High above the valley of the River Towy stands a sturdy, and seemingly invincible, tower. It was built to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson, but within a century it was falling into decay, and it only narrowly escaped conversion into a cowshed.
William Paxton (1744-1844) had been Master of the Mint in Calcutta, a role that was as lucrative as it sounds. He returned to Britain towards the end of the 18th century and bought Middleton Hall in Carmarthenshire, where he began work on a new house and pleasure grounds. The tower, high above his estate, was ‘now erecting’ in 1808 when it was called ‘a grand Castellated Edifice, designed to honour the Memory of the Immortal Nelson’. It must have been largely complete externally by 1809, when a visitor noted the ‘fine Bird’s Eye view of the House and grounds of Middleton Hall’ which it commanded.
The tower was described in detail in the South Wales volume of The Beauties of England & Wales, which was published in 1815 but compiled in the preceding years. Thomas Rees wrote that ‘of late, a new and pleasing circumstance has been added by Sir William Paxton […] a lofty tower on a conspicuous summit’. The ‘elegant design’ was by ‘Mr Cockerell’*. The tower had a ‘lofty and sumptuous banqueting room’ on the first floor and a ‘prospect room’ on the upper storey. Stairs then led to a viewing platform on the roof. The upper apartment was not finished when Rees visited, and Sir William (he was knighted in 1803) was in the process of commissioning painted glass panels showing scenes from the life of Lord Nelson.
Rees also noted that a marble tablet was on order which was to carry a Latin inscription honouring the admiral. Later histories describe inscribed plaques above each of the three doors, with the tribute in Latin, Welsh, and English:
‘To the Invincible Commander, Viscount Nelson, in Commemoration of Deeds before the Walls of Copenhagen, and on the Shores of Spain; of the Empire everywhere maintained by him over the Seas; and of the death which in the fulness of his own glory, though ultimately for his own Country and for Europe, conquering, he died. This Tower was erected by William Paxton’.
A grand hilltop folly attracts equally grand stories, especially with such as prominent personage as Paxton. His career in India over, he aspired to be a Member of Parliament, and there are tales of how he spent lavishly to ‘encourage’ the electorate to vote for him. Among the local legends is one which tells that he promised to build a new bridge over the River Towy if successful, but when he failed to win the seat at his first attempt, he instead had the stone carted up the hill to build his tower.
The tower became a great local landmark, and having a vista to the folly was considered a selling point when local estates came to the market. It remained a popular destination throughout the 19th century, and in 1887 was the focus of celebrations to mark Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. The Union Jack was flown from the top of the tower, and a huge banner inscribed with the letters V.R. was draped over the western elevation so that it was visible across the valley.
By 1903 however the local paper was expressing concern that ‘this handsome structure is now exhibiting evidence of decay’. Fearing for the safety of the painted glass panels, descendants of the Abadam family (who bought the estate soon after Paxton’s death in 1824) gave the glass to the Carmarthenshire Museum for safekeeping before selling the estate in 1909. In 1934 the future of the tower looked precarious, and it was dismissed by one onlooker as a ‘vast and useless sentinel’.
But happily a few years later its status as a historic building was beginning to be recognised, and in February 1950 the Western Mail ran the headline ‘Noted Tower in Danger of Collapse’. The paper reported that heritage bodies were powerless as the building was not scheduled as an ancient monument. Two years later a preservation order was obtained just in the nick of time: the farmer, fearing that falling masonry would concuss his cattle, planned to demolish the tower and use the ‘stones to erect a cowhouse’. The planning officer, Mr R. Randles (a pragmatic fellow), summed things up: ‘It will fall down eventually but the point is it will be there for a little longer’.
Unlike Mr Randles, Viscount Emlyn, whose seat was the nearby Golden Grove, was confident that the tower would endure. In 1964, when High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire, he bought the tower and donated it to the National Trust. It was restored in the 1970s and remains a popular attraction, although sadly the inscriptions are long gone, and there is no access to the upper rooms. Paxton’s Tower is listed at grade II*.
* Generally accepted to be Samuel Pepys Cockerell, who worked on Middleton Hall, but a drawing in the RIBA collection is attributed to his son Charles Robert.
For information on visiting the tower see https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/feel-on-top-of-the-world-at-paxtons-tower-
Middleton Hall was demolished in the middle of the 20th century. The grounds are now home to the National Botanic Garden of Wales. For more on Paxton and Middleton Hall see this excellent paper https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/middleton-hall-case-study/
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