I really miss hills when I’m down south. I decided to apply to Oxford University rather than its Fenland counterpart on the basis that at least I wouldn’t be stuck on an endless expanse of open flatness. Contours are good for soul. Hell, they should legislate to ensure that no one is ever forced to live more than five miles from a suitable escarpment and all houses should be perched on the edge of crumbling cliffs. No one ever rhapsodises about the beauty of endless plains and flat vales and nothing beats the feeling of being higher than everyone else.
But although the Oxfordshire countryside is pretty it’s also quite bland, a few rolling hills surrounding oh-so-quaint market towns. There’s one place to break this monotony with the brilliantly daft Faringdon Folly, perched on an ancient man-made earthwork about thirty minutes on the bus outside of Oxford. It’s marketed as the last major folly to be built in England and I’d believe that – I can’t imagine anyone having the funds, ability or permission to stick up a large tower in such a prominent position nowadays. The NIMBYs would go insane.
The basic requirement for folly building is a supply of cash-rich, history-obsessed aristocrats with a desire to brand themselves ‘eccentric’. After spending a family holiday at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire and growing up near Castle Howard I love these buildings that are distributed across provincial England. And they’re not pointless – it’s just that the point is, er, a little harder to pin down. Faringdon Folly was built for Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, the sort of old Etonian who ticks all the boxes in terms of reacting against a upper-class upbringing in Victorian England, choosing to chase literature, music and men rather than help to run the government.’Folly Hill’ apparently never had a folly on it so in the early 1930s he left orders that one be constructed as a 21st birthday present for his lover Robert Percy before leaving on an extended holiday to Italy.
His friend the 7th Duke of Wellington helped out but chose to build it in the contemporary style rather than a classic gothic design. The end result is a brick structure that’s more Bankside Power Station than St Mark’s Square. Which makes it way more interesting than just another retread of Italian style. Gilbert Scott modernism is far cooler than faux-Venetian rubbish. When it went up an old colonel took Tyrwhitt-Wilson, the 14th Baron Berners, to court on the basis that it ruined his tradition of surveying the landscape with a telescope every morning. Berners himself wasn’t too enamoured with the design and it was only opened to the public on a few occassions before shifting into public ownership after Percy died in the 1980s.
Folly from afar!
It’s a ten minute walk from the town centre to the top of the hill where the folly sits amongst a copse of elm trees on the site of a 12th century castle. It’s now owned by a trust and is only open for a few days each year, staffed by pleasingly bonkers volunteers who charge £1 for the right to clamber up 100ft on 164 rickety wooden steps to the roof. The oh-so-droll Baron Berners affixed a sign here declaring that “those who attempt to commit suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.
Up close folly!
Just below the top there’s a small room with windows that would make a pretty fun place to have a meal and on the roof there’s a light that scans the night skies, acting as a lighthouse. To celebrate the millenium that had a full-powered revolving lighthouse, albeit situated a good sixty miles inland. The folly’s in a bad way at the moment and needs £60,000 to patch it up. Unfortunately there’s no aristrocatic nutters around to meet the bill so you should probably pop along and show your support.
Opening days are on the trust’s website – for some reason it was only accessible in January between 4pm-8pm on a particular Sunday evening, meaning that most people who went up would be in the dark. A suitably daft time to be open for an equally daft building.