The traveller, on the road between Dorchester and Wimborne Minster in Dorset, will occasionally glimpse the silhouette of a tower on the top of a remote hill. A hundred years ago the same sight was visible from the train. It was this view of a lonely tower that inspired (if that is the right word) one of Thomas Hardy’s rightfully lesser known novels Two on a Tower. Despite the questionable literary quality of the novel I have long been curious about the building, but it lies in the middle of Charborough Park, with no public access.
However this weekend the woodlands were opened for charity and, at last, after wandering through a wonderful collection of ancient rhododendrons in full flower, I glimpsed the tower in the distance. As I approached it looked stranger and stranger. I knew it had been built in the 1790’s, but hadn’t realised that it had been built in such a strange form of gothic revival (I tend to call this gothick).
An octagonal tower with weird windows and curious beasts carved on the label stops, the addition of mobile phone aerials on the top only adds to the strangeness of the creation.
As soon as I saw it I was immediately reminded of pictures I had seen of the great tower of Fonthill Abbey. This was built at about the same time as this building, fell down twice before being finished. It towered 90 metres (300ft) high, and dominated the surrounding countryside for a few years, before finally collapsing in 1825, destroying Fonthill Abbey in its fall.
If this tower was little known, the other one is very well known. Clavell’s tower stands on the cliffs above Kimmeridge Bay on the Dorset coast. It had been built as a summerhouse, became a coastguard look out, then was abandoned and fell into ruin. A few years ago it was in danger of collapse as the cliff it stood on was crumbling. A campaign to save it was started, with high profile support from the crime writer P.D James.
Clavell’s Tower before restoration
She got involved because the tower had been the inspiration for one of her novels. The story she told was that she was on holiday with her family, everyone else was admiring the view of the bay, whilst she imagined a man in a wheelchair falling over the cliff (she also claimed that she had thought like that all her life, on hearing the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty, she wondered if he fell, or was he pushed). This was the stimulus for The Black Tower. When a TV company came to film the novel they found that, in reality the tower was grey, so it was coloured black with food colouring as this would wash away in the rain.
The tower today, the ring shows where it once stood.
The very unusual holiday home.
Clavell’s tower has been saved, was moved away from the cliff edge and rebuilt – and is now a very unusual holiday home.