In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, landowners across northern Europe developed a penchant for building follies. Having returned from their Grand Tours of more distant climes, they brought newly acquired visions of Romantic ruins home with them, populating country gardens with simulacra structures devoid of context or history, but seeking to evoke both.
These structures are appropriately named. Follies are architectural misadventures, purposefully built without purpose. They betray a longing for an imagined past; architectural fictions erected to imbue the surrounding landscape with what was, in their owners’ eyes, a missing historical grandeur. Unlike Rome or Athens or Istanbul, the towns and countryside of northern Europe lacked the arid air essential to preservation. As anyone living in the rainy north of England will tell you, it is a place predisposed to rot. But perhaps the nations of northern Europe also lacked a reverence for the past as well – at least a past belonging to anyone not belonging to its aristocratic class.
But no matter. As the Industrial Revolution accelerated technological progress and the further accumulation of wealth, with the monoliths of new industry and power sprouting up to impose themselves upon the landscape everywhere you looked, men with money to burn set about reintroducing some wreckage into the new age of mechanistic construction. By building false ruins of their own, they provided themselves with intentionally unfinished buildings to wander around and contemplate, wistfully daydreaming of their own ancestral pasts and future providence.
As such, these false ruins were not simply evocations of an imagined history, but markers of a new and perpetual present. Perhaps thinking themselves gods, the wealthy saw their power as eternal. Their self-assurance would beget no ruins, but still they longed for a time of conquest, importing relics from sorrier worlds, both real and imagined. Their comfort was too comfortable. They had to fray its edges in order to imagine their power deserved.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, I moved to Huddersfield in West Yorkshire for a brief eighteen-month stint. We would often pass by Wainhouse Tower, on the outskirts of nearby Halifax. A Gothic spire that towers over the surrounding Calderdale valley, it is the tallest folly in the world.
Though an incongruous apparition, impossibly transplanted from some quasi-Byzantine empire, and with no signs of industry surrounding the tower today, you would be forgiven for not knowing that its official purpose was to serve as a decorative chimney for the former local dyeworks. Overseen by local businessman John Edward Wainhouse, he insisted the chimney not only siphon off pollution but also double as a thing of beauty. But this tale was only a cover for the tower’s true purpose: it was, in fact, a project primarily undertaken to antagonize a local rival.
Wainhouse’s neighbour, Sir Henry Edwards, often boasted about the privacy he enjoyed as he roamed his Halifax estate, and so Wainhouse decided to erect something so ostentatious that his rival would see it everywhere, as well as allowing Wainhouse to provocatively see in. A true panopticon.
It is strange to learn this. Wainhouse Tower remains a grand imposition on the local landscape, still inspiring wonder in all who can see it from miles around. No one looks out from it any longer. It remains little more than an architectural jibe, erected to exacerbate a neighbourhood squabble among the landowning class. The folly is a mockery; its history a farce that has no sense of tragedy. But the trees that crowd around it remember. Their twisted, stunted branches writhe outwards with a sinister intent. You might almost think they were tangled in a long and enduring pain. Over a century and a half since Wainhouse Tower is built to pollute the skies, the woods have yet to fully recover from exposure to the toxic fumes of long-gone industries.
“The trees encountered on a country stroll / Reveal a lot about that country’s soul”, wrote W.H. Auden. “A culture is no better than its woods”. Though Auden may have felt our woods give us a connection to a primal past, in jousting with the Romantics he also suggests that they tell us a great deal about where we’re going. We struggle onwards, twisting, reaching. What is left for us is to seize the chance to dream as whimsically, encroaching on that tower of dead power and its labours… It gives us something to aim for, something to destroy. No dream without folly.