In the furthest reaches of Northumberland, close to the Scottish border, stands the romantic ruin of an ancient family seat. This is not a particularly unusual sight in this region of skirmishes and sackings, so why has this particular building become known as a folly? It is of course an elegant eye-catcher, seen over the single span of the ancient bridge over the river Till, but there is more to the story, and as Barbara Jones wrote, Twizel Castle falls into the ‘foolishness-type folly’ category – a picturesque but purposeless palace.
In 1761 Francis Blake (1709-1780), later Sir Francis Blake when he was given a baronetcy in 1774, commissioned the local mason James Nisbet (?-1781) to repair and enlarge the ‘old house’. Nisbet was tasked with ‘preserving the Gothic form and taste’ and the new house must have been largely complete by 1769 when Armstrong’s map of Northumberland shows a house with circular corner towers. A more detailed view was presented in this engraving dated 1775 (above). A year later Twizel Castle (sometimes Twisel) was described as a comfortable seat with ‘the circular corners affording a great command of prospect’.
A visiting clergyman had hinted in 1761 that the planned new house was perhaps not quite palatial enough for its fine lofty situation, and it seems that the next generation of the family agreed. Blake’s son, also Francis (c.1737-1818), succeeded as the 2nd baronet in 1780, and began a huge project to surround his father’s house with a vast castellated carapace which grew and grew.
A kitchen garden was created and the whole was surrounded by a Brownian landscape (exact date unknown) embellished with clumps and specimen trees, perimeter belts of planting and a circuit ride which took in views of the rivers Till and Tweed.
After the death of the 3rd baronet in 1860 the baronetcy became extinct and the estate was inherited by Captain Francis Blake (1832-1861). After his early death his wife, Eleanor, controlled the estate until the coming of age of their eldest son, Francis Douglas Blake (1856-1940, created a baronet in 1907). After coming of age Blake took the decision to settle on his adjoining Tillmouth estate. Charles Barry junior was called in for advice, and the decision was taken not only to pull down Twizel Castle (which Barry thought ‘ugly’), but also to demolish the mansion at Tillmouth and build a new house.
The local community was alarmed to hear that Twizel Castle would cease to exist and asked Blake to think again. Eventually he agreed to leave standing ‘the remains of the ancient castle that still stood within the walls of the modern building’. In 1882 the Berwickshire News & General Advertiser reported that ‘the two residences are now being taken down’ and continued that whilst Twizel Castle ‘was never of any practical use to its owners, and was never even completely finished […] its removal will be witnessed with great regret’.
Blake kept his word, and the ancient walls, complete with the 3rd baronet’s 18th century gothic adornments, were left standing as a prominent feature in the landscape. Nature soon took control and by the time Barbara Jones found it when researching for the 2nd edition of Follies & Grottoes (1974) everything was ‘drowned in encroaching, clambering and piled-up green’ and she could only conclude ‘I think it has round towers’.
Today the vegetation is kept at bay and a rather enticing public footpath allows access up to the ruin…
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