architecture, Devon, Folly, garden history, museum, sham church, Summerhouse

Garnsey’s Tower, Blackborough, Devon

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.

Watercolour of the tower by Peter Orlando Hutchinson, 1854. Image courtesy of South West Heritage Trust and East Devon AONB.

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.

Undated early 20th century postcard courtesy of a private collection.

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.

A 1947 photo of the remains of the tower, incorrectly captioned ‘Guernsey Tower’, which led the Flâneuse on a bit of a wild goose chase before she identified the tower and set off in pursuit. Courtesy of a private collection.

As the 20th century progressed the tower continued to crumble and today a stubby and characterless few courses of stone are all that survive.

After much wandering the Flâneuse admitted defeat having failed to find the tower. So thanks to Geograph here are the remains as they were in 2019 ©David Smith CC BY-SA 2.0.

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.

Hutchinson’s watercolour of ‘The Old Chancel of Sidmouth parish church re-erected at Coburg Terrace. 1859’. Image courtesy of South West Heritage Trust and East Devon AONB.

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

Thank you for reading. If you wish to share any thoughts or further information please scroll down to the comments box at the foot of the page. 

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10 thoughts on “Garnsey’s Tower, Blackborough, Devon”

  1. Jane Padfield says:

    Real mysteries are always the most interesting! Possibly the photographer of’ ‘Guernsey’ Tower was confused and linking the name Garnsey with ‘gansey’ the regional (northern) pronunciation of ‘guernsey’, the type of jumper or sweater; ‘gansey’ said in a Devonian accent could sound like ’garnsey’ . Which is not to suggest any actual connection between the surname Garnsey and the Channel Islands!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Jane. All ideas must be considered in the weird and wonderful world of follies and the stories that surround them! Thanks for getting in touch.

  2. Sally Costen says:

    As always, thank you so much. Your wanderings are very enjoyable to say the least. Thank you.

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Sally. I love the research and the rambling and it is very kind of you to show your appreciation.

  3. Bill Mason says:

    I so enjoy your postings, thank you.
    Years ago I was living in England and started researching a book about follies.
    It is going nowhere now, so if you would like, I would happily pass on my research.
    Contact me direct on my email

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Bill. What a tempting offer – I will be in touch.

  4. Mrs Barbara Howard says:

    Isn’t it frustrating when you know there’s something there but you can’t find it?! It’s happened to me before now, on several occasions. But despite that, you tell a fascinating folly tale as usual. Thank you.

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Barbara. You are so right! I had maps, co-ordinates etc and thought I was well-prepared. But no such luck! Happily a rare failure.

  5. Julia B says:

    Great to see pictures of the tower as it used to be! Good research. I found the tower remains by accident while out running one dimpsy day about 20 years ago, and was proper spooked to come across it so unexpectedly!
    Now it’s a favourite destination on foot or cycling but even so, I’m never sure of finding it until it’s in front of me.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Julia. What a shame you didn’t run past as I was wandering round in circles. I had maps and the coordinates on my phone but still couldn’t find it – and there wasn’t a runner to dog-walker to be found in my moment of need.I’m very pleased to hear that you enjoyed learning more about the tower’s history.

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