COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

The Druids' Temple near Masham.
The Druids' Temple near Masham.

David takes a look at a pioneering book which has helped give us a greater appreciation of follies, such as The Druids’ Temple near Masham and the Rocket Ship folly near Aysgarth.

Sixty years ago a volume appeared in the bookshops that kick-started a new fashion in architectural history.

It was not one of the usual, often dry-as-dust, studies of individual architects or architectural movements that were current in the early 1950s. This was different – as its title proclaimed.

It was called ‘Follies and Grottoes’ and it was written by Barbara Jones. For six decades the book has been the foundation of follies studies and the basis of all subsequent studies of the subject.

It is significant that Barbara Jones, who was born in 1912, was not a conventional architectural historian. Instead, she was an artist.

Born in Croydon, sh e went to Croydon School of Art before going on to study Mural Decoration at the Royal College of Art. Her subsequent career was as much concerned with the decoration of large spaces as with her writing.

At the start of the Second World War she was one of the artists mobilised by Sir Kenneth Clark to record British lives and landscapes at a time of imminent change.

All the artists, who also included Sir William Russell Flint, Charles Knight, Rowland Hilder and John Piper, painted water-colours that celebrated the country’s natural beauty and architectural heritage. The idea was to boost national morale and also to act as a memorial to the war effort.

After the war, Barbara Jones continued her career as a muralist, with work at the 1946 ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and at the Festival of Britain in 1951, where she produced a huge mural of coastline.

She also designed the traditional fairground setting for the Festival Funfair in Battersea Park, as well as organising an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery called ‘Black Eyes and Lemonade’. ‘I never worked harder in my life’, she wrote 25 years later, ‘and most of the time it was marvellous.’

Later work included murals on the P&O liners Orcades, Oronsay, Orsova and Oriana, and for hotels, restaurants, exhibitions and schools. And if ever in your childhood you watched ‘The Woodentops’ you saw her work; she designed the sets and puppets.

At the same time as she was working on her many commissions – and especially in the run-up to the Festival of Britain – she was researching for ‘Follies and Grottoes’.

She travelled around Britain and Ireland by car, searching out the odd, unpredictable and just plain bonkers buildings that dot the countryside and the great estates of the land.

A typical example was her visit to the Druids’ Temple near Masham. In the book she writes, ‘A folly tour must be based on the sound military maxim that time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.

Here the notebook in 1949 said simply “Masham in Uredale. Model Stonehenge on moors”, and, as we did not reach Masham till dusk, late on a summer evening, anyone with a grain of common sense would have admired the stone town built round a large square and gone to bed, leaving both reconnaissance and folly until morning.’ Instead they set off, getting to Ilton then going round in circles. At 11.30 pm they called at a cottage to ask the way. When they eventually found the Druids’ Temple, ‘the moon was up now and the bracken in sharp relief against its own dense shadows . . . [inducing] all the cold terror that keeps one indoors at night. Monoliths, and another black wood on the right, and there is the stone circle in full moonlight on the hillside . . . a very rare moonlight indeed.’

Yorkshire was a happy hunting ground for Barbara Jones’ folly hunts. As she notes, ‘The three counties of Yorkshire have an astonishing number of follies, far more than their position would suggest, for follies tend to decrease in number towards the north and east. And they are not only many but good: there is a grade A example of everything except the grotto.’ And for the first time she provides a gazetteer for anyone who wants to discover this wealth of oddity.

Everyone who likes the quirkier side of architecture has been in her debt ever since.

For unless we happened to live nearby, how would we have found out, for example, about Charles Piazzi Smyth’s pyramid in Sharow churchyard, or the Rocket Ship folly near Aysgarth, a visionary object of absolutely no practical use built in the 18th century by Mrs Sykes of Sorrellsykes Farm? Or about Yorke’s Folly, the two (once three) columns with ecclesiastical detailing that stand high above Pateley Bridge? We might have remained in ignorance of the follies at Hackfall, which Barbara Jones saw at perhaps its lowest ebb as far as the buildings were concerned; it is not surprising that she got them mixed up among ‘the overwhelming life of ferns, rushes, grasses, dock, mullein, moss, foxgloves, peppermint, thyme, willow-herb, everything larger and thicker and greener than normal, and the hidden situation below the level of the ordinary Pennine-foothill landscape, [that] all give Hackfall an extraordinary atmosphere, as if the river-bed has sunk with the woods and everyone forgotten where they were.’

Some follies even today remain hidden from view on private estates or in other inaccessible locations; have you made the acquaintance of ‘The Two-Faced Butler’ or of ‘Slobbering Sal’, both of them North Yorkshire follies? Have you stumbled across the sham castle at Thornborough Hall in Leyburn, or the one at Hazlewood Castle near Tadcaster? And have you spent a week at The Pigsty at Fylingthorpe, now, like The Ruin at Hackfall, a Landmark Trust cottage?

Our appreciation and enjoyment of such buildings is a direct result of Barbara Jones’ pioneering book.

It inspired other writers to follow her example, and the foundation of a group – the Folly Fellowship – to research and care for follies.

‘Follies and Grottoes’ is a book that still repays the curious reader today.