Some articles that have appeared in the press in the UK:
The Folly Fellowship: Iain Gray, Mike Cousins, Andrew Plumridge and Tony Hooper by the Sugar Loaf in Brightling
Look out over the downs around the Sussex village of Brightling on a clear day and you find a landscape littered with the rubble of divine English lunacy. Better still, go with people from the Folly Fellowship, as I did, and you will see the method behind the madness of the fake temples, false grottos and churchless spires. I had no idea that such an organisation existed, and I am not the only one, for it shares the predicament of the eccentric buildings that it celebrates – still there but always close to ruin.
At just 19 years old, the fellowship is far younger than the follies themselves, although it turns out that the national flair for putting up useless buildings did make a modest comeback with the sudden wealth that was a feature of Thatcher’s Britain. It boasts a membership of a few hundred, having started out as a pressure group to protect what it claimed were always the poor relatives of conservation projects. The late Beatle George Harrison was a member, as are Bob Geldof and Lady Lucinda Lambton.
What constitutes a folly? And where better to ask the question than next to an extraordinary 25ft-tall pyramid in the churchyard of Brightling’s St Thomas à Becket?
Today it would struggle to get planning permission, but since it was the project of the local squire, MP and great begetter of follies, Mad Jack Fuller, there were no such problems. It was to be his mausoleum, and he had planned it 25 years before his death. After he died in 1834 he was reportedly buried in the structure in full dinner dress, sitting at a table with his usual bottle of claret at hand. There was broken glass on the floor to keep the devil out.
“A folly,” says Ian Gray, one of the trustees of the fellowship, “is a building built for fun rather than for purpose.” Strictly speaking then, the Brightling pyramid doesn’t count since it was built to house Fuller’s corpse. “That’s true,” he replies. “But then there is the question of what sort of building it is. How much it exceeds what was strictly necessary for its purpose.”
We’ve come straight to the core of one of the fellowship’s most frequent deliberations. Like the follies, it turns out not to be quite what it seemed from a long way off. For example, what is the status of, say, a water tower so extravagantly disguised as to look like nothing of the sort? And what is its status after it has ceased to be a water tower? Then there is the intriguing case, a few hundred yards away, of the Brightling Needle, a 65ft obelisk built either to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 or Waterloo ten years later. It should therefore surely be classed as a monument. True, says the fellowship, but that should not of itself disqualify a structure from folly status. The needle, as it happens, has since achieved impeccable functionality by becoming a trig point for the Ordnance Survey.
Even the word is contentious. Webster’s dictionary has the unforgiving description of a “foolish and useless but expensive undertaking,” while the Shorter Oxford has it as “any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder”. Both have a sense of the venture’s stupidity, a view the fellowship emphatically rejects. Celebration, they say, is at the root of it, whether of wealth, victory, marriage or simply location. In his book Follies, Jeffery W. Whitelaw suggests that their purpose may be no more than “the aesthetic completion of the landscape”, in line with the picturesque and romantic movements in the architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries.
It’s worth staying with Mad Jack Fuller for just a moment longer because he was responsible for one of the most truly ludicrous structures on the face of the English countryside. A bibulous and combative Parliamentarian, he sounds like a 19th-century combination of Charles Kennedy and Michael Heseltine – vain, clever, well-meaning, but slightly out of control.
While in London he bet a friend that he could see the spire of the church in the village of Dallington from his home at Brightling. When he got home he realised he was wrong, and the Dallington spire was obscured by a hill. So he got his workmen to erect a lookalike. This was done in a single night, a claim made plausible by its jerry-built construction of stones held together by nothing more than mud. The other version is that he wanted to present himself publicly as a good man who had put up a church. No more absurd, when you think about it, than today’s householders who make sure their solar panels are visible, even if wrongly placed.
Whatever the truth, the phoney steeple, known as the Sugar Loaf, is nothing more than a rough cone standing on the ground. But go in through the little porch and you can still see the beam holes from the days when it was pressed into service by a grateful family of six. A folly? Perhaps, but not to them.
On the climb up to the mysterious hollow tower just off the road from Brightling, the talk among the follyists turns to Humphrey Lyttelton, himself a monument to good-humoured eccentricity. It is his celebration of silliness – his own word – which they applaud; constructive, recreational silliness as opposed to mere frivolity. That, they say, is what most of the follies were up to; they may have been showing off, but they were also being high-spirited.
