The little village of Bawdrip in Somerset was once home to a rugged and romantic ruin. Standing on Knowle Hill, it was built by Benjamin Cuff Greenhill of Knowle Hall as an eye-catcher and observatory, and to add a ‘Gallic touch to the Somerset countryside’. Sadly it is long gone, but it is remembered in local legends and picture postcards.
In 1829 Greenhill (c.1805-1881) married Henrietta Lavinia MacDonald, a granddaughter of the Flora MacDonald who helped ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ escape. The couple had Knowle Hall constructed as their family home, but the marriage broke down and as a divorce case and custody battle ensued Henrietta, showing some of the pluck of her grandmother, fled to France with her children (this has absolutely nothing to do with the tower, but was too fascinating to leave out).
So to resume the history of the folly… Greenhill married for the second time in 1854. His new wife was Pelagie, a Frenchwoman described as the daughter of the Count de Breuilly, and they settled at Knowle Hall as their family grew. Knowle Hall had fine grounds and Greenhill embellished them further with the completion of a sham castle on Knowle Hill, close to the house. This was described as a ‘watch-tower of large dimensions, having at the top a turret from whence can be obtained one of the most magnificent landscape views’. The panorama included the Welsh coast and the islands in the Bristol Channel, as well as the Mendip and Quantock ranges of hills. Building had taken three years under the supervision of the local contractor Mr John Varman, but by summer 1867 work was almost complete, and cannon were placed around the folly as the finishing touch. These were presumably the guns fired in September 1867 to mark the coming of age of Greenhill’s son.
After Greenhill’s death his widow moved to the south coast and the estate was offered to let. The 1883 particulars described the ‘tower and observatory with castellated building, from which magnificent views are obtained on all sides’. But by the next century the ‘romantic and baronial castle’ had acquired a much more fanciful history.
As the story is told, Greenhill built the tower to help cure his wife’s homesickness by reminding her of her childhood home (a rather delayed reaction as they had by then been married for a decade). In 1950 the local paper made the wild and seemingly unsubstantiated claim that it ‘was probably identical to the tower at the chateau’. The Folly Flâneuse tried to track down Pelagie’s childhood home to test this theory, but without much luck. It is not even clear exactly who her father was – her memorial in Puriton church calls her the daughter of the ‘Count de Breuille’, but her marriage certificate names him as ‘Paul Dubruille gent’.
The writer, and soon to be acclaimed poet, Edward Thomas saw the ‘tower and many ruinous arches’ in 1913, and quickly recognised it as a ‘sham’, rather than an ancient relic. But viewing the folly at twilight he was still able to ‘dally a little with the kind of feeling which the real thing would have produced’ – exactly the response the builder would have hoped for when he erected his romantic ‘ruin’.
The slightly battered postcard above dates from early in the 20th century, but wasn’t actually posted until 1972, when the sender noted it was ‘a very old card’. Sadly, at that date the tower itself no longer existed. By the middle of the 20th century the tower was no longer in vogue, and the sham ruin had become genuinely distressed, so much so in fact that it was ‘considered dangerous to cattle’. For this reason it was demolished in the summer of 1950 – a sad loss.
Most of the images on this post come from private collections of vintage postcards, which are particularly useful when researching lost buildings. One collection, unsurprisingly, is that of the Folly Flâneuse herself, but many of the old postcards featured in these pages each week are generously shared by another collector. The Folly Flâneuse would like to record her immense gratitude.
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