In a patch of scrubby woodland in a Bristol suburb stands this magnificent ecclesiastical eye-catcher. The centrepiece of the structure is the former west window of the Lord Mayor’s Chapel on College Green in Bristol, which was re-erected here when the chapel was restored in the 1820s.
There is some argument as to who actually erected the garden ornament. At Henbury Hill House lived Henry Brooke (1763-1829), whilst nearby Brentry House was home to John Cave (1765-1842). Both men were Bristol grandees – prosperous businessmen who served as councillors, aldermen, and in Cave’s case as Lord Mayor in 1829. The folly, in its woodland setting, is equidistant between these two villas. The Bristol antiquary George Weare Braikenridge wrote (in manuscript) that Brooke bought the window and ‘set it up as a sham ruin on Henbury Hill to serve as an object from his house’. But a generation later, in 1887, John Latimer claimed in his Annals of Bristol in the Nineteenth Century that it was Cave who erected the folly.
What is certain is that Thomas Garrard, Chamberlain of Bristol (he controlled the city purse) was the ‘moving spirit’ in promoting the refurbishment of the ancient Lord Mayor’s Chapel, also known as St Mark’s. Work took place throughout the 1820s, with the sculptor and mason Thomas Clarke being paid £100 in 1822 for carving and erecting a replica of the original window in the chapel.
The folly must have been erected by 1830 when it is marked as ‘Summer House’ on the 1st series Ordnance Survey map. The window was set between two tall towers to give stability, and a further section of sham ruined wall was set at a right angle. Subsequent editions of the map only mark the building’s L-shaped footprint, with no accompanying name, but locally it was known as The Lookout, presumably because one of the supporting towers contains a staircase to a viewing platform. From the top the view was said to encompass six counties.
A generation later historians were scathing about Garrard’s ‘so-called restoration’ of the chapel, and the new window was dismissed as inferior to the original. Writing in 1887 Latimer pointed out that the old window had now stood as a mock ruin for around 60 years and after ‘being buffetted by the storms […] its sound condition still demonstrates the recklessness of those who expelled it from its original site’.
For around a century the eye-catcher was a local landmark, visible from some distance with the tracery standing out on the horizon. But there was great demand for building land in the Bristol suburbs, and after the First World War the open fields behind the folly began to be developed. Frederick M. Burris (1881-1948), one of ‘Bristol’s best-known citizens’ built a house called Longacres, and the screen was incorporated into the garden he designed and laid out there. Burris and his wife, Eileen, supported numerous charities, and the garden was frequently the venue for fundraising garden parties. It was around this date that a picture postcard of ‘The Ruins’ was issued. The section with the arched entrance to the right of the window has since been rebuilt as a plain stretch of wall.
When Nikolaus Pevsner first saw the eye-catcher in 1958, it still stood in the garden of Longacres (‘a large house’) and he declared it ‘more intensely picturesque and romantic than any of the sham castles of Bristol or Bath’: high praise indeed as this category includes such delights as nearby Blaise Castle and Ralph Allen’s sham castle on the Bath skyline. In 1989 the Longacres site was redeveloped by Berkeley Homes and the folly was offered for sale for one pound – with the tiny proviso that you also buy one of the £400,000 new homes.
The window section of the folly (listed Grade II*) can be viewed from the woods (entrance from Sheepwood Close) but the rest of the sham ruin is inaccessible in the private garden. It is an amazing experience to suddenly find the folly looming above one in the woods – thanks to Peter Godfrey for the big reveal.
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