London's Greatest Follies

By M@ Last edited 7 months ago

Last Updated 17 October 2023

London's Greatest Follies

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Celebrating the London structures that are just for show.

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a folly as "a costly, generally nonfunctional building that was erected to enhance a natural landscape". They're typically found in the gardens of stately homes — towers and grottos built simply as talking points, because the land-owner had more cash than they knew what to do with.

London has its follies, particularly if you interpret the word in its broader sense, to include ornamental towers that do have a function, even if it's just as a viewing platform. Here are 13...

1. Severndroog Castle

London tower of Severndroog Castle, a brown brick castellated folly

A trip to Severndroog in south-east London is one of London's great romantic adventures. The castellated tower stands high on Shooter's Hill, whose anciently wooded slopes make for a memorable approach. The Grade II-listed tower was built in 1784 as a memorial to Sir William James, who smited the island fortress of Suvarnadurg in India. For a folly, it's come in rather useful over the years. The tower has been adapted for testing lighthouse equipment, as a wartime lookout, and as a navigation point for aircraft from Biggin Hill. It also makes for a very special viewing platform, and can be visited on regular open weekends.

2. The Great Pagoda, Kew

Chinese pagoda at kew with multiple levels reaching up into a blue sky

London's most famous folly was built in 1762 by William Chambers. The 10-storey pagoda in Kew Gardens was the culmination of a spate of folly-building in the area, whims of the royal family who were shacked up in Kew Palace. Most have now vanished, but you can also see Chambers's "ruined arch" within the gardens. Like Severndroog, this is another tower you can climb. The views, from around the same height as Nelson's Column, are spectacular.

3. Pope's Grotto

Follies are not always lofty structures. Another popular species was the grotto — a kind of artificial or ornamental cave, built into a landscape. London's most celebrated — and largest — is surely Pope's Grotto near Twickenham. The synthetic cavern was hewn for the pleasure of poet Alexander Pope, whose mansion once stood on the site. The grotto was recently restored and is occasionally open to visitors.

4. Fine French follies

Shell grotto in the shape of a shed with brown wooden door surrounded by railings

Ever spotted these two shell-covered huts to the north of Victoria station in Grosvenor Gardens? They were designed by a French architect, stand near the statue of (French) General Fock, and were installed in 1952 to celebrate Anglo-French friendship. The relationship is further strengthened by the patina of shells, which were scavenged from English and French beaches. The huts are used for storage of garden tools, so are arguably too useful to be classed as follies. But shells are a traditional decoration for grottos, and the huts look so charmingly out-of-place, that we've included them here.

5. Caledonian Park Tower

italian-style clock tower made of white stone against a blue sky

This one's also a bit of a cheat. The Caledonian clock tower was built with purpose. It kept time for the sprawling Caledonian livestock market that was once the most notable feature of the Cally Road area. So, to call it a functionless folly is... folly of another kind. That said, it is way more elaborate and decorative than a commercial timepiece needs to be, and since the market closed in the 1960s it has lost most of its audience. Of course, the best thing about the Cally clock tower is that you can climb up to the viewing platform for free if you book onto one of these tours.

6. Watkin's Folly

Watkins folly, a large metal structure like the base of the eiffel tower in black and white

The story of how Wembley almost got its own Eiffel-style tower has been told so many times that we won't repeat it here. Suffice it to say that the structure only ever got as high as the premier étage before running out of money. The hubristic folly was named after Edward Watkin, the industrialist who sponsored its construction around the same time he was extending the Metropolitan line. Wembley stadium now stands on the site.

7. Tooke's Folly

A large stone folly on a country road with a blue sky

The first thing you need to know about Pinner solicitor Arthur Tooke is that he was married to the uniquely named Nymphe Prudente Tooke. The second is that he built this eccentric farm building on Pinner Hill. Tooke's Folly, as it's known, served no practical purpose, but seems to have once housed a set of five Russian bells (long vanished) purchased from the Great Exhibition of 1851.

8. Barking folly wall

A brick wall folly with railings in front in barking

Ruins of an old brewery or the last fragment of a spent church? Neither. This dilapidated wall is pure folly, and a modern one at that. The wall was constructed by apprentice bricklayers in 2007 to resemble an old, ruined building. It reuses local bricks and architectural salvage to form a structure with no purpose other than to make you think.

9. Crocker's Folly

Ornate pub the Crockers folly against a blue sky

This grand public house and restaurant — now a branch of Maroush — beside the canal in Maida Vale has long been known as Crocker's Folly. According to legend, Frank Crocker had the pub (then called The Crown) built on a lavish scale because he thought the terminus of the Grand Central Railway was about to take shape next door. When it was instead built half a mile away as Marylebone station, Crocker couldn't fill the place, went broke, and committed suicide by jumping from an upper window. The story is largely myth. There is no evidence to suggest that Crocker built his joint to service the railway terminus, and he certainly didn't commit suicide. However, his successor as landlord — Mr Charles Durden — did jump from the upper floor, and died on the way to hospital. The coroner's report recorded that he "killed himself while of unsound mind", probably caused by debt worry.

10. The Greenwich folly/follies

A tower made of wood against a blue sky

London's newest folly stands near the cable car on Greenwich Peninsula. Called '33', this wooden homage to a terrace house was constructed by Studio Weave in 2018. You can theoretically climb to the top to enjoy passable views of the surrounding developments, but it's always been locked up when we've passed by. Arguably, Greenwich is home to many other modern follies. The Tide, an expensive elevated walkway that runs from central North Greenwich to the riverside, might qualify, given that it serves no practical purpose that a regular pathway wouldn't accomplish. Then there's that upturned pylon nearby, actually a work of art by Alex Chinneck. The O2 dome and cable car have also been called white elephants in their time, although the dome is now very successful, and the dangleway is occasionally useful, to some of the people, some of the time.

11. The Marble Arch Mound

The green mound at Marble Arch with red London buses in the foreground

It was 2021, and London was slowly reawakening after a series of Covid lockdowns. One creative intervention had all the town talking, though not always in tones of enthusiasm. The Mable Arch Mound was basically an artificial hill constructed from scaffolding. Like any classic folly, it served no practical purpose, other than as a viewing point. It was almost universally lambasted on Twitter as both an eyesore and a waste of money. And yet it was free to climb, and brought joy to 100% of the six-year-olds I ventured up there with.

12. Folly for a Flyover

A12 underpass with a wooden house-like building and people milling about

A short-lived folly, built beneath the A12 flyover in Hackney Wick back in 2011. It served as a temporary arts and performance venue as part of the Create11 festival.

13. The Stump

22 Bishopsgate or the Pinnacle or the helter skelter, which only grew to six floors of core

Remember this concrete fist, which graced Bishopsgate for more than three years? The Stump, as it became known, was the stunted central core of what would have been the City of London's tallest building. Known as the Pinnacle or Helter-Skelter, the spiral-topped skyscraper would have given a welcome twist to the skyline. Sadly, the financial crisis brought a halt to development in 2012, and the structure never got beyond the sixth floor. It was eventually demolished and replaced by the functional but unlovable 22 Bishopsgate — itself the City's loftiest building.

All images by Matt Brown, except Watkin's Folly (obviously), which is public domain.