architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, Gloucestershire, Observatory, Tower, Worcestershire

Guy’s Folly, or The Round Tower, Icomb, Gloucestershire

Undated postcard of Icomb Tower, courtesy of a private collection.

The Round Tower, aka Guy’s Folly, stood on high ground to the west of what is now the A424 between Stow on the Wold and Burford. Sadly, this lovely little folly was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a B.B.C. transmission mast. Both Napoleon and Kitchener make an appearance in its rather hazy history…

In the first edition of Follies and Grottoes (1953) Barbara Jones wrote that the tower was built in 1805, although a descendant has stated that the tower was dated 1810. Maps show it was extant by 1815, but it is first named in 1824 when marked on Bryant’s map of Gloucestershire as ‘observatory’ and on Greenwoods’ map as ‘Guys Monument’. A few years later it was named on the 1st Series Ordnance Survey map as ‘Guys Tower’,  but on later maps it is called the ‘Round Tower’. The poor structure must have had a real identity crisis. To add to the confusion the tower also managed to stand in two counties at once…

By some historical quirk a small part of the parish of Icomb, in which the tower stands, was once in Worcestershire, although it was transferred to Gloucestershire in 1844. The tower was built straddling the the two counties, with the border apparently passing through the middle of the fireplace. This led to the peculiar circumstance, reported in the local paper in 1871, that within the tower it was possible to ‘boil your kettle in Gloucestershire and drink your tea in Worcestershire’. This sounds like another bit of folly fancifulness, but the earliest ordnance survey maps do indeed show the county boundary with the tower sitting astride.

The history of the tower is equally confusing, with Jones being informed that it was (a) a lookout tower in case of invasion by Napoleon’s forces (b) a watchtower where Farmer Guy could keep an eye on his workers and (c) the tower used by Kitchener to watch his troops on manoeuvres before the Boer War.

Barbara Jones sketched the tower in preparation for the 2nd edition of Follies and Grottoes which was published in 1974. Her drawing was not used, probably because she knew the tower would be gone by the time the book appeared. She updated the entry on the tower with the line ‘Now scheduled for demolition’. Courtesy of a private collection.

Actually, there may be some truth in all three tales. Local histories suggest that a Mr Guy built the tower to look out for French invaders: that there was a local gentleman farmer of this name is confirmed by a newspaper report of ‘Farmer Guy’ of Icomb exhibiting a magnificent ewe at Smithfield Market in 1822. This was John Guy (1773-1837), ‘rather an eccentric man’, who later settled near High Wycombe. He was buried in Hughendon churchyard, and his gravestone is featured in many a volume on unusual epitaphs:

In coffin made without a nail,
Without a shroud his limbs to hide;
For what can pomp or shew avail,
Or velvet pall to swell the pride;
Here lies John Guy beneath this sod,
Who lov’d his friends and fear’d his God.

He certainly sounds like a folly builder. Visitors later wrote of the ‘magnificent panorama which the spot commanded’, even if Napoloeon’s army never did march in to enliven the view.

As for the idea that Field Marshal His Excellency The Right Honourable The Earl Kitchener climbed the tower… his presence may be hyperbole, but in 1909 the British army did carry out large scale manoeuvres in the area, with one unit stationed near the folly.

By the second half of the century the tower was in use as a dwelling for farm labourers, and there was a detached kitchen and a garden. There was great excitement for the residents in June 1887 when a ‘flight of fireworks’ was launched from the roof, the highest spot in the area, to mark Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. But by 1913 the tower was out of fashion, and a county history dismissed it as ‘a round tower in the sham Gothic taste of the early 19th century’. Its charm was also lessened by an unattractive coating of pebble-dash.

The Round House remained a home until sometime around the Second World War, but thereafter it stood empty. Without tenants the tower began to decline and in 1972 it was described as being ‘very dilapidated’ with a ‘large crack down the middle’. The Planning Committee and Parish Council, no doubt looking forward to an evening watching a less fuzzy episode of The Generation Game, raised no objections when the B.B.C. asked permission to demolish the tower.

© Crown copyright. Historic England Archive, 1540/86
© Crown copyright. Historic England Archive, 1540/84.

Happily, the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments made a photographic record of the tower before it was taken down, and a basic archaeological investigation was carried out to look for evidence of iron age activity. None was found, although the site yielded clay pipes, china and glass from its years as a family home.

The BBC continues to transmit from Icomb Hill. The pylon may not be as beautiful as the tower, but it is useful.

Update September 2022: thanks to Mel Osmond for getting in touch to share this photo, taken when her grandmother lived in the tower.

Thank you for reading. Please scroll down to share any thoughts or comments on this post.





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26 thoughts on “Guy’s Folly, or The Round Tower, Icomb, Gloucestershire”

  1. Gwyn Headley says:

    An excellent history, as always. Not a very significant folly, but for some reason I can’t explain I really regret not seeing it in time.

    1. Editor says:

      I think it’s the human aspect of the figures in the postcard view that makes it so charming. I guess if it had survived it would now be a Grand Designs type house with a glazed link to the little detached kitchen.

