A folly for all seasons

When author and V&A chairman Sir Nicholas Coleridge decided to commission a folly in the grounds of his home, Wolverton Hall, little did he realise that, thanks to lockdowns, it was to become his mission control. 

I think I had always hankered to commission a folly of architectural merit. We had rented at least ten of them from the Landmark Trust for holidays, and I invariably experienced an envious yearning, wishing they were mine to keep. At one point I longed for a Mughal summerhouse, later something Gothic. 

But it was only when we bought an old eighteenth-century house in Worcestershire that we at last had the space to consider it seriously; a walled garden across the lawn provided a perfect location. 

We had never commissioned a proper architect before, and to complicate things further, our house is listed Grade II*, which makes planning permission dicey. I had been reading about the neoclassical architect Quinlan Terry for decades, and doubted he would consider so modest a job, nor did we know what such a project might cost. But then I thought: what the hell, nothing ventured, and fired off a letter. And not long afterwards, the distinguished tastemaker came to inspect the site and promised a set of sketches for discussion in the coming weeks. 

We had agreed what we were after: a garden tower, broadly classical in style, perhaps loosely influenced by the banqueting house folly at Long Melford Hall in Suffolk. It would house a small study/office for me on the first floor, a flagstoned entrance hall, and (most important) some outside space on the roof – a drinks-come-sunbathing deck, with views towards both Bredon Hill and the Malvern Hills. Little did we realise how gloriously timely this was all going to be, with Covid looming. 

When the drawings arrived, they blew us away; they were at least twice as magical as we’d anticipated. The more we pored over them, the better we liked every detail: the Tudor-style two-inch bricks, the ogee windows, the elegant lead-roofed turret and balustrade. It had the air of a gatehouse at Hampton Court Palace. And the interior was ingenious, with a narrow curving staircase hugging the walls, a concealed kitchen and loo, and tip-top WiFi, soon to be invaluable. 

Virtually every brick, window and door was made locally in the Midlands, and the craftsmen all lived within fifteen miles of our front door. Our sustainability cred is sky high. And, what’s more, the entire construction took exactly one year from start to finish, being delivered virtually on budget and only one month late, despite some torrential rain during the build.

How often do I use the folly? All the time, every single day when I’m here. Behind the Georgian-Tudor-Gothic exterior is Mission Control: the full computer kit with Seattle-quality WiFi and Zoom facilities. During lockdown, I must have been on half a dozen video conference calls a day to do with the V&A, The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Pageant, and the Campaign for Wool, all of which I’m rather involved with. The setting, with its narrow bookcases between the large ogee windows, and classical plaster busts of Roman emperors above each one, elevates every Zoom conversation. To use the jargon, I live my best life in that study.

I’m not even sure I could have got through lockdown without the folly, since our children had taken over the entire house, all working from home, scrapping over the bandwidth. Our folly is the most epic of man sheds, and a legacy that will far outlast any accomplishments from my multiple Zoom calls.

Sir Nicholas Coleridge is Chair of both the V&A and The Campaign for Wool. He was managing director, and later President and Chairman, of magazine publisher Conde Nast for thirty years.

Our favourite follies

In architectural terms, a folly is a building made for purely decorative purposes, to add interest and romance to the grounds of a grand house, or as the focal point of a countryside vista. Often extravagant in design and featuring indulgent details such as Greek columns, rustic elements, or castellated ramparts, the construction of these ornate follies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was also thought to have offered creative work for local artisans. Here are just a few of our favourite follies around the UK: 

Temple of Apollo, Stourhead, Wiltshire

Approached through an Italian Renaissance-style grotto, this classical circular temple is perched high above the lake in the lavish grounds of stately Stourhead. Commissioned by Henry Hoare II in 1765 to rival a folly in Kew Gardens, this temple to the god of the sun is now a popular spot for small weddings.

Temple of the Four Winds, Castle Howard

High on the windswept Yorkshire hills, Castle Howard’s domed and porticoed folly was designed in 1726 and used as a stop-off point for refreshments and resting by the Howard family and their guests. In the cellar, servants would prepare lunches for the tired walkers.

House in the Clouds, Thorpeness, Suffolk

What to do with the rather ungainly water tower, built in 1923 to supply the village of Thorpeness, which dominated the pretty Suffolk landscape? The answer was to disguise it as a weatherboarded house, more in keeping with the local Jacobean architecture. Today, it has been reimagined as a five-bedroom holiday rental floating above the Suffolk treeline.

Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire

An early folly, the three-sided Rushton Lodge was designed in 1594 by Sir Thomas Tresham (father of one of the Gunpowder Plot members). Its three sides, three floors, and the three windows and gables on each side are symbols of the Holy Trinity and a bold statement of Tresham’s Catholic faith.

Broadway Tower, Worcestershire

The vision of landscape architect Capability Brown, this Cotswold tower is perched dramatically on what was originally a beacon hill. Based on a Saxon theme, the tower is a mismatch of turrets, battlements and gargoyles, but it’s the view, spanning sixteen counties on a clear day, that takes the breath away.

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