Constructing eccentrically shaped, often mystifying buidings was all the rage in the 18th century. Folly expert Gywn Headley, with the National Trust, has produced a book of 40 of the best
Gwyn Headley, folly aficionado, and the National Trust, owner of an abundance of these barmy buildings, are an ideal team. Together they’ve produced a charming little book describing 40 of the mad, fantastical, occasionally mystifying, buildings that dot the British countryside.
Building follies is a peculiarly British habit. Indeed, the word folly is untranslateable in most other languages. It’s also true that many follies were built by landowners or aristocrats, who had both the time and the money to indulge their wildest architectural whims. And though they may have been whims to start with, as Headley points out in his introduction, ‘follies have been disproportionately influential in the stylistic development of English architecture. The first Gothic Revival building… was a folly. Nine-teenth-century London (which means most of it) is almost entirely Gothic Revival, inspired by one folly in Cirencester, Gloucestershire’.
Headley’s progress through the Trust’s follies starts with A La Ronde in Devon, which has the distinction of being built in 1798 by women for women. It was inspired by the church of San Vitale in Ravenna and is a circular design with 16 walls, which allows its inhabitants to move round the house with the sun.
After that comes the Pyramid at Blickling, built by Joseph Bonomi in 1794, an architect so fashionable that he gets a name check in one of Jane Austen’s novels; the triangular Prospect Tower at Cotehele in Cornwall, the Round House at Ickworth, Killerton’s Hermit’s Hut and the unfinished house at Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire. Headley’s last stop is at the sham ruin at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, commissioned by the 1st Earl of Hardwicke, who wanted a building without ‘staircase or leads in any of the towers, but merely the walls so built as to have the appearance of a ruined castle’.
This gloriously romantic building was finally completed in 1770, and in 1938 Rudyard Kipling’s daughter bought Wimpole Hall, complete with its Gothic ruin. The whole estate was bequeathed to the NT in 1976.
Follies: Fabulous, Fanciful And Frivolous Buildings, by Gwyn Headley (National Trust, £8.99).
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