  2. Ivan Burrows says:

    We used to have a round house in Barnsley (new Lodge) until some American bought it and took it away stone by stone. I would like to see what he did with it.
    Ivan B

    1. Editor says:

      How interesting. Yes wonder what became of it?

      1. Ivan Burows says:

        I had a look for Barnsley rounhouse but not a lot is available, It was demolished in the 1950’s but was used as an ARP post for air raid wardens during WW2.

        1. Editor says:

          Thanks Ivan, I could only find the doctors’ surgery that replaced it, but will keep a look out for more information.

  3. Gand says:

    2 counties tower. Shame about it’s demise. It would have made an excellent mobile phone communication mast in today’s world.

    1. Jacqui says:

      The football ground in Chester lies in two COUNTRIES! This caused logistical problems last summer when socially distanced outdoor film screenings were held there and the toilet facilities were found to be in Wales and therefore in lockdown!, solved by portoloos.

      1. Editor says:

        Hello Jacqui. Great fact. I have often argued that football is folly, but my uncouth companion disagrees!

    2. Editor says:

      Yes, all about costs sadly

      1. Judith Rossiter says:

        Another lovely post from FF . Looking at the sketch and pre-demolition photos one cannot be surprise that it didn’t make the grade for restoration but the PC certainly does illustrate it’s charms , perhaps as you say for the human interest ? It seems to me, from reading your posts , that had this folly been built a hundred years earlier it’s chances of survival would have been better? Would it’s construction have been sturdier , would the design have been more to our modern taste or would just being older have made it more worthy of restoration ?
        You have shown us so many overgrown tumbling wrecks still waiting patiently to be resurrected ……perhaps more hidden away on sites not required for transmission masts ?

        1. Editor says:

          Lovely to hear from you Judy. It’s always sad to write about lost buildings, but at least this was one is well recorded pictorially. I’m still looking for a forlorn folly to restore as my retirement home. Hope I find it before O2 or vodafone!

  4. Alan Terrill says:

    It looks to have been very similar in shape to Trevor Tower near Llangollen. That one still stands but is unloved and surrounded by farm squalor.

    1. Editor says:

      I have never seen Trevor Tower so that’s another one on the list for when we can once more explore. The list is getting rather long! Thanks for the comment Alan.

  5. Julia Dobson (nee Guy) says:

    Thank you for this interesting article and photos.

    John Guy was my 4 x Gt Grandfather. Each night he and his wife would walk from their farmhouse to the tower and slept in the same bed but in two different counties. In 1815 he took three Leicester weathers to Smithfield by stage coach which took three days and won a silver cup and 20 guineas for being the owner and a gold medal and 5 guineas for being the breeder.

    He was an eccentric and apart from having his headstone made before he died he also had his coffin made from a tree from his farm which was made and then kept under the bed in planks but by the time he died he had grown too fat for it and another section had to be added in. It was described as ‘a piece of tasteful cabinet-work intended for a drawing room, than a receptacle for the dead.’ He didn’t want to be taken to his funeral in a hearse and arranged to be carried and bought hatbands and gloves for the pallbearers and gave each five shillings. He had arranged for first carriers to stop halfway for refreshment of beer at a public house where another set of carriers were waiting to take him to Hughenden Church.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Julia. Thanks for sharing this fascinating family history. I’m sad the tower and its associations are lost.

  6. Colin Hicks says:

    A very useful piece of research, thank you. My grandfather Alfred Hicks, born in Icomb, was a member of one of the farm labourer families housed in the Round House as confirmed by the 1891 census when he was 7. He kept a postcard of the building in his papers which I now have, and whose description confirms the link with farmer Guy.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Colin and thanks for getting in touch. I’m pleased you found my post useful and it’s great that you have the family papers safe in your care.

    2. julia dobson says:

      Thanks for that. It’s nice to know a bit about the one of the families that lived in it. Was it a large family?

    3. Paul Burgess says:

      Thanks for a fascinating item in a fascinating series.
      Just to say that the figures in the postcard are almost certainly Francis “Frank” Taylor who lived there from at least 1905 to his death in 1941 and his son Patrick J.
      He was the son of Charles “Minnie” Taylor who was a famous Morris dancer and from whom the dances from the nearby village of Oddington, Gloucestershire, were collected. Charles Taylor lived with Frank and his family towards the end of his life.
      Not a relative, but researching traditions. I’d love to hear from any of his relatives though!

  7. Paul Burgess says:

    Sorry – slip of the key. Franks son was called George vice Patrick.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Paul. Thanks for getting in touch. I’m always delighted to hear from anyone who can add extra information to the story of a folly, and your comments are fascinating. Thanks again.

  8. Mel Osmond says:

    I think this is the home that my grandmother grew up in. I would post a picture as have had one on my wall for many years but there is no facility here. I have only just realised that this post is here and always wondered what the towers history was.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Mel. It’s great to hear from someone with a personal connection to the tower. You can email your photo to me (use the contact link on the website) and if you are happy for me to share I can add it to the post with a credit to you.

      1. Mel Osmond says:

        Yes. will do that now! I would be happy to share

        1. Editor says:

          Thanks for sending the photo, Mel. I’ve added it to the post.

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