The press coverage of the controversial tower might have inspired a story by the prolific writer of ‘rattling good stories of school life’, R.A.H. Goodyear. It is surely not coincidence that a novel featuring a dispute over a folly tower was published in 1936, just after Faringdon Tower hit the headlines?
The School’s Airmen is set in a Yorkshire public school, and tells how the boys attempt to thwart the village shopkeeper’s plan to erect a ‘monstrous edifice’ on a nearby hill. Every time Mr Puncheon has stone carted up to the site, the boys hire a lorry and tip the stone into a stream, or steal the workmen’s tools and hack away the foundations, whilst the masters turn a blind eye. The builders (‘bone idle slackers’) try to defend Puncheon, just as Lord Berners’s supporters had done, saying ‘who is to stop a man building anything he likes on his own land!’. Despite the efforts of the schoolboys, the tower, quickly dubbed Old Punch’s Folly, ‘rose steadily skywards’.
The dramatic denouement sees puny young Aimard, one of the few boys who finds favour with the shopkeeper, fall from the scaffolding around the tower. A schoolboy airman is despatched to Ireland in one of the school’s planes (in poor visibility for added drama) to pick up the badly-injured boy’s parents. In true movie fashion the anxious schoolboys assemble in the quad to await his return, until at last the plane emerges from the gloom to make a textbook landing. Aimard makes a slow but sure recovery and Puncheon declares the tower will be taken down, and instead spends the money on two prizes to be awarded annually by the school.
Perhaps if Old Punch’s Folly had been completed (and had not been fictional) it would eventually have become, like Faringdon Tower, a popular local landmark. Robert Heber-Percy later recalled that the locals had completely forgotten that they ever disliked it.
Whilst the flâneurs of 19th century Paris might have been content to stroll the boulevards, with an occasional exertion to reach the height of Montmartre, this Flâneuse suffers for her art, forever ascending eminences in search of follies.
And if the hill is topped with a lofty tower then there is more work to be done. But there are rewards…
Heber-Percy, gave the tower to the Faringdon Folly Tower Trust, ‘to ensure that the public have use of, and enjoyment of, the tower and its surroundings’. It was listed at grade II in 1986, when just over half a century old. It is now open regularly, and you can learn more here https://www.faringdonfolly.org.uk
UPDATE October 2022. Researching the folly tower at Woodhouse Grove School in Yorkshire the Folly Flâneuse discovered that Goodyear was a pupil, and would also have been influence by the late 18th century tower in the school grounds. Read more https://thefollyflaneuse.com/elams-tower-woodhouse-grove-apperley-bridge-west-yorkshire/
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