Bath and North East Somerset, Folly, Monument, Tower

Ralph Allen’s Sham Castle and Monument, Bath, Bath and North East Somerset

Ralph Allen of Bath, is well-known for his elegant Prior Park house and gardens and for the magnificent gothic sham castle, one of Britain’s finest follies, which he had erected on the skyline above the city in 1762. The sham castle and Prior Park remain popular attractions in Bath, but a quirky tower erected in Allen’s memory is sadly lost. 

Allen died in 1764 and William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, decided to commemorate him with a monument on Combe Down, close to Allen’s former home. Warburton had married Allen’s niece and so by marriage had come into the Prior Park estate and had reason to acknowledge his friend and benefactor.

Postcard, early 20th century, courtesy of the Dave Martin collection.

The monument stood on, or very close to, the site of a much larger structure, The Lodge, which is shown as an L-shaped structure on a 1742 map. This lodge is thought to have existed for centuries and was probably associated with the chase. By the time the estate was surveyed in c. 1762 a curious gothic building with a tall, round tower had replaced the earlier lodge. This is shown as a vignette on the survey and it was also drawn by the artist Thomas Robins, so we have a good idea what it looked like.

The Lodge by Thomas Robins. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, E.1308:16-2001

The history is then a little complicated. Ralph Allen’s stonemason claimed, in a contemporary account, that Allen loved the lodge but Mrs Warburton ordered him to pull it down soon after Allen’s death. But clearly the tower was not dismantled and her husband the Bishop embellished it in memory of Allen. Robins also sketched the tower and it is very clear that it was constructed around the tower of the gothic building, reusing existing stonework.

The monument by Thomas Robins. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, E.1308:52-2001

The tower is mentioned in the Revd John Collinson’s history of Somerset of 1791, and whilst there is no detail of the structure he does record the inscription on a tablet:

Memoriæ optimi viri, RADULPHI ALLEN, positum
Qui virtutem veram simplicemque colis, venerare hoc saxum.

Robins added a translation to his sketch of the tower:

You that reverence true & Simple Virtue,
Look with veneration on this Marble.
SACRED
To the Memory of that Excellent man
RALPH ALLEN ESQ

Contemporary comment on the monument has not been found, which is strange as another sketch by Robins shows that the lodge, and therefore the tower, was on a prominent site. Later generations did voice their thoughts, and they were not flattering. In 1895 Robert Peach published a life of Ralph Allen and described the building as ‘devoid of all merit’, describing the inscription as cold and bald. By the 1920s it was obscured by trees and locals thought this just as well, as ‘anything less attractive would be difficult to conceive’. A decade later Alderman T. Sturge Cotterell, acclaimed as ‘one of Bath’s most enthusiastic and best-informed local historians’, thought the structure ‘a terrible example of a Bishop’s attempt to act as his own architect’.

It’s no surprise then that the tower was allowed to decay. Its foundations were shaken during bombing attacks on Bath during the Second World War, causing further damage, and in 1953 it was demolished. Recent archaeological work has made a start on establishing the exact locations of the lodge and tower, and paved the way for further investigations. The full report is here https://www.bacas.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Monument-Field281218.pdf

The sham castle is freely accessible https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bath-skyline/trails/bath-skyline-walk

Prior Park is in the care of the National Trust https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/prior-park-landscape-garden

Thanks to The Garden Historian for his help with this post.

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