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‘Caves, grotts, mounts, and irregular ornaments of Gardens,’ stated no less an authority on garden design than John Evelyn, ‘do contribute to contemplative and philosophicall Enthusiasme.’ Whether you indulge yourself in a cave, grotto, mount or other ornament, there is no doubt that an estate can be much improved by the addition of an element a little out of the ordinary.
But how out of the ordinary? For centuries, British landowners have indulged themselves with all sorts of wild and wonderful fantasies. Viscount Cobham installed 40 temples at Stowe, the Earl of Donegal reputedly spent £10,000 in 1788 (close to £1 million at today’s prices) on shells for his grotto, and, more recently, the Duke of Marlborough built the world’s second-largest maze at Blenheim.
I spent much of my youth in a house that had, in its grounds, possibly the country’s last working hermitage. The hermit there conformed to the 18th-century ideal. He wrote philosophical works, grew a long beard and slept on the floor. An unexpected element in your grounds can serve several functions. It could, for instance, provide a visual focus point, as the Steeple Aston Eyecatcher does on the Rousham estate in Oxfordshire.
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It may amuse and delight visitors, as the Garden of Cosmic Speculation does at Dumfries. It could offer philosophical messages, as does Ronnie Duncan’s sculpture garden in North Yorkshire. Or it could mask some practical function, as it does at Dream Acres, by incorporating the swimming pool’s changing room into a folly (see June 24). If nothing else, it’s a well-established, discreet and relatively inexpensive way of displaying one’s taste.
‘The great point of the tower,’ claimed Lord Berners of the Faringdon Folly, Oxfordshire, which was completed in 1935, ‘is that it is entirely useless.’ There are two theories about the origins of the word ‘folly’. The more generally held belief is that it refers to the builder’s folly for creating something that has no real role. I prefer the alternative hypothesis, however, that it comes from the French folie, which means madness or whimsy.
In the 400 or 500 years since the idea of follies first gripped the British imagination, thousands have been constructed all over the country, and their popularity has, by no means, waned. A quick search online reveals plenty of recent examples, such as the thatched Millennium Tower at Cadmore Lodge, Worcestershire, which sits in the middle of a lake and has a drawbridge; the Hermitage, Elton Hall, Herefordshire, home to a human skeleton; the wooden Samphire Tower on the Kent coast near Dover; and the Stumpery, a driftwood cave exhibited at Chelsea and now owned by Ringo Starr.
Arabella’s advice for a striking folly
Scale is vital. If you have a relatively enclosed and limited setting, then your folly should not be too large. Major structures should be saved for majestic open spaces.
Where you site the folly is also crucial.
The best examples often have an element of surprise: one comes around a corner and there it is in the distance, at the end of an avenue or on the other side of a lake.
Commission an architect to produce the plans. Whether you want something traditional or contemporary, follies sit better in the landscape if they are built with local materials. Follies can prove to be surprisingly inexpensive to build.
If you want to add something romantic, fantastic, yet practical to your estate, why not build a tree house? Not the common-or-garden tree house of my youth which was a simple platform precariously perched in an old oak but something more elaborate with a roof, walls, windows, a terrace, power and, perhaps, even plumbing. It could be designed simply as an outdoor playroom for your children or grandchildren, or it could serve as a place for you to entertain, relax, work or accommodate guests.
There is a wide, 300ft-long grass path in the garden of some friends of ours, flanked by herbaceous borders and culminating in a modest Gothic building that, when you step inside, turns out to be a magnificent shell house, complete with hidden lights, a pool and running water. It was
created in four months by Blott Kerr-Wilson, and my wife claims that, after horses, it’s one of the few things in the world she covets. She’s in surprisingly good company, as it turns out that the essentially 16th-, 17th and 18th-century passion for shell houses is still alive and well today.
One of the happiest moments of my life was in 1965, when it became clear that my four-year-old younger brother, Will, had managed to get himself lost in the great maze at Hampton Court. One of the most bitterly disappointing moments came soon after, when a man in a brown uniform successfully retrieved him. Nevertheless, the experience left me with a great respect for mazes. It isn’t only that they entertain and confound us, they possess the magical power of being able to make people disappear.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising, therefore, that the earliest British mazes were cut in turf next to ancient religious monuments such as burial grounds; that in Christianity, they can symbolise the path of an errant soul towards salvation; or that in Eastern religions, the equivalent patterns, known as mandalas, are used in meditation.
At Dream Acres, we imagine building a maze on one of the flat areas away from the house. It will be multicursal (have multiple routes) as opposed to unicursal (with only one route), and will be constructed from hornbeam, grown to 6ft. In other words, tall enough for me to lose my brother in, even now.
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