This 35ft, perfectly useless tower has the distinction of never having been
anything but a shell. Maybe Mad Jack had built himself a lookout point to
survey the building work at Bodiam Castle, which he had taken off the hands
of a Hastings builders’ firm for £3,000 in 1828 to save it from demolition.
The tower is all but hidden in a copse, not an uncommon feature among
follies. One theory about the origin of the word is that it and its French counterpart,
la folie, derive from feuilles, or foliage.
There are about 1,500 folly sites in Britain. “The folly,” says the fellowship’s leaflet, “is to be found in a state of mind, rather than in an architectural style or function. If you believe a particular building to be a folly, then folly it is.” It quotes Lord Berner on his folly at Faringdon in Oxfordshire: “The great point of this tower is that it will be entirely useless.”
For two of the fellowship members touring Mad Jack’s follies today, both of them architects, that departure from seriousness and the usual adult criteria of building is the great appeal of the folly. “That pursuit of eccentricity is so refreshing, so rare,” says Tony Hooper. “The ingenuity of it,” adds Andrew Plumridge. “So much skill put at the disposal of fun.”
They are borne out by a 600-page volume by Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp called Follies, Grottoes and Garden Buildings. It took them longer to compile than all but the most massive of follies took to assemble, and was in its own way as grandiose a project as any. Here are the stone manifestations from the farthest fringes of Englishmen’s fancies. Take the Tattingstone Wonder, a pair of ordinary cottages with an implausible stage-set church attached to them – once again the local squire was responsible. Go to the other side of the building and the “church” tower has no rear wall; or the House in the Clouds in Thorpeness, now a holiday home in what used to be a water tower, with the perfect replica of a cottage standing high above the trees on a 60ft-tall tower. This is what you might call an inverted folly, having started life as a functional thing, albeit disguised. Both these buildings are in Suffolk – Silly Suffolk as it is dubbed to the annoyance of its inhabitants. Even though this is a corruption of the German selig, meaning blessed, silliness should be no slight in view of Humphrey Lyttelton’s approval.
Headley and Meulenkamp consider the leading candidate for the title of purest folly to be Sir Thomas Tresham’s famous Triangular Lodge in Rushton, Northamptonshire. The whole thing is made of threes – three sides, each of 33 feet, and with three gables, and nine gargoyles in all. The chimney on top has three sides. There is a text above the door, reading: Tres. Testi monium. Dant. (There are three that bear record.) As well as being the number three, the word tres doubles as an abbreviation of Tresham. Bearing in mind that the lodge was built in 1597, and that Tresham was an ardent Catholic, this building turns out to be nothing less than a three-dimensional hymn to the Trinity, the setting in stone of a recusant’s faith. As such, it seems fair to question its purest-folly credentials – though obviously it was folly in the sense of mortal risk – since it was in the service of a purpose far heavier than ornamentation.
Then there are some buildings that, though thoroughly residential, are seen by the authors as too fantastically ornamental to ignore; for example, Portmeirion in North Wales, the fantasy village designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, is “the finest, most elaborate, imaginative and sustained piece of folly work in Great Britain”. Less well-known is Harlaxton Manor, of which they write: “The constraint of definition has to be flung aside when one first sees this ethereal masterpiece rising like a new Jerusalem out of the plain Lincolnshire countryside. It is a jaw-droppingly magnificent sight, on a par with Ludwig II’s castles in Bavaria, pre-dating them by more than 30 years and all the more spectacular by contrast with the uniformity of its surroundings.”
They may not be making them like that any more, but they are not completely idle either. The fellowship trustees tell the story of a man in Oxfordshire who has driven planning officers to despair with his portable pyramid. They would locate it, photograph it and prepare to take action against its owner, only to find on their next visit that it had been whisked away on its specially converted railway trolley.
The affluent eccentrics who put up all those serious pieces of foolery would be glad to see how the fellowship has matured from pressure group to consultative charity. Fun, they would have concluded, is in properly serious hands. They might even have forked out to help keep it afloat and been appalled at how little you can get for your money. Meanwhile, inside the pyramid of St Thomas à Becket in Brightling, Mad Jack Fuller isn’t dressed for a dinner with a bottle of port on the table. He never was. He was buried beneath the floor, in the ordinary way. On one of the walls of the tomb is an extract from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, the one about paths of glory leading but to the grave. There’s something else that Gray wrote which might have been more appropriate to such a source of myths: “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”