Diary of a Rambling Antiquarian

Monday, 2 September 2013

Wilder's Folly

Summer continues into September, and I walk north at lunchtime. Within yards the similitude of a quaint English village breaks apart to reveal a sprawling estate of terraced houses patrolled by men with no hair and fierce dogs. I know this part of the route well by now, and ignoring the meandering avenues and crescents that beckon me with their flowery names I follow a path northwards through the houses and across a sterile grass square where a battered notice warns sternly against the sins of ball games. Squeezing through a narrow alley strewn with beer cans and cigarette packs, the estate vanishes as quickly as it appeared, and I find myself walking up a path between a school playing field on my left and a golf course on my right. In ten minutes I have reached the end of the golf course and turn right down a country lane into the village, actually hardly even a hamlet, of North Street, which has little to commend it beyond a post box in a wall, a defunct red telephone box that has been adopted by the local community, and a wooden bench on a corner of grass.

Post box, North Street

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 2.0}

In 20 years time will these be as rare as telephone boxes are now?

Telephone box, North Street

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 2.0}

Once ubiquitous, these iconic red boxes are now an increasingly rare sight.

Bryar Cottage, North Street

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

The only Grade II listed building in the village.

I have not gone further than here before, and I am not too sure of my way as I walk out of the village and turn down a lane on my right. At the end of the lane is a farm, and the continuation of the lane is fenced off. But access is only denied to motor vehicles, and I continue down the grass lane, the brutish roar of cars and lorries from the nearby motorway getting ever louder with every step. The noise is almost unbearable when the lane emerges from the trees at the foot of a concrete footbridge which spirals up and over the motorway, then spirals down into the woods on the other side. The path through the woods emerges into farmland, and there in the distance, standing on top of a low hill is the object of today's ramble, an eighteenth-century red brick tower, or perhaps dovecote, known variously as Wilder's Folly or Nunhide Tower or Flint's Folly or Pincent's Kiln.

The public footpath follows the hedgerows across the fields, then joins a farm lane (which doubles as a public bridleway) that runs southwards through the farmyard. A little further on a path turns left up the gently sloping hill through newly-stubbled wheat towards the tower. The motorway is now but a dull murmur, although in a nearby field I can hear, and occasionally catch a glimpse of, a combine harvester gathering in the last of the wheat.

Wilder's Folly, Nunhide Hill, Sulham

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Photo taken from the information board south of the tower.
After a prolonged dry spell the redness has been leached out of the bricks,
and the grass of the path leading to the tower is the same colour as the straw in the adjacent fields.

The ground level has a vaulted ceiling and arched openings on three sides (north, south and west). All too predictably, the interior is graffiti-painted, and on the north and west sides are the remains of barbecues and scattered litter. The upper two stories would originally have been reached by an exterior wooden staircase, but that is long since gone. Sometime during the Victorian period the windows on the upper two floors were bricked up (all except for a small, round window above the hanging doorway on the east side), and the tower converted to a dovecote ("Pigeon Tower" is the prosaic name given on the information board). However, there do not appear to be any doves or pigeons here any longer, just a pair of red kites wheeling lazily high above (just out of reach of my camera). From the flat roof with crenellated parapet there would have been a fine view of the countryside, but Google Maps shows that the roof is no longer, and a tree or bush is growing out from the floor below.

Wilder's Folly from the air (from Google Maps)

{©2013 Google}

The story goes that the tower was built as a folly in about 1769 by Henry Wilder, later rector of St Nicholas' Church in Sulham, when he was courting Joan Thoyts (who he married on 13 June 1769). Henry lived at Sulham House, one mile north of the tower, and Joan lived at Sulhamstead House, two miles southwest of the tower, and the tower was supposedly built on the strategic hilltop so that it could be seen from both their homes, and the lovers' hearts would be joined together through the mutual sight of the tower. I imagine that the tower was also designed so that Henry could climb up to the top of the tower and gaze longingly towards his sweetheart, maybe even so that he could signal to her at appointed times.

I choose my words carefully, because a Google Books search finds no evidence for the origins of the tower, or even that Henry Wilder was responsible for it, and the only source for the story appears to be the information board set up near the tower by the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. It may perhaps be based on Wilder family tradition, as Henry and Joan's descendants still live hereabouts. Nevertheless, I see no reason to doubt the romantic story, especially as it is too grand a structure to have been built originally for doves, and why would doves need to live on top of a hill anyway? The alignment of the tower also lends some credence to the story, for although it is roughly aligned on a north-south axis, the alignment is not perfect, and in fact if you look through the two arches from the south side of the tower you can clearly see Sulham House, where Henry Wilder dwelt, positioned in the exact centre. That the tower faces the Wilder's family home can be no accident.

Wilder's Folly from the South

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Sulham House, where Henry Wilder lived,
is the white building in the exact centre of the northern arch.

Wilder's Folly from the East

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

A wooden staircase would have reached the
now bricked-up hanging doorway below the round window.
An internal staircase would have taken the visitor to the upper level and the roof.

Wilder's Folly from the West

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

According to the Folly Fellowship the first floor was originally painted inside,
and the windows glazed, but I wonder how they know.

I go down the hill to rejoin the farm lane, and ten minutes later come out onto a road leading to the gigantic edge-of-town supermarket. Another concrete footpath over the motorway, this one much more travelled than the previous one, and I am soon back where I started. Maybe tomorrow I will go further.


Berkshire | Follies

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