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 time which may convey more than the words..

FOLLY: A building made primarily to be seen -  it may be built of bricks and have windows but it 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 realy 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. 'Traditional' 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.

westonbury Tower
The Rustic Arch at Belvedere, Ireland. A pure folly; this is almost two dimensional -it has never had a function other than to be admired from a distance -the arch leads nowhere, the windows have never been glazed, the battlements are clearly not for defence, and there isn't even room for a viewing platform. The tower at Westonbury Mill, Herefordshire - purely built for fun, this tower gathers water from a stream running beneath it and collects it in a tank at the top. When the tank is full it gushes out of one of the gargoyles on each side.

BELVEDERE: A viewpoint - usually a building designed to be climbed to take in the view (a belvedere tower is synonymous with a prospect tower), sometimes in the form of a temple, but sometimes, (and most disappointingly if you've just climbed a steep hill to find it), just a flattened piece of ground with a seat from where the view may be appreciated.

CHINOISERIE - The name given to garden buildings which used Chinese motifs in their decoration. Pagodas, steep Chinese bridges and a few summerhouses were built in this style. This was a fairly short lived fashion and most were made of wood, so those that survive have either been extensively refurbished or completely rebuilt.

Chinese details on a temple at Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire.
Pagoda at Acton Round, Shropshire, 1970s


COLUMN: Tall, slender, usually round in section and solid, hence no possible function, and mostly put up as a focal point or with a plaque to commemorate something. Not unlike an obelisk.

COTTAGE ORNE, FERME ORNE - A decorative cottage or farm, part of a large estate, where maybe the original village has been swept away and a series of small thatched cottages with whimsical shapes (circular with conical roofs perhaps) have been built to give the owner of the estate an idealised view of cleaned-up rusticity. Sometimes model dairies or chickenhouses were built that were elaborately decorated and used by the ladies of the house to play at being rural without actually getting dirty.

Poultry house
This elaborate poultry house at Leighton Hall, Powys was a plaything for the lady of the house- it housed chickens and geese in pallatial splendour and had separate quarters for each, stained glass windows and a covered outdoor scratching area. The poultry keepers cottage next door is much smaller.


DOVECOTE: A building to house doves or pigeons, whose function was to provide a source of fresh meat in the winter. Many have a rotating ladder inside which the gamekeeper would ascend to retrieve eggs or doves from the nesting boxes. Very unpopular with the estate dwellers as the birds helped themselves to the produce of their gardens, while killing or stealing one would result in severe penalties. They were often built near the main hall and so were given a variety of fanciful shapes as they were also to be seen as a garden feature. Circular with a conical roof is one of the most favoured shapes. Some cross over into folly territory when they become disguised as castellated towers, but in essence they were useful buildings given a decorative outer skin.

Worfield dovecote
Worfield dovecote, Shropshire. Inside functional with multiple dove nesting boxes, outside battlemented.
An elaborate dual purpose dovecote which incorporated a pair of privies in the base which emptied directly into a stream. At Abercamlais near Brecon

DRY BRIDGE: A real bridge is a construction to enable one to get from one side of a river or lake to the other without getting wet. A dry bridge is a landscape object, built at a carefully considered location where it can enhance a landscape view, but spanning only a dip in the ground. Some decorative bridges are built as part of a landscaping project where the bridge is the focal element of a man made lake or waterway, so although they function as real bridge, they were not built to traverse an existing river.

EYECATCHER: A building to catch the eye -this may be a two dimensional structure designed to give the impression of a fort or ruin when seen from the right angle, or a workaday building such as a lodge or farmhouse which has been given a gothick makeover to make it more attractive when seen from the main house.

Fort Putnam
Fort Putnam, Greystoke, Cumbria. A sham castle disguises a row of farm buildings.


GAZEBO - A small garden building usually open at the sides or lightly filled with latticework and often slightly raised to give a view. Often circular or octagonal with a domed roof, they serve as a simple shelter and a resting place to admire the view. Early ones were often built into the corner of a garden wall with a few steps up to the door to give a commanding view of the garden or a view over the wall to the outside. Current usage tends to mean a foldup canvas structure for keeping dry at outdoor events.

GROTTO: A room, usually underground, that tries to convey the impression of gloominess and a lost ancient world. Frequently lined with shells and tufa (volcanic rock) and often including statues or masks of water gods. Water flowing through or down from the roof into a pool is quite common. Essentially a man made cave with romantic additions.

Horton Grotto
Cwm Weeg
Part of the elaborate modern grotto at Horton Menagerie, Northamptonshire
A modern grotto at Dolfor, Powys, using chunks of coloured glass and volcanic rock along with fibre optic lighting and a mist machine.

HERMITAGE: A rustic building , usually built of roots, trunks with the bark left on, and thatch, and made to give the impression that it might be inhabited by a hermit. For a brief period some people were persuaded to take on the role of hermit and live in these places at least for a short period. One of two were fitted out with mechanical hermits who performed for visitors via hidden levers.

ICE-HOUSE: An early refridgerator - essentially a brick-lined hole in the ground filled full of layers of ice (from a nearby lake in winter) and straw, with meat packed between the layers. In order to keep them as cool as possible they were buried below ground, or artificial mounds were created to enclose them. Usually two doors were provided to give an air-lock of sorts to prevent heat getting in. However a mound by a lake with a door opens up a few landscaping possibilities so on occasion these have become ornamented garden buildings but in essence these are purely functional, so not follies. Many survive but are frequently ruinous or blocked up as they don't lend themselves to conversion into anything habitable.

