by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Times
Peterson's Folly at Sway in the New Forest, Hampshire

In Search of Folly

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 6 August 1993


'You can't set out to build a folly,' said Gwyn Headley, president of the Folly Fellowship. 'A house, a school, a church, yes - but a folly? Never. Why? Because a folly is in the eye of the beholder - it's up to other people to decide whether a building is a folly or not.'

Headley was speaking at the Folly Fellowship's headquarters on the top floor of a spacious Victorian house in a leafy corner of North London that commands a stunning panoramic view of the city. Headley, now 46, began taking a precocious interest in Britain's numerous and oddball minor buildings as a child, and later started roaming the country in his spare time in search of them. The eventual result was 'Follies', a guidebook co-authored with another devotee, Wim Muelemkamp, and the founding five years ago of the Folly Fellowship - dedicated 'to preserve and promote the enjoyment and awareness of follies, grottoes and garden buildings' - which now has 1,400 members scattered across the globe.

The Fellowship publishes a handsome, entertaining and suitably slightly off-beam quarterly magazine, runs an annual competition for measured drawings of follies and has built up an impressive photographic archive.

The 18th-century Grand Tour and the rise of landscape gardening, Headley said, gave an enormous boost to the construction of a plethora of strange and peculiar buildings on English country estates, many of them inspired by fanciful structures and grottoes encountered by travelers in Italy or glimpsed in the pastoral landscapes of contemporary painters. Indeed, the 37 garden buildings at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, ranging from Greek temples to Gothic ruins, came to constitute a microcosmic Grand Tour that could be undertaken without even leaving the house's grounds.

'So, although we might regard them as follies now, they were actually built with a serious philosophical and architectural purpose in mind,' said Headley. 'Equally, many landowners built follies to relieve unemployment, simply to give their workers something to do in periods of slump.'

Others had totally dotty origins, such as Mad Jack Fuller's 'Sugar Loaf' in East Sussex. 'Fuller, ' said Headley, 'was a man who couldn't abide being contradicted. One night he bet his dinner guests £100 that he could see Dallington Church spire from his house. When he opened the curtains the following morning he discovered, of course, that he couldn't. So he immediately set about building a replica of the top of the spire on the intervening ridge. (This splendid autocrat had himself buried in pharaonic stye, in a pyramid furnished with roast chicken and a bottle of port).

Less whimsical in its inspiration, but scarcely less bizarre in its execution, is Judge Peterson's Folly at Sway in the New Forest in Hampshire. This 13-story, 218-foot (66 meter) tower was put up by Peterson in the 1880s to investigate the possibilities of concrete as a building material.

Recently saved from ruin and converted into comfortable lodgings for guests, the tower is billed as 'the world's tallest Bed & Breakfast', and is, in fact, for sale for a million guineas (not pounds, a dull denomination generally eschewed by Folly folk).

Folly building has often proved ruinously addictive to those infected by the bug, as William Beckford, author of the 18th-century gothic novel 'Vathek' and builder of the fantastical Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire confessed with melancholy self-knowledge: 'Some people drink to forget their unhappiness. I do not drink. I build.'

More compulsive still, said Headley (who is currently working on a new book on American follies), was Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, who, convinced that she would expire the moment her house in San Jose in California was completed, went on adding to it obsessively for nearly 30 years (construction ceasing only on the morning of her death).

Nor does the desire to create lunatic structures show any signs of abating. Bill Heine, a cinema owner in the Oxford suburb of Headington, for example, decided to enliven his modest terraced house by adding a gigantic shark crashing vertically through the roof - and with local support and a vigorous campaign staged by the Folly Fellowship has managed to fight of the city council's demands to remove the offending fish.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023