It’s well known that the English are eccentric. ‘Only mad dogs and English men…’ and all that. Nothing expresses this national characteristic more than the passion for folly building. Aristocrats with more money than sense set up turreted towers, sham castles and ornamental gateways on hill-tops, in gardens, and in the middle of nowhere, for no better reason than that they could. These places are glorious testaments to individuality, often a source of quirky local stories, and are sometimes simply beautiful to look at. They satisfy my love of the peculiar and float my boat in every way.
Squat Clavell Tower sits atop Hen Cliff, overlooking the sea at Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset. It’s pinky stone, and Tuscan style colonnades and balustrade are visible for miles, lording it over a landscape of rolling hills, hay-fields, munching cattle and farm buildings. Built for the Reverend John Richard Clavell in 1830, possibly for his seventieth birthday, for the use of house guests and as a useful landmark. Later it was a coastguard lookout, and it’s thought an observatory, but the family archives contain many watercolours and verses that show it was much used for picnics and pleasure.
The tower seems as natural to it’s setting as the waves and winds that surround it. So much so, that had The Landmark Trust not moved it, stone by stone (all 16,272 of them), back from the edge, it would have slid from it’s cliff-top perch and tumbled into the ocean below.
It’s a place to fire the imagination. Thomas Hardy courted his first love, the coastguard’s daughter Eliza Nicholl, here. I see her, long skirts flapping in the wind, bonnet tied securely to her head, clasping Hardy’s hand, dreaming of their future together as she stared out to sea. Hardy however, was not smitten by my romanticism, and dumped Eliza for her sister. To PD James the tower in it’s ruined, abandoned state was a chilling, desolate sentinel over the landscape and the scene of a murder in her crime novel ‘The Dark Tower’.
Sir William Paxton’s Tower, although on a hill top, appears entombed in it’s Welsh valley. It’s approach guarded by narrow high-hedged lanes and a grassy field, a sometime home to sheep and cows. Only once the tower is reached does the countryside reveal itself, in a swathe of meandering river, ruined castle, the National Botanic Garden of Wales, and church steeples dotting the landscape like upended match-sticks.
Paxton had his tower built in 1806 as a memoriam to Lord Nelson – maybe. Local legend has it that he spent thousands trying to get elected in 1802. He promised to build a bridge over the River Tywi for the locals if he got elected, but when he lost by 45 votes he built his tower instead – a rather permanent ‘up yours!’, causing locals to nick-name it the folly of spite! He may also just have wanted a place with a wow factor to entertain his guests; or a viewing platform to watch his horses racing between Middleton and Tenby!
Nowadays, it’s a great dog-walking-for-dummies spot. No effort involved, glorious views for us, and a great run for the M’s. Coupled with a visit to Wrights, this is practically heaven on earth.
Another hill. Another tower. The fifth Earl of Stamford had his – St. John’s – built on the second highest point in Leicestershire, to watch his horses gallop around the racecourse laid out at the base of the hill, to enjoy the magnificent views over his estate and as a vantage point to watch fox hunting (another of his favourite sports) across Bradgate Park and the neighbouring countryside.
But local legend has it that when an out-of-control bonfire killed his old retainer John, the Earl ordered that the tower be renamed in his memory. It’s said that the stonework at the side was altered to look like a handle – because the old man liked his beer – and the legend of Old John’s ‘beer tankard’ was born!
Clavell Tower. Kimmeridge, Wareham, Dorset. BH20 5PF
Paxton’s Tower. Near Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire. SA32 8HX.
Wright’s Food Emporium. Golden Grove Arms, Llanarthne. SA32 8JU. Tel: 01558 668929
Old John. Bradgate Park, Newtown Linford, Leicestershire LE8 0HE