Cotehele stands just on the Cornwall side of the river Tamar that forms the boundary with Devon. The estate was the ancient seat of the Edgcumbes, but by the 18th century it was a secondary residence, with the family preferring nearby Mount Edgcumbe, overlooking Plymouth Sound. On high ground above the house at Cotehele stands this solitary three-sided tower, of which little seems to be known. No inscriptions give even a hint of its history.
To be precise, little seems to be factually known, for there are plenty of tales and taradiddles about the tower. All that Historic England has to say about the grade II* listed building is that it is ‘probably late 18th century’, which seems about right, but does rather destroy the first oft-told tale in which the ‘family watched the Armada sail up the channel’ from the top of the tower in 1588.
Rena Gardiner’s utterly charming guidebook to Cotehele, first published by the National Trust in 1973, describes the ‘Prospect Tower’ as looking like a church tower from a distance whereas, she continues, it is ‘nothing more than a folly’. Nothing more than a folly??? This casual comment can be forgiven when one sees her distinctive and delightful illustrations – she was clearly a fan of the landmark. Gardiner’s text describes another alleged function of the tower: that it was used to signal between Cotehele and Maker church on the Mount Edgcumbe estate (which is feasible – the two towers have sight of each other).
Elsewhere one will read that the tower was built to celebrate the visit of King George III in the summer of 1789, and Admiral Viscount George Edgcumbe’s (1720-1795) elevation to the earldom of Mount Edgcumbe only days earlier. This too seems perfectly possible, although it is curious that such occasions were not marked with a plaque. King George and Queen Charlotte dined at Mount Edgcumbe in August 1789, the dinner being ‘all that sumptuality and elegance united could produce’. The royal party were taken on a tour of the grounds and up to the Heights of Maker. Although a vast panorama of Plymouth dominates the view, the tower at Cotehele would also have been visible. The King and Queen did not just admire the view, they ‘beheld it in raptures‘, but there is no mention of the tower to confirm its presence. Queen Charlotte mentions their subsequent visit to ‘Cotehill’ in her diary, but sadly only describes the ancient house.
One of the earliest known views dates from 1814 when J.M.W. Turner included it in a sketch of Cotehele. Guidebooks throughout the 19th century refer to the tower (which doesn’t seem to have a name) and the ‘most extensive and finely varied view’ which could be obtained from the top. It is simply ‘tower’ on early Ordnance Survey maps, but is known today as the Prospect Tower.
Cotehele was the first property to be accepted in lieu of death duties by the newly-created National Land Fund in 1947, and was passed to the National Trust. The tower is just one of the many attractions of the Cotehele estate.
Another of Rena Gardiner’s exquisite books, Portrait of Dorset, has recently been republished by Design for Today. Only 30 copies were painstakingly handprinted by Gardiner in 1960, and Joe Pearson of Design for Today has now produced a collector’s edition. The book features two perfect portraits of follies: Clavell Tower and Creech Grange Arch (below). Read more here https://www.designfortoday.co.uk/shop/nvvw0vvaq6n1fqdmwrwarz7cq2yeoo
The tower’s internal steps were missing when the property passed to the National Trust, but a new wooden staircase was installed so you can climb up and enjoy the view for yourself. There’s more on Cothele here https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/cornwall/cotehele
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