Fashionable Fakery: follies and shams in the English landscape

Historic England

Bizarre, imaginative, whimsical and witty - shams, follies and rogue buildings abound in the English landscape. Explore the stories behind ten fascinating examples illustrated with photographs from the collections of the Historic England Archive.   

What is a folly?
The term 'folly' derives from the French 'folie', meaning 'foolish'. It is generally used to describe a building that has little or no function, and which pretends to be something that it is not. The building of follies was especially popular in England during the 18th and 19th centuries. They added visual interest to private estates and gardens, and were placed to 'catch the eye' of a visitor. Some were built as places to walk or ride to and were used as viewing platforms from where great estates and landscapes could be admired. Often designed to resemble historic castles or the remains of something ancient that never truly existed, follies were built in all sorts of materials, in a multitude of styles and sizes. While they suggest something impractical, extravagant and deceptive, England's follies have fascinating stories behind them, contributing to their enduring appeal. The examples presented here are illustrated with photographs from the Historic England Archive. 
Jack the Treacle Eater, Barwick, Somerset
Built in circa 1775 this folly resembles a ruined stone arch supporting a circular tower. On top of its conical roof is a statue of Mercury, the Roman god of merchants, travellers, messengers and boundaries. The statue's presence here is apt as the folly was built as one of four boundary markers on the Barwick Park estate. One of the stories behind its strange name is that of a local runner who carried messages to London for the estate family, and who was said to have trained on a diet of treacle. Fancifully, this 'Jack' was also supposed to have lived in the tower!
The Folly Arch, North Mymms, Hertfordshire
Built in circa 1740, this mock-medieval archway acted as a termination to a tree-lined avenue on the edge of the Gobians pleasure ground and estate. Resembling a fortified gate with towers, battlements and slit windows, it was designed by architect James Gibbs who was also responsible for a temple facade on one of the estate's canals. One story has it that the arch was built to commemorate a visit by Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century, however, it is likely that that the estate owner Sir Jeremy Sambrooke built it to commemorate a battle or military campaign. Local legend tells that a farthing coin was placed beneath every one of the bricks that forms the Folly Arch. 
Abingdon Abbey, Abingdon, Oxfordshire
A deceptive ruin stands in Abingdon Abbey Gardens. A Benedictine abbey was founded here in the 7th century and survived until it was dissolved in 1538. The sham ruin was created in circa 1860 by Mr Trendall of Abbey House, who gathered together fragments of the abbey church that once stood here and from other buildings, and built this fake ruin against his garden wall. 
The Folly, Mount Edgcumbe, Maker-with-Rame, Cornwall
The Folly at Mount Edgcumbe Park is a roofless mock ruin. It was built in 1747 as an elaborate hilltop viewing platform, replacing a navigation obelisk. It offers grand views through its upper level tracery window over the park and Plymouth Sound. Built in sandstone rubble, it also incorporates stone features from other buildings, including medieval fragments taken from the churches of St George and St Lawrence in nearby Stonehouse.
Rhenish Tower, Lynmouth, Devon
The Rhenish Tower on the Esplanade at Lynmouth was built in 1860 by General Rawdon, supposedly to store salt water for his baths. It is said that its name was given because its design was copied from a tower on the River Rhine. Some thought it an eyesore and so two balconies with castle-like machicolations, were added. As early as the 1860s its limited function was realised, but by then it had already become an essential landmark for the town, which was considered a picturesque tourist destination.   
The Castle Hotel, Runcorn, Halton
The Castle Hotel was built in 1737 as the Duchy of Lancaster Court House, later becoming a hotel and public house. It was constructed on the site of the gatehouse to Halton Castle. Situated on high ground, the castle was originally built in the late 11th century. In circa 1800 some mock castle walling was built to the east side of the hotel to make the castle appear as an eye-catcher from Norton Priory some one mile (1.6 km) away.
The Tower, St Michael's Hill, Montacute, Somerset
Sitting high atop St Michael's Hill near the village of Montacute is a tall, circular folly. It was built on the site of Montacute Castle in 1760 as a signal tower. An internal staircase rises to a small room with four windows giving fine views to Devon, Dorset and Wales. There was once an external staircase that led to the flat roof from which a flagpole once stood.
Solomon's Temple, Grin Low, Buxton, Derbyshire
Surrounded by Bronze Age burial mounds, Solomon's Temple, or Grinlow Tower, stands proud in the Derbyshire Peak District. This round folly was built in 1896 on the site of an earlier building by local farmer Solomon Mycock, after whom it is named. Mycock had run a public subscription to raise funds to build the original tower and which would provide work for the unemployed of the nearby spa town of Buxton. The folly was restored in 1987 and continues to be a popular tourist attraction.  
The Sugarloaf, Dallington, East Sussex
This obelisk or eye-catcher was erected on high ground as a land mark by John 'Honest Jack' Fuller of the Brightling Park estate. Also known as 'Mad Jack', Fuller was an eccentric, politician, and the friend and patron of the artist JMW Turner and the architect Sir Robert Smirke. Smirke extended Fuller's house in circa 1800 and built a number of follies on the estate and beyond. The Sugarloaf, or Sugar Loaf, is named after the conical-shaped form that sugar was produced and sold. One story recounts that it was built to deceive visitors into thinking they could see the spire of nearby Dallington Church from Fuller's house. Constructed in stone and coated with cement, it has a door and two windows and it is said that it was once inhabited as a cottage.
Broadway Tower, Broadway, Worcestershire
Our final folly is Broadway Tower, one of England's most impressive. Built high on Broadway Hill it was constructed in 1798 by the architect James Wyatt for Lord Coventry of Croome Court, an estate some fifteen miles (24 km) away. Although a folly, the Tower has been well-used in its lifetime. Between 1822 and 1862 it was used by the antiquarian and book collector Sir Thomas Phillipps to house his private printing press. It was later leased by Carmel Price, an Oxford tutor. Among those who stayed there around this time were the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and his life-long friend, the designer and activist William Morris. During the Second World War it was used by the Royal Observer Corps to track enemy aircraft. Broadway Tower continues to be a tourist destination and is particularly famed for the views that can be had - it is said that sixteen counties can be seen from its battlements! 
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