What is a folly?

The question many of us dread – we know one instinctively, but trying to convey that to an interested newcomer? Difficult. The thing is, they don’t all fall into one neat category that is easily defined, and if they did, the subject would be far less interesting than it is. So I’m not going to go for a brief dictionary style definition. Instead I’ll try and explain what we mean by all the different words we use to describe the unusual buildings that we know and love in the Folly Fellowship, and give illustrations of each type, which may convey more than the words..


A building made primarily to be seen – it may be built of bricks and have windows but in most cases it won’t have been built to be habitable. Note I say a building – it should look as though it might have been habitable, useful or defensive, so it should have at least the remains of doors, windows and a roof, but structures built from bricks but having none of the above, eg some modern sculptures, may be decorative and extravagent but they aren’t really follies. It may be an awkward shape (triangular buildings are almost uniquely follies); it may have no roof or stairs and it may well have been built in a prominent position (read -windswept and miles from a water supply). Those that have been made habitable usually have inconvenient layouts (see many of the Landmark Trust efforts) or have had to be ‘modernised’ by attaching a large modern extension. 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. But modern ones continue to be built and the form and materials change, and the scale is usually smaller. Big towers are hard to hide from planning authorities. The pure folly, that is to say, one that has never had any function, is quite rare, so we don’t limit ourselves to just those types, otherwise every time we discovered an odd, interesting building and then found it had once housed a water tank or a seat, we’d be crossing it off our list of follies.