"We can treat folly with kindness" says a character in the Portmeirion-set television series The Prisoner
Perhaps one of the most unexpected places in Britain, Portmeirion is an Italian-style town on the coast of North Wales. Thought to be inspired by the Italian cliff town of Portofino, it was the vision of one man, the eccentric Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. He spent fifty years of his life, between 1925 and 1975, designing and building his fantasy.
It is a deliberately whimsical place in a jumble of different architectural styles from the Jacobean-style town hall, to the Victorian Gothic castle and Georgian style belvedere-cum-shell grotto.
Rather than build everything from scratch Ellis included old and demolished buildings and ‘finds’ into his design, humorously calling it his ‘home for fallen buildings’. Like other architectural follies, somehow it works.
Portmeirion is a good example of a folly: a building or place designed with decoration rather than practicality in mind. Whether fun, frivolous, romantic or simply exotic, follies bring a smile to our faces.
Usually only the very wealthy could afford to build them. New wealth generated by overseas trade in the 17th century, and by home-grown industrial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries, led to the purchase and creation of some enormous estates, with lavish, extensive grounds. Follies became a fashionable part of the landscape, reflecting the tastes of their owner and current trends.
Oriental, Asian, Moorish, Egyptian and Classical style follies were erected across the country. Wimpole’s Folly in Cambridgeshire was purposefully built as ruins to create a Gothic atmosphere. The Rushton Triangular Lodge in Northamptonshire has three sides representing the Holy Trinity.
Though the vogue for follies might have passed and many have since fallen into ruin, examples can still be seen and used. The Pineapple in Falkirk, Scotland - a summerhouse crowned with a giant fruit - and the House in the Clouds in Suffolk - a 20m water tower with a cottage perched on top - are both now let out as holiday homes.