The follies of Faringdon
In 1930 a remarkable man moved to Faringdon in deepest Oxfordshire. Little would the town have suspected how their new resident would bring a touch of the surreal to their quiet corner of England.
The new owner of the splendid domicile, Faringdon House, was Gerald Hugh Tyrwhittwilson, 14th Baron Berners (18841950), a cultured fellow of singular humour and talents, recently returned from a over decade abroad attached to the British Embassies of Constantinople, Paris and Rome (before taking a sabbatical to focus on his composition). He was at the age of 46 already an accomplished writer, painter and composer. Stravinsky thought him the finest British composer of the century, and Diaghilev commissioned him to compose the score for the Triumph of Neptune.
Overcoming the death of his mother, Lord Berners made Faringdon House the centre of a sparkling social scene, playing host to the glitterati of the arts and intelligentsia of the 1920s and 30s. His guest list included the likes of Aldous Huxley, HG Wells, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell, Nancy Mitford, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Diana Mosley, Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, Duff Coopers, John & Penelope Betjeman, Elsa Schiaparelli… Berners’ themed parties were renowned. He played the role of Lord of Misrule exceptionally well.
Berners bought the wooded hilltop to the south of the town, and then to tease the local people built Folly Tower. The architect he commissioned detested the Gothic style, so Berners made him add a Gothic embellishment to its crown. In 1935, Robert Heber-percy, Lord Berners companion, was given the Folly Tower as a birthday present, and Berners’ descendant bequeathed it to the town (leaving a fine legacy of Scots pine). Now run by the Faringdon Folly Tower Trust, it is a popular park where surreal sculptures can be discovered. On the bimonthly open days, visitors can ascend the tower and enjoy a pigeoneyed view of the world.
Berners had a great sense of fun, a strain of English absurdism which makes him practically a proto-python. Many of his antics would not have looked out of place in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He famously had the local pigeons dyed pink. Around the town he had installed nonsensical signs such as “This is not a notice”. On the side of his tower, halfway up, the eagleeyed can spot “Do not feed the giraffes”. Berners invited Dali to stay with him, and the Spanish surrealist notoriously walked around the market square in a diving suit, which a lovely statue commemorates. Berners genius was to transform a quiet corner of England into a playground of the imagination. Take the air around Faringdon and you too may find yourself suddenly possessed with strange ideas and an irrepressible sense of fun.
Folly Park Lake
The Old Stable Block, Faringdon
Strange faces at All Saints
Hare sculpture at Folly Hill
Sculpture at Folly Hill