This fine arch could once be found on the edge of the village of Westwick, but sadly it was pulled down as recently as 1981. Nearby, in a scrappy ribbon of woodland, stands a decrepit brick tower with a square base supporting a round shaft. It is difficult to appreciate that this remnant was once a much-admired eye-catcher and belvedere, which went by the curious title of the Westwick Obelisk.
Dr Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 defined an obelisk as ‘a magnificent high piece of solid marble, or other fine stone, having usually four faces, and lessening upwards by degrees, till it ends in a point like a pyramid’. Clearly the tower at Westwick fails to meet this accepted description, and it has been assumed that the name was used in error by the surveyors who marked it thus on the first Ordnance Survey maps. But this is not the case: it was called the ‘obelisk’ in the earliest known reference: Armstrong’s History and Antiquities of the County of Norfolk, published in 1781. Armstrong notes the ‘obelisk’ and, perhaps aware of the peculiarity of this title, elaborates that it is a ‘tower or belle-view, ninety feet high’. At the top was a glazed lantern ‘fitted up to view an extensive tract of country each way, and the sea-coast for nearly thirty miles’. The building is also named as ‘obelisk’ on maps of Norfolk published in the 1790s.
Westwick was the seat of William Petre (1686-1772) the property having come to him though his 1736 marriage to Elizabeth Berney (1711-1778). Their son, John Berney Petre (1741-1819), must have been laying out a new landscape at Westwick even before he inherited the estate in 1772, for in 1809 he wrote that he been planting there ‘for more than fifty years’. One of his greatest achievements was the construction of a sinuous lake which curved round the ancient church of St Botolph, making it a picturesque feature of the landscape. When William Watts described Westwick in his Seats of the Gentry (published between 1779 and 1786), he described the major civil engineering that allowed the piece of water to be created: two Archimedes Screws, powered by a windmill, pumped water up from a reservoir.
In his text Watts avoided using the misleading word obelisk, and instead described the ‘ornamental building, or gazebo’, built by Petre ‘some Years since’ which was ‘remarkable for the fine prospect it affords’. The plate of the house and gazebo, was drawn by T. Hearne and engraved by Watts. More interesting is the note in the text to say that the drawing was based on a sketch by ‘H. Repton Esq.’ Humphry Repton was then living not far away at Sustead Hall, and was yet to formally embark on his career as a ‘landscape gardener’, but he must, at the very least, have taken notice of the major engineering and landscaping project at Westwick.
Petre won medals from the Society of Arts for his planting, and in 1809 was still enlarging his woods. In that year he wrote that when his current project was complete he would have created ‘a plantation of five hundred acres with a five-mile drive through it’.
The Westwick Obelisk continued to be a popular attraction throughout the 19th century, when the grounds were opened up to clubs and societies. The Churchman’s Club visited in 1877 and members admired the view from the top of the obelisk. Hasbro’ (Happisburgh) lighthouse could be seen, as well as ‘smoke of the coast-wise steamers, and the top-sails of passing vessels’.
The dilapidated obelisk is today engulfed in trees, so that its purpose as an eye-catcher and belvedere has been completely lost, even in deepest winter. Not that one would attempt to climb it, as the lantern superstructure has largely disappeared, and what survives is in poor condition. And as can be seen, the Westwick Estate does not encourage visitors.
The obelisk might be in a sorry state today, but it does at least survive, unlike its complementary adornment a short distance away. At the former entrance to the park is a pair of very attractive lodges: until 1981 they flanked a handsome arch, which like the obelisk and the lodges was decorated with pebble rustication and knapped flint. Discussions were underway to protect the arch (which was in a dangerous condition) as a listed building, but the owner pressed ahead with demolition before the process could be completed, and within a day no trace was left. The lovely lodges survive astride the B1150 Norwich Road.
The only trace of the arch today is a view of it, and the obelisk, on the very charming village sign.
For more of George Plunkett’s photographs of old Norfolk visit http://www.georgeplunkett.co.uk
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