Our Meetings

Swindon Society Meeting Review

Wednesday 10th January 2024

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Our first meeting of the year was great; something completely different from our usual fare. We had a visit from the extremely knowledgeable Jonathan Holt of The Folly Fellowship. There are so many follies to see in Wiltshire and we were taken on a tour of quite a few. First of all, Jonathan asked “what is a folly?”. They are very hard to define and sometimes it’s easier to say what they are not, rather than what they are. Some are very small, some are huge. Some people think follies are useless, but this apparently is a controversial definition because some do have uses. We were told that one definition is that they are “an ornament for a gentleman’s garden and a mirror to his mind” (unfortunately I missed exactly who came up with that particular description though). Many follies are from the Georgian period; during that period many sons of notable families would go on a “Grand Tour” of Europe and come back wanting to build temples and the like, such as they had seen whilst away. The first Wiltshire folly we were shown was the Fonthill Arch built c1751-54 which can still be driven through. It is now a gateway to nowhere, but Jonathan explained that it used to lead to the grand house at Fonthill. It was built for William Beckford who also had Fonthill Abbey built, which was called “the most prodigious romantic folly in England” by the architectural historian Pevsner. Jonathan told us all about the abbey, which was never actually consecrated; it housed William Beckford’s art collection and was designed by the architect James Wyatt. However, Wyatt was apparently never on site to supervise the building works and Beckford drove on the workers with fire (for warmth and light as it got dark) and beer. They also used an experimental form of cement in the building of the abbey. However, it started to crumble and (after being sold to a gunpowder manufacturer in 1822) the tower blew down and damaged the west wing of the building in strong winds in 1825. These days there is just a small part of the abbey left. Also in Fonthill are the Cromlech, Caves of the Sleepers and the Upper Grotto. They were built by the father and son team of Joseph and Josiah Lane, master grotto builders, probably for William Beckford’s son. The next folly Jonathan showed us was the Belcombe Court Rotunda, built for Francis Yerbury in 1730. There is also a grotto in the same grounds, built for John Yerbury by Josiah Lane. A more recent addition to the follies at Belcombe Court is the Shell House. Renowned shell artist Blott Kerr-Wilson was commissioned to transform a 19th century building into a shell house with spectacular results. We moved to Corsham for the next folly - the Corsham Court Folly Wall. Jonathan described how this particular folly is a bit mysterious - it’s not known whether it was built for Thomas Broadwood or for the Methuen family (Corsham Court being the family seat) in 1875. It’s made of bits and pieces, such as pieces of chimney pots and old church buildings, etc. Broadwood had bought a house on the same road and it is thought that one didn’t want to overlook the other - but it’s not known which way round it is and therefore who had the folly built. Jonathan then took us to Larmer Tree Gardens in south Wiltshire. The gardens were created in the 1880s as a private garden for the public to enjoy by General Augustus Pitt Rivers. There are several follies in the gardens of varying design and age. There is a building called Lower India House, as well as the Indian Room. The latter was purchased from the Earls Court Exhibition in the 1890s, but is actually Nepalese in origin. In addition, there is the Temple, which was built in the classical style, and the Quarters - eight thatched huts, each in it’s own picnic area. Whilst people enjoyed their picnic there would be dogs and yaks roaming the grounds! In the 1990s the gardens were owned by Michael Pitt Rivers and Jonathan recounted how Michael had been advised to have an “eyecatcher” folly built within the gardens. Following his death, his partner William Gronow-Davies followed up on this plan with the Indian Mughal Arch, built in 2008. Oare House near Marlborough was our next stop with Jonathan. He showed us the modern folly of the Oare Tea House, which was built in 2003 for Tessa Keswick. It was designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, who also designed the Louvre Pyramid. We then moved around the county a little more; first to the Amesbury Abbey Chinese Summerhouse, which was built for Kitty Queensbury and designed by William Chambers, who also did the Pagoda at Kew Gardens. Then it was on to the Marlborough Grotto, built for Frances Seymour, Countess of Hertford in 1735. It’s in the grounds of the school so can only be viewed in the school holidays. We moved to Biddesden House near Ludgershall, where Bryan Walter Guinness had a Pool House built in 1933. It was decorated with mosaics of Greek gods and muses by Boris Anrep a renowned artist whose work also decorates the National Gallery. We briefly visited Swindon for the next follies - the Chinoiserie (entrance gateway) and pagoda, both built in 1990 at the Chinese Experience restaurant. The pagoda cannot be reached on foot - which must have made building it a very interesting experience. Next up was the Pumpkin Tower in Bythesea Road, Trowbridge built in 1999 as an elaborate piece of artwork. We were told that locals in Trowbridge were rather ambiguous about it and it had been described as a millennium project. It was built from a hotchpotch of materials and features some gargoyles, including a dragon. At one point the dragon began to breathe smoke in the style of “Puff the Magic Dragon, lived Bythesea…” Further on to Chedglow near Malmesbury is another modern folly called Colin’s Barn but also known as the Hobbit House. Colin Stokes built the barn over many years from 1989 using Cotswold stone he found in his field. He did all the work himself, from carting the stone from the field to creating the stained glass. It had many uses, especially as the building grew - it was initially a lambing shed but grew to encompass other activities, including housing a dovecote. The building was abandoned, unfinished, in 2000 when Colin moved away. Jonathan then showed us some follies created by Francis Dineley, a dissimulator who tried to make his follies appear old when they were in fact modern. One of them appeared to be a ruin, covered in ivy and with a staircase exposed to the elements. It was actually built from reclaimed stonework in the 1960s. Another folly nearby called the Banqueting Temple was built in the 1970s, again from re-used stone. The local authority have used these buildings in their local publicity, even though Francis Dineley never had any planning permission to build them! Our last folly of the evening was another modern one, built in 1999 for Elizabeth Cartwright at Iford Manor near Bradford-on-Avon. It was another shell house, this one decorated using lots of green glazed ceramics and featuring the motif of the Green Man. It was a real change of pace to go on a tour of Wiltshire to see some beautiful and unusual buildings, so we thank Jonathan for visiting us all the way from Bath for such an interesting talk. Kelly Blake - January 2024

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