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One man's folly is another's fun

By Trevor HollowaySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 1986



ENGLAND abounds in architectural gems that are the envy of the world. But at the other end of the scale are some structures in brick and stone that represent the height of architectural folly -- hence the name by which they are known: folly buildings. These usually take the form of lofty towers, sham castles, or structures of ridiculous design. For the most part they were built by eccentrics and serve no useful purpose except carrying out the creative visions of people who had far more money than sense.

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Visitors to the city of Bath may be tempted to climb the steep slope of Bathwick Hill to inspect the imposing castlelike edifice at the top. Alas, it will prove a labor in vain. It is no medieval castle, merely a fa,cade with nothing behind it. It was built in 1760 by Bath postmaster Ralph Allen to improve the view from his house in North Parade.

Much the same explanation is offered for another hilltop folly, the manmade mock-Gothic ``ruin'' at Congleton, Cheshire. It was built by Randle Wilbraham in 1750 with the idea of improving the view. Like many other follies, it is now in the care of the National Trust.

At Alnwick, over a century ago, a number of farmer tenants built a purposeless tower in gratitude to the Duke of Northumberland for reducing their rentals. Instead of being flattered by this gesture, the Duke reasoned that if they had money to squander in such a foolish manner they obviously did not need a reduction in their rents, so he promptly restored these to their former level!

In some instances folly towers were built out of sheer spite and so that their owners might overlook their neighbors' territory. It is believed that Drax's Folly at Wareham and Folly Tower near Halifax were erected for this purpose.

A classical example of foolhardy building is Kemy's Folly on a hill near Newport, in Wales. It was created by a wealthy young man who had a mania for such useless structures. The story goes that one day he invited his uncle to inspect his latest creation, boasting that, from the summit of the tower, 11 neighboring counties could be seen. To this his uncle replied: ``I'm sorry, nephew, that 11 counties can see thy folly!''

Sir John (``Mad Jack'') Fuller, of Brightling, Sussex, was an eccentric 18th-century squire, another builder of hilltop follies. One of these was the conical ``Sugar-Loaf'' structure to be seen near Bexhill. It came into being as the result of a wager. The squire maintained that the steeple of Dallington Church could be seen from his grounds. His friends proved him wrong, whereupon the eccentric squire had the steeplelike ``Sugar-Loaf'' built with the idea of justifying his claim.

Sir Thomas Tresham was a man with strangely mixed interests -- theology, mathematics, occultism, and satanic rites. This explains the remarkable Triangular Lodge built in the 16th century on the grounds of Rushton Hall, near Kettering.

Everything concerning the Lodge is governed by the number three. The three sides are each 33 feet, 3 inches long, rooms are three or six-sided on three floors, pinnacles are triangular, and windows grouped in threes. Inscriptions (in Latin) are in twice-three couplets and have 33 letters to each phrase. Need it be added that the Tresham arms is a trefoil?

Freston Tower, near Ipswich, was built by a doting father as a place of learning for his child. Each floor of this crazy structure was devoted to teaching a different subject -- grammar on one floor, history and geography on other floors, while the top floor was equipped as an observatory so that the child could study astronomy.

On a hillside south of the city of Bath is Midford Castle, shaped like the ace of clubs. The three towers form the ``leaves''; the terrace repeats the pattern; and the entrance forms the ``stem.'' It was built by a Captain Roebuch to celebrate his good fortune at cards -- chiefly to a particular club!

The 14th-century church at Ormskirk is believed to be the oldest existing example of folly building in Britain and is known as ``Sisters' Folly.''

The story is that centuries ago two sisters wished to enlarge or beautify the church. One was determined to erect a tower, while her sister was equally determined that the church should have a steeple. Neither would give way, so the church has both a tower and a steeple.

Folly building may be foolish, but it must be admitted that it adds novelty to the landscape of Britain. The world would be a duller place without a few eccentrics around!