The Fox Tower, just outside Brough in the tiny settlement of Helbeck, is one of those follies built to be both eye-catcher and belvedere. It is a prominent landmark from the long-established road between Scotch Corner and Penrith, now the A66. From the tower there are dramatic views across the Pennines and the Eden Valley.
The Fox Tower is not shown on Jeffrey’s map of 1770 or mentioned by Hutchinson in his 1773 An Excursion to the Lakes when he dismissed the area as ‘wild and forlorn’. John Metcalfe rebuilt the house at Helbeck (aka Hillbeck) in 1775-77, to a design attributed to the local architect Henry Bellas (or Bellhouse) of Appleby. The Fox Tower was probably built at around the same time and the designer is not known. Perhaps it too was the work of Bellas, but it does not echo the gothic features of the lovely mansion.
The first mention of the tower in print appeared in guidebooks in the first decade of the 19th century, by which time Metcalfe had taken the name of Carleton by Royal licence. Carleton had improved the Helbeck estate, and in the age of the picturesque the extensive prospect from his ‘beautiful seat’ was admired. The tower was described as ‘a romantic circular building on a rock, which projects from other rocks, in a hanging wood’. The building was said to take its name from the number of foxes that made their home in the vicinity.
Inside the tower were two rooms; the lower was fitted out as a kitchen and the upper room, with windows looking to ‘the four points of the compass’, was used for picnics and parties. The roof of the upper room was flat and served as a viewing platform. On the terrace that surrounded the tower Carleton installed seven cannons which he fired off ‘on birth and rejoicing days’. The cannons are long gone but The Folly Flâneuse was sure she could hear their ghostly echoes. Sadly not: it was the heavy artillery on exercises on the adjacent, and vast, Warcop military training area.
Metcalfe also developed a ‘delightfully situated’ cotton mill near Helbeck which opened in 1787. He took great satisfaction in knowing that the enterprise employed ‘almost all the poor people in and about the place’. But the business was not a success and Carleton, something of a colourful character, had left Helbeck by 1802 when the estate was offered for auction.
Fox Tower caught the attention of J.M.W. Turner on a sketching tour in 1831 and his rough drawings, possibly executed in transit, are in the Tate collection https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-fox-tower-near-brough-cumbria-d25589
Each spring the current owners of the Helbeck estate open up a delightful circular walk featuring the grade II listed tower, and primroses and bluebells provide cheer on the steep climb. The Folly Flâneuse scrambled up on the last day of the 2019 season, but watch out for dates in 2020. UPDATE February 2022: the Brough parish newsletter for February 2022 has a note to say that a permissive footpath to the Fox Tower is now open.
Big thanks to Fiona Green for piquing my interest in the Fox Tower.