Near the hamlet of Blackborough in Devon’s Blackdown Hills, remnants of the local Whetstone mining industry can be found in the woodland. A battered pile of stones could be assumed to be another relic, but the more curious visitor will be intrigued to discover that it is marked on old maps as ‘Garnsey’s Tower’.
The Garnsey family had lived in the Uffculme area for centuries, and had a seat in the hamlet of Bodmiscombe. Exactly which member of the family built the tower is difficult to discover, and the ‘why’ and ‘when’ remain an only partially solved mystery. A 1938 newspaper report named the builder as John Garnsey, but there were at least three generations of John Garnseys in Uffculme throughout the 18th and well into the 19th century.
What is known for certain is that it was already in decay in 1854, when the polymath Peter Orlando Hutchinson (1810-1897) described it in his diary. On a walk from Uffculme he first visited the whetstone mines: here men dug deep into the hillside to extract the stone called Devonshire Batt, which was then shaped and smoothed and sold as whetstones for sharpening knives. Hutchinson then went on to ‘Garnsey’s Tower’, but his diary account makes it clear that he didn’t know the history of the building.
Hutchinson meticulously measured the diameter of tower, which was twelve feet, and wrote that it was three storeys in height. He was unable to climb it as the floors were ‘ruined and fallen down’. The windows had been blocked to strengthen the structure, but Hutchinson described it as ‘so tottering that it threatens to fall’. Happily, Hutchinson sketched it on the spot, and his watercolour is annotated with some extra information: the tower had fireplaces, suggesting that the Garnseys used the tower as a belvedere and place for refreshments.
Although Hutchinson could not climb the ruinous tower, he did describe the view from a nearby hill, and from that we can conclude that the panorama from the top of the tower would have included views of Dartmoor and the Quantocks, and stretched as far as the sea.
As the 20th century progressed the tower continued to crumble and today a stubby and characterless few courses of stone are all that survive.
Soon after Hutchinson sketched Garnsey’s Tower, he erected an ornament of his own in his Sidmouth garden in Devon. Appalled that sections of the parish church were to be pulled down, he purchased the stone and in 1859 re-erected it in his grounds of his house in Coburg Terrace. The ‘old chancel of Sidmouth church in miniature’ was originally home to Hutchinson’s museum and library, but he later incorporated it into a house, which still stands today. His ‘summerhouse in the tree’, recorded in his diaries, is sadly long gone.
Peter Orlando Hutchinson’s diaries and sketchbooks, which are in Devon Record Office (South West Heritage Trust), have been digitised (an admirable project) and are are hosted on the East Devon AONB website https://www.eastdevonaonb.org.uk/ourwork/projects/peter-orlando-hutchinson
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