Just outside Richmond in Yorkshire is the Aske estate. The grounds were landscaped by successive owners in the 18th century, and various ornaments added to the park. The most curious is Oliver Ducket*, a folly high above the park with many a tale attached.
Local histories will tell you that the curious round tower on a cruciform base was originally an old beacon, or signal tower, connected to the ancient Richmond Castle, and built to look out for marauders from the wild north. You might also discover that it is named ‘Oliver’ after Cromwell, or that it is known as ‘Robin Hood’s Tower’. Or that Oliver Ducket was the name of the last watchman in residence. There may be some truth in the idea that there was once a beacon, or lookout, on the spot, but Messrs Cromwell, Hood and Ducket can be discounted.
The ‘Oliver’ of the name comes from the area where the tower stands, and eighteenth century maps show parcels of land and a hamlet with this name. ‘Ducket’ is a dialect version of Dovecote (Doo’cot), and that there was once a dovecote here seems also to be proven by old maps, which show Oliver Ducket standing in ‘Dovecot Field’.
The present structure, perhaps incorporating something earlier, was probably designed as an eye-catcher and picnic spot by Sir Conyers D’arcy (died 1758), who bought Aske in 1727, and who also constructed an elaborate gothic banqueting house in the pleasure ground. All that is certain is that Oliver Ducket was in existence by 1761, when a lovely little vignette appears on an estate map. This drawing suggests that the tower was formerly topped with a third storey, long since lost, which would have provided a fabulous panorama, and was no doubt used to view the chase, for this was prime hunting country.
It is mainly in connection with the progress of the horses and hounds that the tower is mentioned in the 19th century, although there is one unexpected revelation: the sturdy structure inspired the name of a pedigree bull. In 1862 ‘Oliver Ducket’, bred by the Earl of Zetland, was discreetly advertised as available to ‘serve cows’.
But the folly reached the apogee of its fame in 1927, when it was chosen as the site for an ‘eclipse observation camp’ by eminent astronomer and physicist Dr W.J.S. Lockyer (1868-1936). Lockyer was the son of Sir Norman Lockyer, a Professor of Astronomical Physics who had established the observatory that still bears his name in Sidmouth, Devon.
The total solar eclipse, due in the early hours of 29 June 1927, was the first in two centuries and had caused great excitement nationally. A number of official camps were set up from where optimum views could be gained, and Richmond was one, being on the centre line of totality (the narrow track of the moon’s shadow on the surface of the earth). Once news got round local hoteliers were swamped with bookings, and further viewpoints on high ground were earmarked for the general public. Such was the fervour that the motoring organisations began to issue advice to stop roads becoming jammed.
The town saw a way to profit from the surge in visitors ,and a programme of events was put together including lectures on astronomy, a concert by the Band of the Royal Corps of Signals, and a Grand Ball in the castle grounds. The proceeds were put towards the restoration of Trinity Church Tower. Shops stayed open all night, and special licences were issued to allow alcohol to be served throughout the build up to the eclipse.
At Oliver Ducket, the principal team comprised of Lockyer, two colleagues, and Hickboo the Cairn Terrier – Three Men and a Dog quipped the papers – and the key piece of equipment was a ‘giant camera, shown above, with which they intended to photograph stages of the eclipse’. Lockyer’s wife was also present and operated some of the equipment. The folly was put into use with Lockyer’s own instruments on the first floor and a wireless aerial attached to the tower.
Despite some ‘most unsatisfactory’ weather as the camp was set up, Lockyer remained optimistic about the conditions for the eclipse. He told journalists that Oliver Ducket was an ideal location because it was ‘too low for the clouds to interfere’. Sadly, he spoke too soon; moments before totality the sun was lost behind a thick curtain of cloud. It was, in Lockyer’s own words, ‘a complete fiasco’.
Barbara Jones described Oliver Ducket in Follies & Grottoes in 1953, concluding that ‘the whole effect is most militant, a fine combination of belvedere and battleship’. This martial splendour must have made it the perfect training ground for soldiers stationed in Richmond during the Second World War. One remembered spending ‘a lot of time and energy attacking and defending’ the building. Happily it survived the siege. The folly also survived the vagaries of fashion: the writer of an 1949 letter to local magazine The Dalesman would presumably have been happy to see it pulled down. ‘It was only in the middle of the 18th century’, he wrote, ‘that erections like Oliver Ducket began to ornament the English countryside. Every county has their quota of them, pathetic and not very beautiful monuments…’
Thanks to Nigel Tooze for the wonderful recent photo of the folly in the snow, in which it looks beautiful (and not at all pathetic).
* there are many variant spellings but Oliver Ducket has been used here