The hamlet of Racton, in a quiet corner of West Sussex, is little more than a church and a cluster of cottages. What catches the eye is the dramatic ruin, with tapering central tower, that stands above the settlement. This is the belvedere erected by George Montagu Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax, as an ornament to his Stansted Park estate.
The earl’s principal seat was at Horton in Northamptonshire, and Stansted (sometimes Stanstead) came to him via his mother’s side of the family in 1766, around the time this portrait was painted. Lord Halifax (1716-1771) must have built the tower soon after he inherited the estate, for it was seen by Horace Walpole in 1770. Walpole was no admirer of the new building, dismissing it simply as ‘very ugly’. Three early views survive, so readers can decide for themselves if they agree with Walpole’s judgement.
The tower is triangular in form, with a central round tower flanked by three smaller turrets. Fragments of moulding and plasterwork seen in the 20th century suggest that the interior was very fine. The work is now attributed to the architect Henry Keene: he designed a spire for Westbourne church for Lord Halifax in 1770, and was also working on a prospect tower at nearby Uppark around the same date. But it seems likely he was assisted by his son Theodosius, who was still a youth when the tower was built, for it was Theodosius who submitted a finished drawing (above) to the exhibition of the Society of Artists in 1772 under the title A view of Stanstead Castle, near Emsworth.
An unknown artist sketched the tower in 1771 (above). Although the tower is known to have been complete at that date, and the artist noted detailed dimensions, this drawing does not show the tower as built. The dimensions are only partially correct, so the only explanation that comes to mind is that the artist produced this finished sketch from rough drawings and measurements made on-the-spot and, basically, got it wrong. Two watercolours by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, executed in 1782, confirm that tower was built to the original design by Henry Keene.
From the top of the tower there were views down to the coast and out to sea over the naval base at Portsmouth, and to the Isle of Wight and the bustle of ships in the English Channel. There was also a fine view of Chichester Cathedral. But these views could also be appreciated from the house and from Lumley Seat, a temple in the garden at Stansted, so a writer in 1784 was somewhat disgruntled that having climbed all the steps there was ‘little variety in the prospect’. He concluded that ‘the elegance […] of this edifice is in no means proportionate to the prodigious expense which the raising of it cost his lordship’.
The earl had little time to enjoy his new tower, as he died in June 1771. However lurid local legends suggest he packed a lot into his brief period of ownership (remembering he also had a busy life in Northamptonshire and London). When he wasn’t indulging in wild orgies at the tower he was up on the roof frantically signalling the all-clear to ‘the big smuggling gangs who swarmed the coast’: apparently the earl was ‘the head of one of the biggest gangs’. A writer contributing to a local paper in 1938 was told that the folly was built by the earl so he could watch for Napoleon’s armies landing. Thankfully, the journalist had a better grasp of British history than his informant, and did not pass on this anachronism. He concluded instead that the ‘tower is another good instance of how legend gains momentum with the passing of time’.
Lord Halifax left no legitimate issue, so the title expired. His natural daughter, Anna Maria Montagu, was the beneficiary of the estate, but it was sold soon after Halifax’s death to raise capital. The new owner was a wealthy merchant called Richard Barwell (1741-1804) and the tower was regarded as an elegant object during his ownership. After his death the estate changed hands a number of times, before becoming dispersed in the early years of the 20th century.
The tower stood in attractive landscaped grounds, and became a popular destination for day trippers. The earliest accounts call it the ‘Stansted Tower’, or ‘Stansted Castle’, and in 1826 it was described as standing upon ‘a piece of land called Castle Field’. This name was soon lost and on 18th century county maps it is named simply as ‘Tower’. The First Series Ordnance Survey map of 1810 calls it ‘Stansted Tower’, and the First Edition map of 1875 marks it as ‘Racton Monument’, with the ominous words ‘in ruins’ in parentheses.
By 1862 the tower was described as ‘the old ruin’, suggesting it had been in decay for some time by that date, and an account of 1888 noted that the three turrets ‘were gradually diminishing in height from the effects of storms’. The staircase and windows had by then gone, and there were only vestiges of the old garden.
Inevitably there were issues with damage to the tower, and in 1933 the then owners threatened to ban public access if the problems didn’t stop. Sadly, the wilful damage has continued over the decades, and fences and ‘keep out’ signs have been pulled down as quickly as they were erected. A solution was proposed in 2020 when architect Mark Talbot, who bought the tower in 1987, attempted to obtain planning permission to restore the grade II listed tower as a private house (planning permission had been granted some years before he bought the tower, but had expired). The application was rejected on the grounds that it was ‘an unsympathetic form of development’ which would detract from the tower’s special architectural and historic interest.
The tower is on private land but can be seen from the lovely track called Monument Lane: there are good views of the tower across arable land as one ascends. The tower is in a sorry state, but somehow remains dignified and undeniably dramatic.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the design of the tower today is from high above, as Nic Orchard did in 2019 when she soared over in her light aircraft.
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