The English Folly: The Edifice Complex by Gwyn Headley & Wim Meulenkamp - review by Benjamin Riley

Benjamin Riley

Don’t Ask to Use the Bathroom

The English Folly: The Edifice Complex


Historic England / Liverpool University Press 249pp £60

George Durant is an entertaining character to meet in the pages of The English Folly; in real life, one imagines, it would have been rather less of a pleasure. Described by Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp with characteristic verve as ‘a creature of the Middle Ages, dark, crepuscular, evil’, Durant was the major landowner at Tong, Shropshire, having inherited from his father (also George Durant) Tong Castle and the surrounding villages and land, along with a rotten streak. Marrying the daughter of another local landowner, he begat fourteen legitimate children, a lot even in the Georgian era. But there were many more little Durants running around, including three stashed secretly in another wing of the castle with their mother, Durant’s mistress – a ménage discovered by Mrs Durant when she noticed a smoking chimney in a part of the house that was, she thought, uninhabited. He sired a total of ‘at least 32 bastards in the village’, insisting on serving as godfather to them all. But, as Headley and Meulenkamp write, ‘venery wasn’t his only enthusiasm’. He was also a prolific builder of follies, those architectural curiosities that form the subject of this guidebook and group biography. Around fifty, in fact, in various shapes and sizes, and with an iconography all his own. Some were built to annoy neighbours by blocking their views; others had semi-practical purposes and displayed flashes of wit, like the Tudor-style cowshed inscribed with the ironic legend ‘ROWS OF COWS’ – ironic because barely a single heifer could fit inside.

Durant evinced obvious mania in all he did, which nudges us towards a possible definition of this elusive building type: a structure produced with some degree of manic obsession. Meulenkamp admits as much in his foreword, saying that most follies have their genesis in eccentricity, before qualifying that remark: ‘on

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