One of the most curious collections of structures in Britain can be found on a ridge behind the house called Sorrelsykes*, near Aysgarth in North Yorkshire. Often cited as fine examples of follies because of their strange form, and apparent lack of function, the eccentric edifices seem to have lost their history. What are they? Who built them? When? And above all why?
The question of what they are should be the easiest to answer, but even that poses a challenge as they are so curious and difficult to categorise. The most dramatic structure is a large cone, with doorway and blind windows, supported by buttresses. In modern times it has acquired the nickname ‘the Rocket Ship’ based on its likeness to the intergalactic craft of comic book heroes such as Dan Dare. Next in line is a bizarre arch, or gateway, which stands alone devoid of attached wall or fence, and is too low to walk under anyway. Finally there is a column which has been likened to a cotton bobbin or a peppermill.
The who and when can tentatively be said to be the Misses Tennant, and the mid- to late- 19th century. Sorrellsykes was once home to the four daughters of Edward Tennant – Isabella, Rebecca, Emma and Ann – and they were described as ‘gentlewomen’. Although from the park the building appears as a classical Georgian mansion, it is actually divided into separate dwellings, and in the 1870s the Tennant family occupied two of the three homes. But the evidence is scant: an account in 1878 notes that the Tennant ladies had ’embellished the grounds with statuary and other ornaments in good taste’. That’s all there is: ask locally and people will just shrug their shoulders.
The why remains unanswered, leaving one of the great folly mysteries intact. Best guesses remain that the follies were built to create employment for local men, or that they were built by apprentice masons, perfecting their craft. In 1993 the structures were consolidated with a grant from the Yorkshire Dales National Park Committee’s excellent ‘Local Historic Features’ fund. You can go and ponder the history of the follies for yourself, as the structures are alongside the public footpath from Edgeley Farm to West Burton.
More conventionally (in folly terms) there was a sham castle facade higher up the hill, seen by The Folly Flâneuse in the 1980s but sadly toppled in a storm a decade later. This is very unlike the bizarre structures on the ridge, and is possibly earlier.
* or Sorrell Sykes, or Sorrowsikes, or Sorrellsikes, or countless other variant spellings just to make the researcher’s life difficult…
Thank you for reading. If you know more about these strange structures (someone, somewhere must), or would like to share any thoughts, please scroll down to the comments box below.