The Folly Flâneuse is putting her feet up this week, and handing over to her very good friend The Garden Historian. As guest contributor he reveals the history of the lovely, but now lost, timber temple at Exton Park.
In 1953, when Barbara Jones coined the opening words ‘survival is capricious’ for her account of the Bark Temple in Follies & Grottoes, she was probably unaware of how prophetic they were. At the time, she mused whether it was ‘perhaps built as a band stand for dances by the lake’; yet feeling the building’s oppressiveness as it slipped into ruin, added ‘but an innocent purpose for it seems unthinkable.’ She was actually so right on the former, and so wrong on the latter.
There have been many opinions as to when the temple was built – Jones carefully evades that point – with some writers suggesting it dates from the 18th century, probably because it was assumed to be contemporary with nearby Fort Henry, a pretty gothic lakeside pavilion (by William Daniel Legg, 1786–89). More scholarly was Roger White’s assessment that it was ‘probably […] a survival of the late 18th century fashion for primitivism, propagated by the Abbé Laugier and Sir William Chambers and practised by architects such as Soane.’ Somewhere along the way, Thomas Wright’s name has been brought into the melange, and an attribution to John Linnell Bond needs to be abandoned – he died eight years before its appearance. Laugier’s sentiments were first published, in French, in 1753, with an English translation two years later; Chambers, in his 1759 Treatise on Civil Architecture, saw primitive buildings as no more than an evolutionary stage in architectural history. But if such works inspired Exton’s bark temple, there was a wait of almost a hundred years.
It was actually constructed for the wedding celebrations of Andrew Agnew and the Lady Mary Arabella Louisa Noel, eldest daughter of Exton’s owner, the Earl of Gainsborough. The wedding took place on Thursday, 20 August 1846, although festivities started the previous day with a ‘Tenants’ Dinner’ for some 260 persons in a marquee, and a women’s tea in the coach houses at the house, which also accommodated about a hundred labourers on the Thursday morning as well as teas for the schools on the Friday (subject to weather conditions); the wedding breakfast was held in Fort Henry (at half past one for those who just have to know). The Lincolnshire Chronicle for 21 August recorded:
‘… The spot selected for pitching the tent was about two miles distant from the house, and by far the most picturesque site on these delightful grounds, being on an eminence immediately in front of the expansive sheet of water which so delightfully diversifies the scenery in Exton Park, and very near to the fairy temple now in course of erection.’
The last remark is key – it indicates that despite their best efforts, the ‘fairy temple’ was not complete at the time of the wedding, even though from the scant documents that we do have, some seventy four carpenters, masons, and labourers were engaged in these preparations. Unsigned rough drawings hint at the bark temple being designed almost on the spot, and everything done in haste. There was a family tradition of hosting parties by the lake and in Pavilions in Peril Julia Abel-Smith noted a picture at the hall ‘of the lakeside clearing en fête with fireworks breaking over the water’ – it would be nice to think that the temple was ready enough for dancing of an evening, the Exton band serenading the family and their guests as they glided across the wooden floor.
The unknown architect may have been influenced by an 18th century design by William Wrighte, which was advocated ‘to be placed at the head of a grand canal’, with ‘the arcades to be ice or frosted work’, with a length of some 75 feet. At Exton, the lake suffices for the canal, and bark for the frosted work; its length was 75 feet. But the temple’s juxtaposition and axial alignment to Fort Henry are also key: being on rising ground, it terminated a vista for those enjoying a boat trip; for those in the temple, the setting was reversed, with Fort Henry adopting the role of banqueting house (and possibly an ideal setting for the firework displays). Ironically it was Fort Henry, ‘almost beyond preservation’ in the eyes of Barbara Jones, that was rescued, thanks to the work of architect Will Hawkes; but sadly the bark temple succumbed.
As much as it would have been wonderful to see this building saved, viewing this dilemma from the owner’s perspective casts a more pragmatic hue. Its remoteness from the house would have put a restored building at considerable risk from any ne’er do wells; that it was principally of wood construction added to its vulnerability. In 1994, English Heritage commissioned surveys and measured drawings of what then survived of the structure, so at least a record of this unique building exists. But it is the photographs of Neville and Will Hawkes that prove the most evocative and captivating. They show the structure still in reasonable condition – both arcades still standing, and mostly roofed. It died, in the winter of 1997, æt. 150.
Fort Henry survives has been beautifully restored as, rather appropriately, a venue for weddings and events. It can be seen from a public footpath. For Exton Park see https://www.extonpark.co.uk
Thanks to the Garden Historian for this post, and thank you for reading. If you’d like to comment, please scroll down. If you would like to read more about follies, why not subscribe and receive a weekly post direct to your inbox.