architecture, belvedere, Dorset, eyecatcher, Folly, landscape, Observatory, Tower

Steeple Folly, The Black Tower, & Clavell Tower, Dorset: fiction and fact.

Photo' courtesy of W. Sweeney/Landmark Trust.

In the middle of the 20th century books featuring the adventures of the Lockett children captured the imaginations of young readers. One title in particular appealed to the Folly Flâneuse: what ghastly goings-on could have taken place at the ‘half completed and abandoned tower’ known as Steeple Folly? And which real clifftop folly might have been the inspiration for it?

The author of this tale was Mary Evelyn Atkinson (1889-1974), who published as M.E. Atkinson. She was born in London, the daughter of a schoolmaster at Highgate School, but when a small child the family removed to Swanage in Dorset, where her father founded the Durlston Court Preparatory School in 1903. This county would provide the setting for the books in which Bill, Jane and Oliver Lockett roam, free from adult supervision, encountering one adventure after another.

Illustrator Charlotte Hough’s imagining of Steeple Folly on its hilltop site.

Steeple Folly was published in 1950, and like the others in the series received a warm welcome in the press, with the Western Times writing that the ‘adventures of the Locketts never fail to enthrall’. Beautifully illustrated by writer and illustrator Charlotte Hough (1924-2008) the story, full of nursery teas, housemaids, and gymkhanas, was aimed at a middle-class readership: to the modern reader Atkinson comes across as a complete snob, letting her protagonists patronise the servants and sneer at children who are schooled at ‘some rotten little local outfit’. And to make matters worse she doesn’t even approve of follies! With a rather limited vocabulary she calls the tower ‘that absurd erection’, ‘absurd Steeple Folly’, ‘that stone absurdity’ and, in case anyone has missed her point, adds that at close range the ‘the folly looked positively immense- but just as absurd as ever’.

Charlotte Hough’s dramatic view of the tower with a nocturnal adventure underway.

The folly is largely incidental to the plot, which won’t be explored further in case anyone wishes to read the story, but the Folly Flâneuse wondered what genuine hilltop tower might have inspired Steeple Folly. The most obvious suggestion is the Clavell Tower, aka Kimmeridge Folly, on the Dorset coast which Atkinson would have known as it is only 10 miles or so from Swanage, near the hamlet of Steeple. It is close to landmarks that feature in the book, such as the famous Blue Pool, and like Steeple Folly it is perched on an eminence with extensive views. To be clear: this is pure supposition, but it does give the Folly Flâneuse an excuse to feature this marvellous building.

M.E.Atkinson might have seen Paul Nash’s wonderful view of the folly on this poster which was pasted onto Shell delivery lorries in the 1930s. Courtesy of Shell Heritage Art Collection/National Motor Museum.

The tower was built as an observatory, or belvedere, by Revd John Clavell (c.1760-1833) of Smedmore House in 1830. It continued to be a seaside retreat for his heirs, the Mansel family, and in 1852 the cannon that surrounded the tower were fired and flags hoisted to mark a family wedding. Later it served for a period as a coastguard look-out shelter, but meanwhile the soft cliffs of the Dorset coast were slowly eroding and edging ever closer to the tower.

By 1926 the tower itself was deteriorating, and in that year vandals were prosecuted for ‘dislodging and throwing down stones of which the tower is built’. In 1948 the artist John Piper wrote an essay on ‘The Nautical Style’ in which he admired the ‘absolutely sound’ condition of the ancient chapel on St Alban’s Head, in Dorset. He compared this to the Clavell Tower: ‘ a pretty but pathetic attempt at folly building on the coast, six hundred years younger than the Romanesque chapel, but crumbling to bits’.

A 1959 article in Country Life reported that the ruined Clavell Tower was now dangerously close to the edge of the cliffs. It was the tower and the adjacent perilous precipice that the author P.D. James chose as one of the settings for her 1975 murder-mystery The Black Tower, in which her fictional folly has a rather gruesome history. The tower has subsequently appeared on the cover of various editions of the book, as well as playing itself in the 1985 TV adaptation.

The Folly Flâneuse enjoying some research in the sunshine. The current Faber & Faber edition of The Black Tower has a great cover illustration by artist Angela Harding.

The tower continued to moulder until the end of the 20th century, when the Mansels of Smedmore set up the Clavell Tower Trust and took advice from English Heritage. After much analysis and discussion it was agreed that the only option was to dismantle the folly and rebuild it further inland.

The tower in 1991. Photo’ courtesy of the Garden Historian.

This was beyond the means of the Clavell Tower Trust, and a conversation was started with the Landmark Trust to see if they could take on the project and rebuild the tower as a holiday let. The charity’s trustees were understandably concerned about the complexity of the process, but in 2002 gave ‘cautious acceptance’ to the plans. With Heritage Lottery Funding in place to augment funds from a public appeal, and donations from a vast number of charitable trusts, work began in 2006, and the first of many eager guests arrived in August 2008.

The tower post-restoration. Photo’ courtesy of W. Sweeney/Landmark Trust.

Visit the Landmark Trust’s website for details of visiting the tower on open days in September, or to find out about staying in this fabulous folly

And for a full history of the tower, including the restoration, see the Landmark Trust’s excellent history album

John Piper’s essay was first published in 1938 but revised in 1948 for inclusion in the anthology Buildings and Prospects. His photo’ of the deteriorating tower is in the collection of Tate

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8 thoughts on “Steeple Folly, The Black Tower, & Clavell Tower, Dorset: fiction and fact.”

  1. Gwyn Headley says:

    Fascinating, as always. I’ve never come across M E Atkinson, who sounds right up my street as I have experience of several rotten little local outfits. Must hunt her out!

    1. Editor says:

      I haven’t read any of her other works but will look out for them. I roamed free from adult supervision as a child, but didn’t manage to have a single adventure, although I did climb hills to follies.

      1. Moira Garland says:

        Fascinating history and rebuilding. I thought I’d read all of P D James but don’t remember the Black Tower – I’ll investigate!

        1. Editor says:

          Hello Moira. I hope you enjoy The Black Tower, it’s a great story!

  2. John Davies says:

    I was just thinking how nicely ‘neo-romantic’ the illustrations were, and the next bit of scrolling produced the Paul Nash poster! It does seem to have inspired some good graphic work.

    1. Editor says:

      Charlotte Hough was new to me. Her work is great.

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