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.
Willet Hill is in the Brendon 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.
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.
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.
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.