‘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.