Arch, architecture, Banqueting House, country house, eyecatcher, Folly, garden, garden history, Hertfordshire, sham castle, Summerhouse

The Folly, Benington Lordship, Hertfordshire

In the grounds of Benington Lordship, an early 18th century mansion near Stevenage in Hertfordshire, is a sham ruin on a grand scale. Constructed in the 1830s it combined the roles of eye-catcher, gateway, smoking room and banqueting hall in one rambling structure.

George Proctor had bought the estate in the 1820s, by which date most of the mediaeval castle that once stood on the site had been gone for six centuries. A charming manor house had been erected in its place around the beginning of the 18th century. The spectacular sham was executed in 1835-1838 by the inchoate Hertfordshire family firm of Pulham, which grew to specialise in building garden features in artificial stone – although seldom on the scale of this range which features a sham Norman arch and gatehouse and a separate summerhouse.

The gatehouse with flint-faced towers and extensive use of artificial stone.

The designer is thought to have been the Hertford architect, Thomas Smith (1798-1875). Documentary evidence doesn’t seem to survive, but the work is attributed to him on the basis that he was active locally, and also because he had built a ‘tower and fine archway in the Norman style of architecture’ in his own garden.

Thomas Smith’s folly tower and arch (grade II) in his own garden at North Road House in Hertford. It also features the use of artificial stone. The grounds have been partially developed but the folly survives in the grounds of a care home. Photo courtesy of Hertford Museum

The Benington Lordship folly, inspired by the genuine fragments that remained on site, was erected in the form of a substantial ruined Norman castle. Built of flint and artificial stone, it was pictured in the Pulham company’s c.1877 account of their work to date: ‘Picturesque Ferneries and Rock Garden Scenery’. No doubt some antiquarians were horrified at Proctor’s ‘alterations’, but as a visitor in 1897 wrote ‘it cannot be denied that the work is most artistically carried out’.

Image from the excellent Pulham website

Elsewhere in the garden remnants of the ancient castle were ‘improved’ as ornamental features. In her research notes Barbara Jones makes clear that she did not think this work as successful as the folly. She described the remains of the keep as a ‘formless lump’ with a ‘fake’ doorway which led to a walk to another ‘lump of stuff’.

The remains of the keep, with later ornamentation, as featured in Herbert C. Andrews The Benstede Family, 1937.

Sadly George Proctor did not enjoy his new garden ornament for long: he died in 1840 and was succeeded by his son Leonard. The estate was bought by the Bott family in 1905, and it remains their family home today. Barbara Jones featured the ‘very fine large folly’ in the 1st edition of Follies & Grottoes in 1953, and when working on the revised edition in 1972 (it would be published in 1974) the Bott family were happy to confirm to Jones that the folly was ‘still safely standing’. Fifty years on the same is still emphatically correct, and today’s visitors can even enjoy a cup of coffee and very tasty cake in the structure.

The very tempting access to the tearoom in the folly.

Benington Lordship has been the location for a number of television and film productions, and looks stunning in One Day, the new (2024) Netflix adaptation of the 2009 novel by David Nicholls (episode 9).

The house and grounds also appeared in Late Flowering Lust, the 1993 BBC tribute to Sir John Betjeman starring Nigel Hawthorne and with the dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures (now New Adventures) choreographed by Matthew Bourne. You can see it here, with a great view of the folly about 28 minutes in

The summerhouse smothered in ivy and clematis with snowdrops in bloom.

The castle folly is listed with the house at grade II*, the summerhouse and attached curtain wall are listed at grade II, the remains of the ancient keep are grade I and the gardens are registered as grade II on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

The Bott family open the gardens at Benington Lordship regularly. The snowdrop season has just finished, but things hot up with a chilli festival in August. See the website for details of further open days this year 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome – please scroll down to the comments box to get in touch.

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6 thoughts on “The Folly, Benington Lordship, Hertfordshire”

  1. Kate Dyson says:

    Another beautifully researched story. The film is charming. It was so interesting to hear those Betjamin poems.

    1. Editor says:

      Thanks Kate. I’m a big fan of Betjeman and of Matthew Bourne’s dance company so I was delighted to discover the film.

  2. John Preston says:

    A stunner. If you haven’t got a a ruined castle just build one. Made me smile on a Saturday morning

    1. Editor says:

      Hello John. Very pleased to hear you enjoyed this post. Visiting the folly made me smile!

  3. Gand says:

    If Proctor took a Gamble on building his folly, then as it is still standing, it paid off

    1. Editor says:

      Excellent wordplay Gand.

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