Frivolity And Folly
By Julie Cooper, author of Irresistibly Alone
“Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company.”
“Go, my dear,” cried her mother, “and shew her ladyship about the different walks. I think she will be pleased with the hermitage.” --- Pride and Prejudice, Volume III Chapter XIV
Many years ago, when I first read this exchange between Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine, I was confused. What, I wondered is a ‘hermitage’ and why would viewing one please the persnickity Lady Catherine? The question led to some research, and fascination with the English folly has been with me ever since.
Wikipedia defines a folly as “a building constructed primarily for decoration, but suggesting … some other purpose, or of such extravagant appearance that it transcends the range of usual garden buildings.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, initially the term ‘folly’ meant “any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder.”
Extravagant, whimsical, historic, charming, and above all, romantic, garden follies caught hold of the British imagination and proliferated throughout the Georgian era.
The earliest known ‘folly’ probably is Rushton Triangular Lodge, built by Sir Thomas Tresham in Northamptonshire between 1593 and 1597 as a tribute to his Roman Catholic beliefs. Tresham revered the number three, representing the Holy Trinity, so it has three floors, including the basement; three exterior walls, each 33 feet long; and three windows on each side for each floor. On every side of the building is a different Latin text from the Bible, each 33 letters long.
Usually, however, a folly is built for nothing so sober as religious devotion. Sometimes they were located on a rise—or were constructed for height, such as the Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens, or Broadway Tower in Worcestershire, from the battlements of which one can see sixteen counties!—to provide a magnificent view of their surroundings. Highclere Castle, the filming site of Downton Abbey, once featured twelve separate follies, built around a central folly, whimsically related to numbers on a clock.
The popularity of the ‘Grand Tour’ brought about other types of folly—mock ruins, sham castles, and ‘ancient’ temples. At the Palladian house Stourhead, in Wiltshire, the theme was Roman antiquity, with the Temple of Flora, the Temple of Apollo and the Pantheon. Faux gothic ruins, such as the one at Mount Edgcumbe Park in Cornwall, and Barwick, in Somerset, are still tourist destinations today. Sundorne House in Shropshire added a dramatic eye-catcher in 1774—a sham castle on the summit of Haughmond Hill.
At Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, Richard Temple, Baron (later Viscount) Cobham, purpose-built ‘The Temple of Modern Virtue’ in ruins—obviously thinking that the youth of his day were headed for…you guessed it, ruin. One can imagine Lord Cobham peering critically at the folks strolling through the winding paths and groves of his gardens today, and yelling at them to get off his lawn.
Another type of ornamental folly was the banqueting house, or casino. The word ‘banquet’ suggests a large gathering to the modern mind, but such was not the case during the Regency. It was a space for small, informal parties, or perhaps the ‘pudding course’ of a meal, set in the gardens as a direct contrast to the magnificence of the estate house. The Banqueting House, in Gibson, Newcastle upon Tyne, completed in 1760, is a prime example of one built in a Gothic style, with castellated roofline and refurbished interior—one can even book an overnight stay and enjoy one’s own views of the Derwent valley, since it is now owned by the National Trust.
And what about the hermitage? Since antiquity, the life of a hermit—one of solitude, simplicity, and religious conviction—has been venerated as a rustic ideal. However, it occurred to wealthy men of the Georgian era that the unaffected austerity of a hermit’s life fit well with the popular ‘natural look’ so revered in Georgian gardens, and suddenly the ornamental hermitage was born. Consider Charles Hamilton, who built a large wooden hermitage on his estate at Pain’s Hill in Surrey and then advertised for a live-in hermit! Job conditions for his seven-year contract were anything except ideal: complete silence, no cutting of nails, hair or beard, with benefits of food provided and permission to stroll in the gardens. Mr Hamilton’s first and last hermit lasted three weeks.
In Irresistibly Alone, Netherfield Park boasts several follies, including a Grecian amphitheatre and one lonely little banqueting house. I loosely—very loosely—based Irresistibly Alone’s folly on Weston Hall’s banqueting house near Otley in North Yorkshire. I envisioned it as a little smaller, added balconies, and placed it on a particularly lonely corner of the estate. I took still more inspiration from the Summer House at Warnford Park, sort of a cross between a castle folly and garden summer house, and envisioned its front door as the one Elizabeth first saw in the midst of a winter storm. I even borrowed the Tudor brick from a modern tower built as a re-creation of an 18th century folly at Wolverton in Worcestershire, to supply its walls.
Such a cosy, lovely little building as the folly of my imagination could be a private place for contemplation, writing, drawing, intimate meals…or even the garden spot where an impossible, irresistible love might somehow bloom.
mym/Stowe, Temple of Modern Virtue
MickofFleet / Gothic Temple, Painshill Park
Lady Carnarvon/ Andover Lodge, High Clare