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Sunday 4th August 2013

Faringdon Folly

Entry £2

If you drive along the A420 from Oxford to Swindon, you’ll spot a hill on your right just before Faringdon.  Its not the largest hill you’ll ever see, or the most prepossessing, but the turret that pokes out of the top of the Scots Pines gives a clue as to its interest.

The hill’s history massively pre-dates the turret, as it was fortified by supporters of Matilda sometime during the Anarchy (1135–1141) – her campaign to claim the throne from King Stephen – but was soon razed to the ground by once he’d won the war. Oliver Cromwell fortified it again in his unsuccessful campaign to defeat the Royalist garrison at Faringdon House, during the English Civil War.

It wasn’t until 1935 that the turret, or tower if you’d prefer was built, and that dear reader is where the fun really starts!

The hill was owed by Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, the 14th Baron Berners, and its fair to say that he was something of an eccentric! Being Lord of the Manor, and based at the nearby Faringdon House he decided that what the hill needed was a Folly! It wasn’t exactly out of character for him, after all he did like to dye his flock of doves all the colours of the rainbow! He was a gay man, in both meanings of the word and clearly highly talented. He wrote, composed and was an accomplished artist, counting the likes of Aldous Huxley, HG Wells, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell, Nancy Mitford, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev, Diana Mosley, John & Penelope Betjeman, and Elsa Schiaparelli amongst his circle of friends.

His problem in getting his Folly built was that the great days of Folly-building were long gone, and pesky irritants like planning permission were needed. He gained his permissions, but only after agreeing that the top of the tower could only peep 3 feet over the top of the trees.

Even those trees have a story behind them, being planted by Henry James Pye in the 1870s. Pye was Faringdon’s only Poet Laureate to date, and was recognised by common agreement as being the worst ever! It was fortunate that the monarch he wrote for was poor George III, mad through porphyria. The press weren’t quite as forgiving, and when one ode to the King on his birthday in 1790, was so flowery and over the top, the stanzas were lampooned by George Steevens, in part of what is now the famous nursery rhyme,

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie. (Pye?)

When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
The eccentricity didn’t stop there either. Lord Berners decided he wanted a gothic tower, and so hired his friend Lord Wellesley to design and build it knowing full well that Wellesley hated the gothic style! And that is where Berners made a minor error. He went abroad for a few months, and during that time Wellesley seized his chance building in a Classical style. In fact Berners didn’t arrive back in Faringdon until all but the last 10 feet was built which is why the Folly’s style changes rather abruptly!
Even when built the Berners’ scatological urges weren’t sated. Notices were up including one that advised visitors,
Those wishing to commit suicide do so at their own risk.
And do look carefully at the trees surrounding the folly, and look out for the sculptures, my favourite was the rather unfortunate woodcutter, apparently based on Berners himself.
He soon decided to give the Folly away, and gave it his to his partner Robert Heber-Percy as a birthday present, who made it quite clear at the time that he’d have preferred to have received a horse! It was Heber-Percy who gave the tower and woodland to the people of Faringdon in 1985, and the attraction is now run by a charitable trust.
The view from the top is spectacular with the counties of Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire Buckinghamshire and Berkshire being visible. You can see Oxford, Didcot Power Station, the White Horse Hill, and the Stokenchurch cutting on the M40.
The tower is only open 2 Sundays each month during the summer, further information is here.
However even when closed, the Folly still manages to weave its spell. During the winter, when its dark the lantern room sparks into life. As part of the Millenium celebrations, the Folly was registered as the UK’s only lighthouse whose light can’t be seen for the sea! But being the folly, it isn’t just lit by a white light, oh no!! The colours and effects are different every year, and will alter day by day. So as you drive past on the A420, pull over for a minute and see what Berner’s bequest has dreamt up this time!