It was all a bit competitive being a landowner in 18th and 19th century North Yorkshire. You wanted the fine house. You wanted the spacious and gracious gardens, landscaped to be ‘picturesque’: nature celebrated but tamed, rather than strictly-organised and geometric, as in much of the rest of Europe. And you wanted the Folly. You were looking for an extravagant yet decorative building, that displayed to the world your appreciation of classical, Egyptian or Gothic architecture. It was without purpose, it was eccentric, and it was a fake.
But that was entirely the point. A folly was for fun. It might complement the view. It might make a destination for a stroll for your family and guests. It might even be a picnic spot for a wider public looking then, as now, for something nice to do on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Today, the ‘wider public’ was the Ripon U3A (University of the Third Age) walking group. It was not however, a sunny Sunday, but a dank and drizzly Friday. Our path took us through Colsterdale up the now dismantled track of the narrow-gauge railway built in 1902 to transport materials used in the construction of nearby Leighton reservoir. During WW1, the railway’s destination, Breary Banks, became a training ground for the volunteer soldiers of Leeds Pals. We tramped up the hill as those soldiers-in-training must have done: more suitably clad, certainly, and just as capable of sending the sheep running for cover in the bracken.
Then we were into woods, and along another path, and found ourselves…… in a clearing, with an oval of standing stones, some of them fashioned into doorways or caves, but all of them contributing to a sort of over-furnished Stonehenge. It’s not North Yorkshire’s answer to Stonehenge however, but William Danby’s folly. William Danby was the owner of the Swinton Estate, on whose lands we were standing. That is, both William Senior, who lived in the latter half of the 18th century, and William Junior, his son. Which of them built the folly is a bit of a mystery. Both of them were probably intrigued by the Druids. Poets and antiquarians at the time saw them as England’s earliest men of learning, the guardians of early belief-systems, and the first English patriots. Some say too that this ‘ancient temple’ was devised as a means of providing employment for men returning from soldiering in the Napoleonic Wars. There’s a story that there was a seven-year job on offer to anyone who would live as a hermit on the site. It’s thought that nobody stayed the course.
We explored the stones and caves, standing atmospherically on this slightly misty day at the edge of a suitably gloomy forest.
And then we went for coffee and cake at the Bivouac, a marvellously isolated and quirky cafe on a site -with-yurts for serious glampers. Definitely worth a detour. Suitably fortified, we finished our circular walk, and were back at home in time for a late lunch. A healthy walk, a couple of history lessons, a great coffee-stop. What better way to start the weekend?
I should mention that these photos give quite the wrong impression of our not-at-all miserable day. They were actually taken earlier this week, when the weather was really gloomy, and our French friends were still here.