LODGE or GATEHOUSE: A small house built where the drive to a country house meets a road. Frequently built in pairs, sometimes joined by an arch, they served to protect the main house by housing gatekeepers who would deal with visitors and deliveries. As they were the visible part of an estate they were frequently treated to elaborate outer skins, often architecturally more adventurous than the main house. Little thought was given to the comfort of the inhabitants however, and they often consisted of little more than a single square room with inconvenient or very small windows. Often the two rooms were on opposite sides of the drive so the inhabitants had to go outside or traverse an arch to get to the other room. Although strictly not follies, many have survived where the big house has long gone, and those too small or awkward to make habitable, survive as useless but decorative buildings which pretty much qualifies them.

Bracklyn Lodge
eaton Hall
Bracklyn Lodge, Killucan, Ireland. A dark, rough, stone gatehouse which differs dramatically from the main house, which is a light Georgian box
A lodge in the grand manner at Eaton Hall, Cheshire


OBELISK: A tall thin pointed stone or brick building - usually a memorial. Smaller ones are common in graveyards and larger ones as war memorials, but on estates they are often used primarily as focal points at the end of a drive or walk, with the obligatory inscription sometimes cooked up to fill the need rather than celebrating a genuinely historic occasion. Designed to impress, they are amongst the most extravagent of useless buildings as their solidity requires vast blocks of stone but their lack on any interior space means they can't pretend to have ever had a function. Not really follies at all but often found in the same surrounds.

Obelisk as memorial -this one to a pet dog at Acton round, Shropshire. "Near this place lie the remains of the faithful terrier Scruffy. Severe incontinence cut short a long life at the age of 18 years on June 21 1985. If her bladder had been stronger, she would have lasted even longer'
Obelisk in memory of the gardener at West Green House, Hampshire, 1980s

PROSPECT TOWER: A tower with a staircase inside and a platform at the top from which to see the view. Can be round, square, rectangular, ocatagonal or triangular but almost always have battlements and frequently gothick windows. These are often built to resemble a piece of an old castle, and positioned at some distance from the house so that a good walk across the estate to the tower, then an exhausting ascent to the top will be rewarded with a beautiful view of the parkland and house.

Grimston park

Pontypool Tower - a tower on a hill with a staircase and a beautiful view.

Grimston Park Tower, Yorkshire


PYRAMID: The shape is derived from Egyptian tombs and many pyramids have been built on country estates, almost always as grand tombs or mausoleums, although once built they haven't always fulfilled their function and remain empty. In a very few cases the pyramid has been pierced by an arch to make an unusual gateway.

Clearbeck Pyramid
Bretton Pyramid
Modern pyramid at Clearbeck House, Lancashire, pierced by a tunnel.
Concrete Pyramid at Bretton Hall, Yorkshire, made to cover a water pump.

ROTUNDA: A building with a circular base and a domed roof, usually held up with columns. They are usually open but may sometimes be partially enclosed and often feature a statue in the centre. A very common garden ornament.

Millicope temple
Millichope Park Rotunda or Temple, Shropshire.
Rotunda at Stowe, Buckinghamshire


SCULPTURE - There was a time when sculpture meant something hewn from stone, usually a figure on a plinth. But now sculptures can be made from bricks, metal or glass, and may be moulded, bolted, or welded together. So what do we call things like the Angel of the North? It was designed and built by a team of builders and engineers using principles more familiar to the aviation or building industry. But it does not resemble a building that might be lived in. Others however, are even more difficult to define..

Red House
Darlington train
The Red House, Sunderland - a ruined house carved from red sandstone, but a house where the furniture and some clothes are still present and also made from stone.
The Brick Train , Darlington. A huge train made of bricks and mortar, it is hollow and has special bricks to allow bats to roost inside. Folly or Sculpture?


SHAM RUIN: A ruin is a real building that has fallen into disrepair. A sham ruin is a partial building that has been built to look like a real ruin to conjure up feelings of nostalgia or awe. Sham ruins frequently sport stone gothic window openings, battlements and stumpy towers. Some even use parts of real ruins to give them greater 'authenticity'.

The Jealous Wall at Belvedere, Ireland, a sham ruin said to have been built to block the view of the neighbouring house, because the owner of Belvedere had thought his wife was having an affair with the owner of the adjacent estate.


SUMMERHOUSE - Decorative garden building usually with windows, sometimes a door or just an open arched entrance. For taking tea or reading a book in the garden with sufficient shelter to keep the rain off. The style can vary from full blown classical with columns and domes to the contemporary version found in DIY superstores.

TEMPLE: A building based on a more ancient original religious building, often a model of a Greek or Roman temple. There are a few standard patterns for these which can be found over and over in estates of the 18th century with variations in size and detail. Modern off-the-shelf versions can still be bought from specialised reproduction stone merchants.

TORTOISERIE - Coined by Gwn Headley to describe the small buildings for tortoises built by yours truly.

Tortoise Castle
Tortoise castle at Elton Hall, Shropshire.