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.
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.
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.
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