For centuries tall towers have been used for communicating: first via flags, beacons and semaphore, and then later by radio waves. In the late 20th century came the rapid expansion of mobile phone technology, with the service providers keen to find lofty locations to mount masts. Most are a simple metal pylon, whilst others are disguised (with varying degrees of success) as trees. And some have found a home in a folly – ancient or modern.
Horton Tower in Dorset, was built by Humphrey Sturt in 1750 as a belvedere. It stands 43m tall and the very fine tower is listed at grade II*. Vodafone paid for some restoration work when they installed masts in the early 1990s.
The Saxonbury Tower on the Eridge Park Estate in Kent was restored in the last years of the 20th century as part of a deal to install One2One equipment. The tower was built in 1828 and is grade II listed.
But what if a such a convenient folly tower was not available? Elevated sites which had once been home to Royal Observer Corps posts were also a popular choice of site. The posts were used for monitoring nuclear activity during the Cold War, and became redundant when the R.O.C. was stood down in the 1990s.
One such site was at Inkberrow, in Worcestershire, where an observer post had been built in 1962. In 1995 Mercury Communications approached Gabby Allison, who owned the field in which the remains of the post stood, and asked permission to build a mobile phone mast. Mercury sent Mrs Allison a design showing a bog-standard metal pylon, and unimpressed she countered with a sketch of a folly tower, which she thought would be more suitable as an object in the landscape. To their great credit, Mercury thought this was a wonderful idea: their draughtsman turned Mrs Allison’s sketch into a formal design, and Inkberrow Folly was born.
Not everyone agreed that a folly was an asset to the area, and there was some opposition to the structure. The local planning department was baffled, calling it ‘a most unusual proposal.’ For a brief period the tower became known as Moone’s Folly in ‘honour’ of a councillor who was initially against the scheme; happily, he came to appreciate the idea of creating a landmark, and planning permission was granted by Wychavon District Council. In November 1995 the remains of the observatory were demolished and work began to erect the tower. The scaffolding came down in spring 1996, revealing the new folly. Again, top marks to Mercury, because the tower is constructed of a mellow brick, with a lovely detail around the blocked windows that could so easily have been plain to cut costs. There are great views of the eye-catcher tower as one approaches the village, and only at close range do the masts on the turrets become obvious. The tower looks as if it has been there for centuries, and as technology inevitably moves on, the tower will hopefully stand long after its usefulness as a mast is over.
Mercury Communications are no more, but their name lives on in the Mercury Music Prize (now Hyundai Mercury Music Prize), which they supported from its launch in 1992. In 1996, when the folly tower was unveiled, the winner of the prize was Pulp with their album Different Class, which title also sums up this particular ‘phone mast.
More recently, Vodafone planned a new tower to be built on the Rushmore estate in Wiltshire, home to William Gronow-Davis. When the mobile phone company pulled out of the deal, Gronow-Davis decided to build it anyway as an eye-catcher from the mansion. He thus follows in a family tradition of folly building, as he is descended from General Pitt Rivers who created the Larmer Tree Gardens on the Rushmore estate in the 19th century. Designed by Walshe Associates, the tower was completed in 2009, and Gronow-Davis thinks ‘it is wonderful and just finishes the garden off’.
All of the follies featured here are on private land – but their elevated position means that they are visible from roads and public footpaths.
Huge thanks to Gabby Allison for showing The Folly Flâneuse the tower on the wettest of days, and getting soaked to the skin in the process. Just look at the sky in the photo’s…
Thank you for reading. If you have any questions or thoughts please scroll down to the comments box – feedback is very welcome.