250 years ago, on 15 August 1771, the poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott was born in Edinburgh. One of Scott’s greatest fans was, to give him his full title, The Reverend Sir William Marriott Smith Marriott Bart M.A.* (1801-1864), rector of Horsmonden in Kent. Here, as part of improvements to the rectory’s grounds, Marriott built an eye-catcher tower dedicated to Scott, now sadly lost.
The tower was completed in 1858, more than 20 years after Scott’s death in 1832, and replaced a simple wooden viewing platform on the highest part of the estate, which had been in the Marriott family for generations. It was probably built to the rector’s own design, and was erected by the estate bricklayer and carpenters. Marriott’s tribute, built out of ‘pure veneration for the genius of Sir Walter Scott’, took the form of two connected towers. A narrow one contained a staircase to the viewing platform, from where a ‘magnificent view of a large part of Kent and Sussex may be obtained’, whilst the main tower housed two rooms. Above the door was an inscription reading ‘In honorem Cualteri Scott – A.D. 1858’ and the local paper waxed lyrical, calling the new tower ‘a gem of architectural beauty’.
Marriott was himself a poet, and his volume The Olden and Modern Times was published in 1855. He composed a number of verses that were displayed in the tower, and on entering the visitor first met with an inscription cautioning that only those who shared his reverence should enter:
‘The Poet’s mind can add a grace
Into the charms of Nature’s face
Turn from this tower if you come to scoff it,
Or deem him fool who doesn’t build for profit.’
The two rooms were decorated with views of scenes from Scott’s novels, and drawings of the principal characters. Marriott kept a full set of Scott’s works in the building, and the interior was also decorated with a collection of items that added to the Romantic ‘Scotch’ atmosphere – a set of antlers; a Highland bonnet (‘which may perchance have decked the brow of some famous chieftain’); a claymore, spear, and shield; and ‘a brace of decayed Ptarmigans’.
Marriott displayed a long poem inviting visitors to climb the tower:
Ascend Scott’s turret, and the view
Would have pleased him as well as you.
Though bolder scenes in Scottish clime
Called forth the native poet’s rhyme.
Yet o’er the expanse this height displays
Scott had not spared some well-pleased lays,
And tho’ no mountains grace the scene,
Nor bright blue lake their rocks between,
Yet hill and dale the view adorn,
And valleys sing with golden corn,
And clustered hops their garlands twine
More gracefully than graceful vine:
Through many a Kent or Sussex glade
The lordly oak throws wide its shade;
And on hilltop, or deep in bower
Of holy groves, the grey church tower,
And near the pastor’s blest retreat,
And England’s pride, the squire’s old seat,
The snug farm-house, the labourer’s cot,
Where peace may be, though wealth is not.
These meet the grateful sight, as yet
No chimney tall and black is met
With smoke from Mammon’s altar, there
To vex the heart and taint the air,
And could we pierce yon far off rock,
Which long has dared old ocean’s shock,
E’en the wides sea would close the view,
Not vaguely in the distance blue-
My pen must fail, ah! Scott’s is dry,
Let each beholder trust his eye.
By 1901 the tower was dismissed as ‘devoid of any architectural pretensions’, and in 1935 a visitor noted significant vandalism to the interior. The writer E.V. Lucas wrote to the Sunday Times in that year to criticise the people of Kent for the ‘shocking state’ into which they had allowed the tower to fall. Lucas found the locks broken, the pictures awry and stained, and the windows smashed. He found ‘hundreds’ of names inscribed on the walls, inside and out, the roof stripped of its lead, and trees (Scotch firs, of course) obscuring the once fine view. Lucas was particularly horrified to find that a bust of Scott had been vandalised: his nose had been broken off and he sported a pencilled moustache.
A week after Lucas’s long epistle to the people of Kent appeared in the Sunday Times, the ‘Letters’ page featured an indignant response from Marriott’s great-granddaughter. It was all very well for the ‘prosperous and leisurely’ Victorians to build towers, she wrote, but it was unfair to expect the current generation to look after them when ‘there is less money to waste on such useless erections!’ That didn’t really bode well for the structure, but someone local must have taken half-hearted action, as two years later another visitor struggled with the substantial locks. But by that date there was ‘nothing much to see’ except the graffiti.
The last of the Marriotts to live at Horsmonden died in 1944, and the house and contents were then sold at auction. The lot containing Scott’s Tower was sold for £800, but the purchaser was more interested in the eight acres of pasture and woodland that accompanied it, and the tower, after serving as an observation post in the Second World War, was left to rot. Barbara Jones wrote admiringly of it in the 1st edition of Follies and Grottoes, published in 1953, although she recorded its poor condition (sources variously blame the military on manoeuvre or itinerant hop-pickers). By 1974 when the revised edition of F&G appeared Jones was sad to report that the tower had been demolished. It was blown up by the Royal Engineers less than a century after it was built.
Originally, the bust of Scott at Horsmonden was accompanied by lines composed by Marriott, and the final couplet, dedicating the tower to Scott, contains a portent:
To thee he builds this tower, though thy name
Will long survive the builder and the fane.
As Marriott predicted, Sir Walter Scott’s renown has indeed long outlived the tower, and there are many celebratory events planned to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth. See the website for details https://walterscott250.com
Abbotsford, Scott’s home in the Borders, opened to visitors in 1833. It’s not known if Marriott visited, but his tower certainly mimicked the interior decoration. Abbotsford is well with a visit: Scott’s collections are beautifully presented, there’s a great introduction in the visitor centre, and (always important to The Folly Flâneuse) the cafe is excellent https://www.scottsabbotsford.com
If you would like to know more about Scott, there’s an excellent BBC Scotland programme which first aired this week https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000yrpz
* The second Marriott was added by royal licence in 1811 and the surname is often given a hyphen, but Marriott himself used the form ‘Wm M Smith Marriott’. He inherited the baronetcy in 1862.
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