Such was the headline of an article in the Sussex County Magazine in 1937. The author, William A. Bagley, was fascinated by the ‘strange towers’ that could be found ‘dotted all over the hilltops of England’. Revisiting some of the follies he described some 85 years later the Folly Flâneuse discovered that the towers have had differing histories: one is lost, some survive in much the same state as when Bagley saw them, and one is currently on the market with a multi-million pound asking price.
One of the featured follies was Holmbush Beacon Tower, built in 1855-57 on the Holmbush estate, home to one of the Broadwood family of piano fame. It became a popular destination for ramblers and picnic parties, and the slender tower could be seen from miles around, as well as providing views of 5 counties and out to sea at Shoreham. In 1945, only a few years after Bagley wrote about the folly, the prominent landmark was demolished. The local paper reported that ‘Hitler is said to have passed too near to it, and made it somewhat unsafe’ (presumably this was the Luftwaffe rather than the leader himself).
Racton Tower, a looming great edifice on the Stansted Park estate, was another of Bagley’s subjects, and little has changed since he described it as ‘a tremendous affair’ which ‘for a long time… has been in ruins.’ It was erected by Lord Halifax in around 1770 and the story is that it cost him £10,000 to build. Whilst Lord Halifax no doubt simply fancied having a belvedere/eyecatcher-cum-banqueting house on his estate, today it is a favourite haunt of those who believe in ghosts and the paranormal. The architect owner would like to restore it as his home, but the local planning officers are not so keen.
Happily Bagley found the Toat Monument, near Pulborough, in ‘a fair condition’, although the roof was in disrepair. A year after Bagley’s visit the tower was ‘burnt down by picnickers’, but happily it was later restored by the owner of Toat House, W.T. Dallas. The tower is dated 1823 and commemorates Samuel Drinkald who is said to have died on the spot after falling from his horse. All sorts of local stories add embellishment to this tale, including the legend that the builder of the tower and his horse were buried upside down below the tower. Spoiler alert: if you’d like to stick with this spirited story, skip the next sentence. The truth is less dramatic – Drinkald was buried in All Hallows by the Tower in London in August 1822, and the tower built by his family in his memory.
The Nore Folly at Slindon perplexed Bagley, and he concluded that ‘who erected it and why is not known’. When Bagley saw it the front arch, the remnants of which can just be seen springing from the side walls, would have been intact. In the 1930s the folly was covered with graffiti and Bagley was particularly incensed by the work of ‘Minnie and Bob’. Happily the arch, built as a summerhouse by Lady Newburgh of Slindon in 1814, is now in the care of the National Trust and, for now, Minnie and Bob’s modern-day counterparts seem to have left it alone.
Just as Bagley was completing his article he discovered a new folly and added a quick line to say that there was a tower in Shillinglee Park, close to the Surrey border. He illustrated his piece with a photograph of a rather nondescript tower, which Pevsner would describe in 1965 as ‘squat and stuccoed’ and Barbara Jones dismissed as ‘ugly’ in the 2nd edition of Follies & Grottoes (1974).
But the ugly duckling was maturing into an elegant swan. The tower was first converted into flats, with glamorous inhabitants including Judy Garland and later Charlotte Rampling, and then from 1984 it was renovated and extended as a single private home. In April 2022 it was placed on the market and featured in Country Life as ‘a beautiful baby castle’. Contact agents Knight Frank if your budget extends to £6,500,000.
Bagley was amused to think that the builders of these follies (with their origins forgotten, or mangled by later generations) would ‘doubtless chuckle in their graves when they learn of the controversy and speculation their eccentricities cause’, and it is certainly true that many follies now have lurid and/or inaccurate tales attached that would bemuse their builders.
And proving he was very much a kindred spirit of the Folly Flâneuse, Bagley concluded that by making a folly the object of a country walk ‘interest is certainly added to the ramble.’
You can still ramble and see the follies that intrigued Bagley in 1937, although some can only be seen as distant objects from public footpaths. There is full access to the Nore folly and there’s a lovely walk here https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/slindon-estate/trails/eartham-to-puck-lane-and-nore-hill-folly-walk
If you fancy life at Shillinglee here is the link you need. Do please invite the Folly Flâneuse to visit once you are settled in https://www.knightfrank.co.uk/properties/residential/for-sale/shillinglee-chiddingfold-godalming-gu8/CHO080405
Comments are most welcome, please scroll down to the foot of the page to share any thoughts or further information. Thank you for reading.
8 thoughts on “‘Some Sussex “Follies”: Queer Towers and their Eccentric Builders’”
BARBARA CROXEN says:
It’s a little treat each Saturday morning receiving your email.
I read your article in bed on my phone before I start the day.
Hello Barbara. Thanks for the kind words, I’m very happy to help launch your weekends.
Jon Woolcott says:
Thank you.I really enjoy these weekly emails!
Thank you Jon. I really appreciate you taking the time to say so.
Gwyn Headley says:
Great article as always. Do you think BJ’s sketch of Toat Monument has a touch of the El Grecos?
Evening Gwyn. Sadly I’m not able to say with any authority if BJ made the tower appear taller than it is in reality. It stands on private land so I only saw it from the road.
Wim Meulenkamp says:
Back around 1980 I managed to find a copy of the SCM-issue mentioned – as pleased as punch. Of course any folly-material before Jones was extremely rare. Keep on thegood work.
Thanks Wim. I only have a photocopy so we’ll done on finding an original. I’ve found another pre-Jones article and I hope to write about that soon.