Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Folly Followers

Being able to see for miles is, I think, one of life’s (frequently unsung) blessings. Is this a subconscious reason why, for more than a century, holidaymakers and daytrippers have tended to make for the coast? Perhaps it is. For there, in one direction at least, there is no sense of visual constraint.

I remember, as a small boy, sitting on a swing at the top of a sloping field overlooking one of my childhood homes, fascinated by the stupendous south-facing view across the cornfields. The horizon was about six miles away, but to such young eyes those fields seemed to stretch halfway across the world. Perched there, swinging to and fro, I would often gaze upon a dark, tower-like building, seated on a ridge and surrounded by a small area of woodland. I would wonder what it was, who lived there, and when and why it had been built. My young imagination tried in vain to provide answers that were not apparent.

I happened to mention it at school. ‘It is a folly,’ said one of my teachers. That left me none the wiser. When prompted to explain, she floundered for a moment, before defining such a construction as ‘something built for no good reason’, which struck me as absurd. Surely there had to be a point? Forty years on, and I have belated sympathy with her inability to nail down a clear definition. Even architectural experts cannot agree fully. It is generally accepted that a folly is, principally, decorative. Some are intentional monuments to extravagance, opulence or family prominence – if you like, ‘we built it because we could’. Others, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were born of benevolence, commissioned to provide stopgap work for unemployed artisans and the local poor.

Recently, I told my young children of the mysterious building hiding among the trees which had enchanted me when I was their age. ‘What’s inside it?’ one of them asked. When I admitted I had no idea, because I had never paid it a visit, the response, inevitably, was: ‘I want to go there, Dad. I want to see it.’ It was the perfect excuse finally to see it for myself.

We set out early this morning. Access was not that easy. After taking them to lunch at a nearby, nineteenth-century, ivy-clad – in other words, wonderfully English – pub, we navigated a winding, single-track country lane and parked on a gravel layby. The tiny signpost for the monument could hardly have been less conspicuous. It was as if the place were not meant to be visited, especially as the thirty-metre-high structure itself was sufficiently obscured by the trees as to render it invisible from the roadside.

The kids were captivated at first sight. Its stone base is triangular, and, when viewed from below at certain angles, it appears to lean, as if frozen in the act of toppling over (Figure 76.1), rather like an Italian campanile, such as that on the Venetian island of Burano. It was built to commemorate the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 – I suppose, an eighteenth-century ‘up yours’ to the rebellious Scots (Figure 76.2).

Figure 76.1: The ‘leaning’ folly was completed in 1748, costing £3,000.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Figure 76.2: I took this photograph of the inscription set in stone above the doorway.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

It is still possible to reach the viewing platform (Figure 76.3), by means of an interior spiral staircase. Thanks to sterling efforts from a follies preservation society (Figure 76.4), it remains open to the public, but only on Sundays. So, another time, I hope, preferably on a clear day.

Figure 76.3: This is the view from the top, looking northward towards my childhood home. Despite the high-res picture, I cannot quite make out the sloping field.

Copyright © 2007 Joe Havard

Figure 76.4: According to its web site, www.follies.org.uk: ‘The Folly Fellowship was founded in 1988 as a pressure group to protect, preserve, and promote follies, grottoes and garden buildings. Initially a group of enthusiasts keen to record what was at first seen as a peculiarly British aspect of architecture.’

Copyright © 2013 The Folly Fellowship

By the way, from that same sloping field, it is still possible to see its domed roof on the horizon – but only just. In forty years, of course, the trees have grown (Figure 76.5).

Figure 76.5: The landscape has altered since the early 1970s, but if you enlarge this picture, and follow the central tree trunk directly upward, the dome can be seen to protrude above the distant – and ever-growing – woodland.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Folly or not, it is a treasure – if you can find it.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

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