Author Gwyn Headley explains his fascination with follies

Author and folly expert Gwyn Headley

House, school, hospital, church – all of these words conjure up an image but if I say ‘folly’ what do you think of? Chances are your mind has gone slightly blank.  Follies are ‘misunderstood buildings’, ones without an obvious purpose and they can look however their creator wanted them to.  They have been built, not through need, but purely because someone wanted to realise a dream or an ambition and it was that idea that captured the imagination of folly expert Gwyn Headley.

Gwyn spent his early years abroad but frequently visited the UK and, as a five-year-old boy, was ‘gobsmacked’ to see a huge tower in a field without any path or drive leading up to it.  His father subsequently explained the notion of a folly to him and he was hooked.  From then on every trip to the UK had to include an outing to see one of these weird and wonderful buildings.  It is a passion that still flourishes and Gwyn is now a leading expert and author on the topic and a co-founder of The Folly Fellowship. In the following interview he kindly shares an insight into his passion.

Follies of Kent is just one of over 40 books you have written on England’s follies; can you describe how you researched the area? And how did you know when to stop? 

I’ve been interested in follies since I was 5 years old. I started researching for a book covering the UK in 1972, through a letter asking Country Life readers to help. I then wrote to every local newspaper in the country and local interest magazines — readers of Kent Life and the Kent & Sussex Courier I remember were very helpful. The Pevsner architectural guides to North East & East Kent, and West Kent & The Weald were invaluable. In an early form of social networking — it did exist before Facebook! — I asked friends to ask friends, and the word spread. It helped having a girlfriend in Speldhurst, and for a while I lived in Fordcombe.

Hadlow Tower aka. May's Folly

Hadlow Tower aka. May’s Folly

The Follies of Kent ebook is based on the Kent chapters in the three previous books I’ve written on follies, but comprehensively updated with the help of members of the Folly Fellowship, and with many more illustrations and photographs and entries than was possible in the printed edition. The majority of the superb photographs were supplied by fotoLibra photographers on a shared royalty basis.

How did I know when to stop? I set a deadline by which the text had to be finalised. I can never stop — when I have enough additional material there will be a new edition. And another. And another.

Do you ever worry that you have missed a folly out?

Never. Someone can’t wait to tell me, with ill-concealed glee. In the introduction to Follies Grottoes & Garden Buildings (1999) I wrote:

“… such is the nature of the subject that we can never claim to be complete; that is one thing we have learned since 1986. Within a few moments after this book hits the bookshops, somewhere in Britain, on a cold hilltop or from some bramble bushes miles from nowhere, the battle cry ‘It’s Not In The Book!’ will resound. And strangely enough this failure, this omission, will mean that we have succeeded — succeeded in getting people interested in the subject, interested enough to spend their valuable weekends in searching out the remnants of Great Britain’s weirdest heritage: the folly.”

Inside the underground Grotto at Leeds Castle. Image copyright belongs to Leeds Castle Enterprises Ltd

Inside the underground Grotto at Leeds Castle. Image copyright belongs to Leeds Castle Enterprises Ltd

Do the buildings have to conform to certain criteria in order to be included in your book?

Yes. Wim Meulenkamp and I have to feel it is a folly, or has an air of folly, has folly attributes, feels sufficiently folly-like — we know it when we see it. It doesn’t have to be purposeless or pointless — there’s one folly in North Wales that has six separate functions — but it needs to be manifestly eccentric. That said, we have included a few monuments or obelisks which were not follies in parts of the country where full-blown follies were thin on the ground.

 What was the most challenging aspect of writing ‘Follies of Kent’?

Quite simply, expense. It takes time and money to visit and record every building in the county, let alone the country, and we funded it all out of our own pockets. There were no grants or expenses. As we wrote in the intro to Follies Grottoes & Garden Buildings (1999):

“This is the last nineteenth century book to be written in the twentieth century. We make this faintly absurd claim because nobody today would be stupid enough to embark on a project of this nature and this scope without first securing grant aid, lottery funding, heritage support or some other form of outside subvention to carry out research, travel, photography and writing. It would be sheer folly. Our perverse sense of pride at having done exactly this is outweighed by our incoherent rage at failing to achieve any such funding. This book has been financed by its authors, out of depressingly shallow pockets. So we cheerfully present it to you, aware that it cannot be regarded as definitive, aware that there are many flaws and omissions, aware that this is the best we can afford, all mitigated by the fact that it’s the only game in town. The advantage it gives us is complete editorial independence. Although we would willingly have sold our souls for a mess of pottage no one has offered us any, so we are free to say what we like about the National Trust, Cadw, Historic Scotland, English Heritage, local councils and all the other worthy and not so worthy organisations which affect our architectural heritage. They are all handy targets for criticism, especially the National Trust which is now showing signs of emerging from its depressing 1980s obsession with tea-rooms and gift shoppes.”

Are there any ‘lost’ Kentish follies that you wish you had seen?

Image of Jezreel's tower c 1884 in family collection bequeathed to User: Cunningham - Wikipedia replicated under Creative Commons  Licence.

Image of Jezreel’s tower c 1884 in family collection bequeathed to User: Cunningham – Wikipedia replicated under Creative Commons Licence.

Very much so. The Temple of Jezreel at Gillingham is number one; then the Horsmonden Tower. Both demolished before I had a chance to see them.

Which is your favourite folly in Kent and why?

I love romantic, overblown and pretentious architecture. I love ruins. I love the spurious anecdotes that spring up in villages to explain away a folly. So I’ll say of the surviving follies in Kent: 1. May’s Folly. 2. Margate Grotto. 3. Quex Park Tower. 4. Waldershare Belvedere. 5. Leeds Castle Grotto.  There are 46 folly sites in the Kent ebook. Some may have more than one folly.

And finally, if you were given unlimited space, funds and labour what sort of folly would you build?

Well I wouldn’t, because I’m a sane, level-headed normal sort of guy and I need the money to run my Maserati and buy more guitars. But at the turn of the century I suggested in Country Life that the nation should build a 10 storey Millennium Tower with each storey built using the prevalent architectural style of that century — Early English / Second Pointed / Perpendicular / Palladian / Tudor / Jacobean / Baroque / Georgian / Victorian and topped off with International Modern. Sadly it never came to pass — but there’s still time.

Follies of KentMany thanks to Gwyn for being such a wonderful interviewee.  He tells me there are over 1800 folly sites in the UK, 74 in Kent alone, and if you would like to know more about them please take a look at Heritage Ebooks. Gwyn has written an ebook for every county in England and there are still more to come!

You can also discover more about Kent’s most notable follies, and see some glorious pictures, by reading my article A Foolish Design in April’s issue of Kent Life magazine.

So, do you have a favourite building and if so, why? Please leave a comment as I’d love to know and, if it’s based in Kent, you may see it featured here very soon.

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