The Folly Fellowship

Richard Cavendish visits an organisation devoted to architectural treats.

The hundred years after 1730 saw the great age of folly building in Britain. That was the time of 'Gothick' towers, peculiar pyramids and pagodas, sham monasteries, artistically crumbling walls and arches, Druidical garden seats, shell encrusted grottoes and singularly incommodious hermitages. There was trouble with resident hermits, who ungratefully caught cold, went stark mad or kept sneaking off to the pub. Even owls, which should have haunted ivy-clad ruins, moping in the moonlight, were not invariably reliable.

It was then that the Ansons installed at Shugborough in the smiling Staffordshire landscape a Triumphal Arch, a Temple of the Winds and a Lanthorn of Demosthenes as pleasing eye-catchers in the Greek Revival taste, as well as a Chinese House and an elegiac monument to a favourite cat. Then did James Gibbs design for Stowe a Gothick Temple of such abominable ugliness that all true folly lovers hold it in the warmest affection. Then was erected in Brislington a set of stables masquerading as a medieval fortress constructed imperishably of black slag. Horace Walpole reared back in horror at the sight of it and called it the Devil's Cathedral and it stands strangely in the outskirts of Bristol to this day.

Trying to define a folly could take for ever. 'Rogue architecture' is one shot at it, and 'building for pleasure before purpose' is another. Gwynn Headley, the president of the Folly Fellowship, says simply: 'If you think it's a folly, then it is.'

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