I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
They are called follies and are built mostly as decorations by people who decide to spend their money on vanity projects. The Royal Oak Foundation tells us that a folly is “An ornamental structure—oftentimes strange, fantastical, or whimsical—built for just one purpose: pleasure.”
A Background to Follies
The first follies appeared in the late 16th century, but the fashion for putting up these structures didn’t really catch on until the eighteenth century; this was the heyday of folly building. The epicentre of folly construction was Britain, where scores of them still exist. The nearest rival in terms of numbers is the United States with a dozen follies, not counting the entirety of the Las Vegas Strip.
The name given to the genre brings to mind thoughts of silly mistakes made by the people behind their creation.
Some people call these fanciful piles of stone and brick useless, but they had better not say this around the Folly Fellowship. This is a group dedicated to the celebration and preservation of follies in Britain. It points out that “Traditionally follies were built on the estates of rich men in order to ornament the landscape and provide focal points on walks through the grounds.”
There are suggestions that some installations were put up as a form of public works; that wealthy landowners used them to keep the poor folks employed when the going got rough. Such high-minded gestures would certainly confer bragging rights over neighbouring estates that could only afford modest structures.
Towers and obelisks were favourites, as well as whimsical replicas of Roman temples. There was a brief period of fascination with Chinese pagodas and bridges. Another popular theme was to construct ruins.
Below is a folly in Hagley Park, southern England. It was built in the mid-18th century to resemble a ruined medieval castle. George Lyttelton, 1st Baron Lyttelton, is generally given credit as the inspiration for this confection that has no purpose.
One can imagine a conversation as Lord Lyttelton calls in a local builder.
“Now then, Smudgely, I want you to build me a ruin.”
“I’m a craftsman, your lordship. I don’t do shoddy work. If you want something that’s going to fall down in 50 years, then O’Reilly’s your man.”
“You misunderstand me Smudgely. I have a fancy to erect a castle on my property that will be deliberately made to look as though it’s falling down. People will come from far and wide to marvel at this reflection of my genius.”
Lord Lyttelton was not alone in his desire to erect wrecked fortresses. Philip Yorke, 2nd Earl of Hardwicke, had a similar fancy and Wimpole Folly (below) rose in the Cambridgeshire countryside in 1769.
The design was created by Sanderson Miller, the same architect behind Hagley Castle. Over the years, the edifice fell into disrepair “from constant weather erosion, vandalism, and pigeon issues …” (Historicengland.org).
Britain’s National Trust stepped in and engaged in the odd procedure of restoring a decaying building to its original ruined state.
A very popular sub-category of the folly craze was the tower.
Lady Coventry wondered if a beacon (bonfire lit on special occasions) could be seen from her home 22 miles (35 km) distant. Of course, they could have set fire to some wood and taken a look. That was far too simple for the lady or her titled husband, Viscount Deerhurst.
James Wyatt, who we’ll meet in a little more detail later, was called in to design a tower. The 65-foot (20-metre) high structure was completed in 1799, and Lady Coventry was pleased to observe that she could indeed see it from her home. However, she never actually visited the thing.
Wisely, Broadway Tower was re-purposed as a retreat for writers and artists. Then, during the Cold War, a bunker was dug next to it and the tower was used as an observation post to monitor nuclear fallout.
Wainhouse Tower was intended to be used as a chimney for a factory but it never filled that function. At 253 feet high (77 metres), it makes the claim to be the tallest folly in the world.
Something of a late-comer to be folly fad, the tower was completed in 1875. Occasionally, it is open to the public who can, if they wish, climb its 403 steps to a viewing platform from which they can look at the surrounding Yorkshire countryside.
And, to demonstrate that the British aren’t the only ones with a quirky taste for futile architecture, here is Las Pozas in Mexico; a surrealist garden with towers that serve no function except to be looked at.
Construction began in 1962 and includes “more than 30 structures, ranging from plant sculptures to winding staircases to nowhere, and cathedral-inspired screens” (Atlas Obscura).
And, oh dear, this is all the work of Sir Edward James, described as an eccentric member of the English upper class. So maybe, this folly fixation does seem to be a British thing.
Here was a structure truly worthy of the word folly, or any of its synonyms such as idiocy, recklessness, or absurdity.
Lord Byron called William Thomas Beckford “England’s wealthiest son.” In 1771, he inherited a vast fortune from his father, who had made his money from sugar plantations in Jamaica staffed by slave labour.
In 1796, he embarked on a construction project like no other. He began the process of building an enormous Gothic-style cathedral on his estate in Wiltshire, central England. It was to be his home and was called Fonthill Abbey.
So, this was not a folly in the sense that it had no purpose. Beckford turned to the fashionable architect James Wyatt to turn his vision into a reality. But, there were problems. To start with Wyatt was a lush and was absent from the job site a lot due to intoxication. So Beckford, a man with no training in construction, supervised the workforce of 500.
A dominant feature of the abbey was a 376-foot (84-metre) tower. But it collapsed. It was rebuilt and collapsed again. The third effort was more successful.
Once he moved into the cavernous abbey, Beckford was less than enamoured of the place. His biographer, James Lees-Milne, quotes him as complaining “Oh what a fatal abode! Here it smokes, there the wind blows in (and so would the rain if it were raining); every tower is a conveyor of rheumatism.”
The West Indian sugar trade nose-dived and most of Beckford’s fortune went with it. He sold his Gothic cathedral and moved out. Two years later, the whole edifice tumbled down in a storm, and nothing remains of the original building.
- As an aside, William Beckford took piano lessons when he was five from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who was all of nine at the time.
- Sir Edward Watkin was a Victorian railway tycoon who decided to eclipse Paris’s Eiffel Tower by building a bigger structure in north London. Work began on the tower in 1893, but the money ran out before the first level was completed. The rusting, iron latticework soon became known as Watkin’s Folly before it was pulled down in 1907.
- The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is a fine example of the Italianate-Neo-Romanesque style of architecture. Or it was, until a pointed glass addition, called the Crystal, was stuck on one side of the building in 2007. Most Torontonians see the addition as a horrible folly and refer to it derisively as “The Carbuncle.”
- “Follies 2017.” Royal Oak Foundation, undated.
- “The Gothic Folly at Wimpole Hall.” Historicengland.org, undated.
- The Folly Fellowship.
- “Architecture: Fonthill: A House That Haunts:” Jonathan Glancy, The Independent, April 6, 1994.
- “The Dream House that Became a Gothic Horror.” Royal Institute of British Architects Journal, Will Wiles, August 15, 2019.
- “Essential Guide: Royal Follies.” Nathan Risinger, Atlas Obscura, August 6, 2010.
- “Broadway Tower and Nuclear Bunker.” Annetta Black, Atlas Obscura, undated.
- “Wainhouse Tower.” Visitcalderdale.com, undated.
- “Las Pozas.” Atlas Obscura, undated.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor