architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, landscape, Somerset, Tower

Willett Hill Tower, Elworthy, Somerset

The tower on Willett Hill tantalises with a glimpse above the trees when approaching by road, before disappearing completely as one begins the ascent on foot – which makes it all the more exciting when after a stiff climb the folly eventually bursts into view.

The Gothick old Gatehouse on Willet Hill. Sketched by M. Willis after a design by R. Phelps. Reproduced with kind permission of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. Somerset Heritage Centre, A.DAS.2 (Elworthy 11054).

Willet Hill is in the Brandon Hills, near the village of Elworthy on the edge of Exmoor National Park. The tower was built in around 1774 and paid for by a group of local landowners. As the annotation to the sketch above records, James Bernard of nearby Crowcombe Court subscribed £80 of the total cost of £130, but sadly the other donors are not recorded. The land was owned by Rev. Bickham Escott of Hartrow, so that was presumably his contribution to the project, but nowhere is it recorded why this group of gentlemen decided to erect a building  ‘to represent an old Ruin’ on the hilltop, and there is no inscription to help. Probably there was a hunting connection, with the room in the tower acting as belvedere and picnic parlour, and it was certainly an eye-catcher from the various gentlemen’s seats in the area. Hopefully there was also a large dollop of whimsy in their decision, and they built it because they liked the idea of enlivening the landscape with a sham ruin, then very much in vogue.

Unsigned and undated (and absolutely charming) view of Willet Hill and its tower, formerly in the collection of the Escott family of Hartrow. Reproduced with kind permission of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. Somerset Heritage Centre A.DAS.2 (Elworthy 11056).

The architect of Willet Hill Tower was Richard Phelps (c1710-1785), who was better known as a portrait painter. He was based in Dunster, a few miles away on the coast, where he painted members of the Luttrell family and designed follies for their seat at Dunster Castle, including the tower and sham ruined gateway on Conygar Hill.

Richard Phelps. Self-portrait as an old man, bust to right, head almost to front, in a fur cap. Black chalk. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Collinson’s history of Somerset, published in 1791, described the ‘lofty smooth knowl’ on which the tower was ‘a fine object to the country many miles round’. The tower, on the bare hillside, is also shown on an 18th century map.

The tower on Day & Master’s map of Somersetshire, 1782.

Collinson wrote that the folly was 80 feet in height, but incorrectly describes it as ‘a hexagonal embattled tower’, whereas it is actually a square tower with an adjoining short section of curtain wall cut through with an arch. A corresponding stretch of wall to the north, shown in the sketches above, has collapsed.

In 1840 the Elworthy parish was surveyed to produce the tithe map, and by then the hillside had been planted with firs which gradually obscured the view of the tower. The tower has emerged occasionally when the timber was felled, but is currently tucked away in a clearing in dense woodland managed by the Forestry Commission, who are happily committed to managing the land around the grade II listed tower to ‘ensure that the views or the structural integrity of the building are not diminished’.

Lofty follies are often borrowed for more practical purposes: the hilltop site was used as a trigonometrical point by the Ordnance Survey early in the 19th century, and in the middle of the 20th century the Royal Ordnance Corps had a lookout point at the folly – their concrete bunker survives close to the tower.

There is a parking place just off the B3224 at the bottom of Willet Hill, and then paths spiral up to the tower – but it is worth checking a map if you want to be sure of the direct route to this enchanting spot.

The follies Phelps designed for Conygar Hill on the Dunster Castle estate can also be visited https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dunster-castle-and-watermill/trails/conygar-tower-from-dunster-castle-walk-

Thank you for reading. As ever, your thoughts are very welcome: please scroll down to the comments box at the foot of the page to share information or ideas. 

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4 thoughts on “Willett Hill Tower, Elworthy, Somerset”

  1. Alan Terrill says:

    This brings back memories of a visit around 1988. We were staying in Dunster and had set off very early to make the long drive back to Kent. We stopped at the bottom of the hill, and as the rest of the family weren’t interested , I climbed up the steep path to the tower alone. It was a lovely, slightly misty, summer morning and halfway up the hill a hare bounced out of the woods and acrooss the path in front of me. As I neared the top., the tower came into view and there in front of it was a large deer , which froze momentarily and looked at me before loping off into the undergrowth. It was a magical experience that I’ve never forgotten.
    I’m pleased to see how good the stonework on the tower looks – I wonder if it’s had some restoration work done on it?

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Alan and thanks for sharing your memories of a magical morning. Sadly we didn’t have any close encounters with wildlife, but we were lucky with a wonderfully sunny day in February. The tower is in good condition, and is clearly cared for, which is great news.

  2. Gwyn says:

    This defines a folly for me. Love it, and your discovery of the view of Willet Hill in the archives.

    1. Editor says:

      Yes, a great folly and I was very excited it’s to find the images. Always happy to know you have enjoyed posts Gwyn.

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