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The Folly Of English Eccentricity

March 28, 2015 Destination Feature, Headline News No Comments Email Email

England folly The_Needle's_Eye,_Wentworth.wpedia.rszWHY 16th century English merchant Thomas Gooding built a 6-storey brick tower at Ipswich overlooking Suffolk’s River Orwell in the late 1570s has historians mystified to this day.

Did he, some wonder, plan to climb daily the couple of hundred narrow winding stairs to the top to watch hopefully for his ships coming home with their precious cargoes from far-flung points of the globe?

Or was it more, others speculate, to purely flaunt his wealth to Queen Elizabeth when she visited Ipswich in 1579 – with his Freston Manor Tower going on to be possibly the first of what were to become known as “English follies?”

These follies are structures that serve no real purpose other than to reflect the architectural whims of their builders, provide light-hearted ornamentations, or are simply attention-grabbers for often eccentric owners. Did Mr Gooding’s, perhaps, fall within one or possibly all such criteria?

England folly The House in the Clouds.thitc.rsz

THE House in the Clouds began as a bizarre attempt to “hide” an ugly town   water tank in Suffolk.

It’s anyone’s guess, but England has more follies per square kilometre than any other country in the world, and Mr Gooding’s tower that sits on a floor area of just 3m by 3.6m, is still in use today… as unique holiday accommodation with a couple of floors of necessarily-compact accommodation, a kitchen, cosy guest lounge on the top floor, and from the turreted rooftop spectacularly broad views of river and surrounding countryside.

An even taller tower-cum-folly was built at Sway in Hampshire in the 1880s by a Mr Andrew Peterson, a seaman who became a lawyer and judge in India, retired to Sway, studied spiritualism, and built his tower as his own mausoleum. At 66m high and with 390 steps to get to the top where he asked to be interred, it’s been variously described as “impressive,” “odd,” and “undeniably ugly.”

England folly Rushton Triangular Lodge.TravPad.rsz

THE strange Triangular Lodge built by Sir Thomas Tresham in 1593.

But today it’s still the tallest non-reinforced concrete building in the world, and while Mr Peterson’s ashes were initially laid to rest as he’d requested, they were later removed at his family’s behest to a local cemetery.

Even odder is the Triangular Lodge built by Sir Thomas Tresham at Rushton in Northamptonshire in 1593 as a monument to the Holy Trinity’s Three Natures of God. A devout Catholic, Sir Thomas’s Lodge has 3-storeys, three walls each 33-feet wide (10.05m,) with each wall having three windows surmounted by three gargoyles.

It also has a triangular chimney, and three Latin texts of 33 letters running along each of its walls.

And a somewhat boozy dinner party way back in 1746 resulted in what many regard as the finest of England’s eccentric follies – The Needle’s Eye at Wentworth in South Yorkshire. A very inebriated Earl Fitzwilliam, who considered himself an expert horseman, bet a fellow diner a substantial amount that he “could drive a carriage through the eye of a needle.”

England folly Peterson's Tower.rsz

ANDREW Peterson had this “undeniably ugly” 66m high tower overlooking Sway   in Hampshire built as his personal mausoleum.

Sobering up next day and realising what he had bet, the Earl decided on a bizarre solution to his potentially expensive predicament: he hurriedly had staff build a stone archway just wide enough to allow a small coach to pass through, dubbed it upon completion “The Needle’s Eye,” and successfully proceeded to drive his horse and coach “through the eye of a needle” in front of the dinner guests with whom he had made his bet…

And at 18th century Hadlow Castle in Kent there is the appropriately-named “Mary’s Folly” – a 52m tower built in the castle by its owner’s son, Walter Barton May to spy with a telescope on his ex-wife Mary who had moved to a nearby property after divorcing him – and standing, he told friends, “as a reminder to her of the wealth she had left behind…”

England folly Freston-tower.landmarktrust.rsz

WAS merchant Thomas Gooding’s 6-storey Freston Manor Tower, England’s first-  ever “folly?”

Our favourite folly, however, is The House in the Clouds at Thorpeness in Suffolk. Here in the 1920s a 230,000 litre water tank to supply the local village with pressurised water sat atop a near-20m tower, the unsightly tank bizarrely camouflaged with a mock cottage and its equally-ugly supporting tower enclosed with weatherboards within which five floors of accommodation were cleverly housed.

Today the tower offers five holiday bedrooms, three bathrooms and a kitchen/dining area, and with the water tank removed in1979 the actual “House in the Clouds” cottage at the top is a games room and look-out.

If you’d like a stay at one of England’s many odd-ball historic follies, visit


Written by : David Ellis

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