Folly, North Yorkshire, Tower

Octagon Tower, Malham, North Yorkshire: Spot the folly.

Thomas Lister (1752-1826) of Gisburne Park, in the West Riding of Yorkshire (but now Lancashire), inherited the Malham shooting lodge from his father in 1761. The centrepiece of its surrounding estate was Malham Tarn, a natural lake said to be the largest in Yorkshire. The water had been criticised by travellers in search of the picturesque: ‘The Tarn has nothing beautiful in its shape or borders, being bare of trees, and everything else to ornament it’, wrote William Bray in a work published in 1783. Although surrounded by crags the rocks were deemed too distant from the waters edge, and the tarn tame, especially in comparison with the sublime limestone masses of Malham Cove and Gordale scar, just a short ride away, which tourists saw on the same day. 

It was perhaps to counter this criticism that Lister created new plantations and, in 1789, sketched a design for an octagonal tower on ‘Hawke Scar’ overlooking Malham Tarn. The tower does not appear to have been built and Hawke Scar is not marked on any maps, so one is left to guess where the folly was intended to stand. It’s a bit like the ‘Spot the Ball’ competitions that used to feature in regional newspapers in the ’60s and ’70s where the ball was excised from a photo of a local game, and readers had to mark where they thought it should be with a cross. Helping their father puzzle it out was a big treat for the Folly Flâneuse and her little sister, so armed with this extensive experience the Folly Flâneuse is gambling on a spot on the scar down the eastern side of the tarn which would have been visible from the house.*

Lister (created 1st Baron Ribblesdale in 1797) was known as an accomplished amateur architect and the ‘handsome and substantial Stone Edifice’ that he rebuilt overlooking the tarn was acknowledged as the work of ‘its hospitable Possessor’. As well as the house Lister also built two stone boat houses, presumably also to his own design. That at the southern end of the lake had the ‘luxurious appendage’ of a ‘neat Banqueting-room’. These boat houses don’t survive but a later, and very pretty, gothic boathouse can be seen on the north shore. Lister is also credited with the design of buildings on his Gisburne estate, which will feature in a forthcoming post.

YAS/MD335/1/4/7/7 (detail). Reproduced with the permission of the Special Collections, Leeds University Library and the Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society.

The view from the lodge is lovely but Folly Flâneuse chose the wrong day for her first recce..

Malham Tarn, mist descending.


The Malham Tarn estate was given to the National Trust in 1946. The house is now a field centre run by the Field Studies Council and the tarn and surrounding lands are managed as a nature reserve. There is a public footpath around the east shore of the lake and behind the house.

* Caveat: the Folly Flâneuse doesn’t remember her family ever winning.




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3 thoughts on “Octagon Tower, Malham, North Yorkshire: Spot the folly.”

  1. Gwyn says:

    What a shame it wasn’t built. But Billy Bray dissed everything he saw.

    1. Editor says:

      It would have been a spectacular tower. Perhaps I will have a word with the National Trust and see what they can do…

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