Although initially mocked in some quarters as Prince Albert’s ‘folly’, the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park was a triumph. But the agreement had always been that the great glass gallery, which had become known as the ‘Crystal Palace’, would be removed after the fair was over, and the parkland setting then restored. But as the Earl of Carlisle wrote when that time approached, ‘the destruction of the Crystal Palace would be as perverse and senseless an act of vandalism as could be perpetuated’. Moving the building to an ‘open and accessible spot’ outside the city seemed the most sensible solution, but one man had other ideas…
On a prominent hill above the town of Faringdon in Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire) the ornate top of a tower peeps out above the trees. Faringdon Tower, often known as Lord Berner’s Folly, was built in 1935, but its site had been known as Faringdon Folly for generations.
Hail, Castle Howard! Hail, Vanbrugh’s noble dome
Where Yorkshire in her splendour rivals Rome!
Thus wrote John Betjeman in a poem composed for Bird’s-Eye View: The Englishman’s Home, a documentary scripted and mellifluously-narrated by Betjeman, which was first shown on BBC2 in April 1969. Many great houses are featured in the film, but a highlight for the Folly Flâneuse is Castle Howard, in North Yorkshire.
The rotunda at Stowe in Buckinghamshire was designed by Vanbrugh in around 1720, and stands on a sweeping lawn in front of the grand mansion. In the middle of the 20th century author T.H. White used a little artistic licence, and for the purposes of his story moved it to an island in one of the two lakes. There it became home to a colony of tiny people, and the adventure that is Mistress Masham’s Repose began.
Oswell Blakeston (1907-1985), was born Henry Joseph Hasslacher, and created his nom de plume by condensing ‘Osbert Sitwell’, whom he admired, into ‘Oswell’ and adding his mother’s maiden name. He was a British writer and artist with wide interests, and one of his passions was follies; his role in bringing the genre to a wider audience deserves to be better known.