‘Follies Can Be Fun’. So read the headline of an article in the Times in October 1959. But apparently not all follies: the anonymous author* dismissed sham ruins, grottoes and shell rooms, and expressed a preference for towers and columns. The Folly Flâneuse, who wholeheartedly agrees with the headline, thought it might be ‘fun’ to revisit some of the follies featured in the piece, to see how they had fared more than 60 years later.
The sub-heading ‘Hurt by a Mosquito’ was initially perplexing, until it was revealed that the Mosquito in question was an aircraft, and the hurt was inflicted on King Alfred’s Tower. The tall tower stands on the Stourhead estate (most of which is in Wiltshire, but the folly is just over the border into Somerset) and was built between 1762 and 1772 by Henry Hoare. A plane hit the tower in 1944, sadly with the loss of lives, although historians now dispute that the aircraft was a Mosquito. When the article was published the tower was closed to the public, but it is now restored to excellent condition and the tower can be climbed on open days.
Moving into Devon, the next folly to be discussed was Bishop Copleston’s Tower in Offwell, which is said to have been built in the mid 19th century to alleviate employment and to give the bishop a view across the Bristol Channel to his Welsh diocese. If the latter, the author noted drily, ‘there was a serious misjudgment about the height of the intervening hills’. He also left the reader to decide if the tower was best described as of ‘Italianate’ or ‘Victorian factory’ character (and one senses that neither was intended to be complimentary), although as the article was not illustrated it’s not clear how one would reach a conclusion. Ever happy to oblige, the Folly Flâneuse dropped by to take a photograph:
Clearly familiar with the follies of the South West, the author then succinctly described the prospect towers at Horton in Dorset (‘lonely in a field’), the Haldon Belvedere in Devon (‘high and eminent’), Beckford’s Tower in Bath (a ‘fantasy’), and poor old Cranmore Tower in Somerset (‘better to have been left as a distant tantalizing mystery than inspected’).
A move east into Hampshire brought the author to Luttrell’s Tower at Eaglehurst: ‘a fascinating example of an elegant habitable tower’. Built by Temple Simon Luttrell in the late 18th century, the tower remains both elegant and habitable thanks to the Landmark Trust, the charity which restored the folly as a holiday home.
Favoured columns were also largely in the South West of England, and particular mention was made of that at Burton Pynsent in Somerset. In 1959 the column was ‘permanently closed’ after a curious cow attempted the ascent and got stuck. It has since been restored, and there are occasional special openings when the column can be climbed.
Bringing the history of folly towers up to date, the writer visited the tower built by Lord Berners at Faringdon, then in Berkshire but now in Oxfordshire. Lord Berners’s folly was then only a little more than 20 years old, but, alas, it was found to be ‘locked against all comers’. Happily, the door is now regularly opened to visitors.
The article ends with the author pondering why owners of great estates were no longer building follies. Surely, he thought, a contemporary folly might ‘be erected as a popular attraction’. And in case any impoverished stately home owners are reading, and tutting to themselves about the potential costs, fear not, our writer has that covered: ‘And why not get the public to build it, by paying sixpence a brick for the privilege’.
So, more than 60 years later, the good news is that all of the buildings featured survive. Although only four were listed buildings when the article was written (including Luttrell’s Tower which was listed the day before the article appeared in print), each tower and column mentioned here is today protected by listed building status. And the article’s author, who bemoaned the lack of access to many of the follies, would be delighted to know that the vast majority are now open to visitors: the tower at Offwell is part of a private house, but is visible from the road, and all of the other follies can be visited or viewed at close range from a public footpath.
*Based on the close similarity to a Country Life article on ‘Tower Follies of the South’, published in June 1960, the Folly Flâneuse suspects the author was J.D.U. Ward, a writer, photographer and forestry expert.
14 thoughts on “Follies Can Be Fun”
John D. says:
A very interesting post FF, and good detective work to identify the probable author. He (she?) had an odd perspective though; although the towers are impressive and often quite odd, they do seem much less ‘fun’ than grottos, shell rooms and sham ruins.
Thank you John, it was jolly good ‘fun’ researching this piece. And I agree, how strange to be immune to the charms of grottoes, shell houses and especially sham ruins.
Your posts are always such a joy to read. I visited several of the follies you have mentioned in this edition, so thanks to you my weekend starts with happy holiday memories! Reading about the taste and opinions of the 1959 author, made me smile. It also reminds me of a piece written around the same time, about some follies here in the Netherlands. That piece called them a disgrace and a “ungodly” waste of good building materials. He called for immediate demolition. Thankfully nobody listened to him!
Hello Ralph and thanks for taking the time to comment. Thanks also for sharing the story of the follies in the Netherlands – I’m pleased they survived. I’m just reading a book set in 1950 that calls follies ‘absurd erections’ and I will be writing more about that in due course.
John Holland says:
Hi FF – I always enjoy reading your articles, a Saturday morning treat, and this week’s (‘Follies can be Fun’) is especially interesting – thought-provoking and fun! More please.
Good morning John and thanks for the kind comments. I really enjoyed revisiting all the sites the author of the article had visited. Follies definitely are fun!
Susan Kellerman says:
Re the comments about follies being a waste of building materials: in the late 1940s and early 1950s there was still a shortage of building materials (I believe) as a result of the war, and this might have influenced attitudes to ‘absurd erections’. Not sufficient reason to dismiss the pleasure given by such structures, and certainly not a reason to encourage demolition.
Hello Susan. You make a very interesting point which hadn’t occurred to me. Thank you for taking the time to comment.
Charles Cowling says:
Jolly good piece, as ever, FF. Towering follies, all. I especially enjoyed the term ‘Victorian factory’ to describe Bishop C’s eclectic architectural taste. ‘Campanile-ish’ might have served as well. In Leeds the old workhouse chapel was described as ‘Byzantian’, which offers an equally serviceable umbrella.
Hello Charles and thank you for taking the time to get in touch. Very difficult to categorise the Bishop’s tower, but I agree with you that “Victorian factory’ suits it rather well. It made me think of the ‘campanile’ chimneys in Holbeck, Leeds.
Jim Godfrey says:
re Mosquito it should not have been to hard to identify in that its main structure was wood, by that time quite unusual. It was known as the wooden wonder. It was also a small plane with two engines, also unusual. Thanks for all the genuine entertainment so sorely needed these days.
Hello Jim. Thanks for this fascinating detail, it’s not a subject I know anything about. Thanks also for the kind words.
Gwyn Headley says:
Pilot Officer Nerd reporting:
“On 10th July 1944 a Noorduyn Norseman UC-64a 43-5344 assigned to 320th Air Transport Squadron, 27th Air Transport Group, USAAF, was tasked to transport a Lockheed Hudson V wheel and tyre required to repair an aircraft of this type at Prestwick. On approaching the the Somerset/Wiltshire border in thick fog, the pilot requested permission to land at Zeals. Flying Control refused permission because of the bad weather conditions [thereby condemning the crew to death – Ed] and shortly after the aircraft struck the pinnacle of Alfred’s Tower positioned on the hill just north of the airfield. It crashed on Hillcombe Farm, South Brewham killing the pilot 1st Lt Wilfred Malone, Master Sgt Lloyd F Cheek and Cpl Henry Mazzie. The two NCOs were to instal the replacement wheel on arrival at Prestwick.”
Info from Wings Over Wiltshire.
Good afternoon Pilot Officer Nerd. Thank you for the update. I had skimmed over the identity of the plane, as unqualified to comment. So I am very grateful to you and Flying Officer Godfrey for your help. Over and out!