There was always an air of mystery about this place. When everything was new, and a car was a novelty, Dad used to occasionally take us for Sunday afternoon drives. Passing along the lanes of the South Downs north of Chichester, he’d invariably comment, “Oh, there’s Racton Folly.” And there it was, a grim looking tower hiding in the trees on a slight hill. He spoke as though it was vaguely familiar; perhaps he’d played there as a boy. In my childish imagination it had a rather sinister appearance. On one exciting day, together with my two older brothers, we actually visited it. I recall crossing a field – so perhaps we were out for a walk – and being confronted with a forest of bramble and a broken fence in front of what looked like a ruined castle. It seemed forbidding and therefore totally inviting. I wasn’t allowed to go in; it probably wasn’t safe. My big brothers were – of course; I think I stood guard, or something – that was probably my father’s way of making missing out mildly thrilling and marginally less disappointing. They never told me what it was like, or what they’d seen. Years later, as an adult, I’d sometimes drive past it in the distance myself and say, to whoever happened to be in the car with me, “Oh look, there’s Racton Folly.”
A folly is a structure, usually an expensive one, with no obvious purpose. It is often vaguely decorative, perhaps symbolic, maybe disguising something else, but rarely particularly useful. According to the Folly Fellowship – a society dedicated to the study of, well, follies – there are at least 1100 follies in the United Kingdom.
The heyday for folly-building appears to have been in the 18th century. Racton Folly was designed by Theodosius Keene (or Kelne?), commissioned by the 2nd Earl of Halifax and built between 1766 and 1775. The 2nd Earl of Halifax (1716-71) was a statesman who inherited nearby Stansted Park and who gloried in the name George Montagu-Dunk. He has an elaborate memorial in Westminster Abbey which says he “contributed so largely to the commerce and splendour of America as to be styled ‘Father of the Colonies’ ”. Halifax, Nova Scotia, is actually named after him. It has been suggested that the folly enabled Halifax to see his ships dock at Emsworth harbour about 3 miles away. In fact, no one knows why he ever built the thing; it may have been just a rich man’s whimsical fancy, perhaps some kind of summerhouse; and, as you can see from the dates, he may not have lived to enjoy it anyway. Whatever its intended purpose, Racton Folly seems to have been a complete waste of time and money – a genuine folly, in fact.
It’s certainly elaborate. Constructed of brick and flint, it has a triangular base with a small round turret at each vertex and a tall, tapering, central tower of four stories – about 80 feet high. Today, it’s a Grade II listed ruined curiosity. It could be a romantic building, ivy-clad, straight out of a Gothic fairy-tale. But, oh, it’s a cold, unpleasant, place. The floors and roof have long gone, it is littered with rubbish, covered in graffiti and has a distinctly nasty ambience. Sometimes it’s known as Racton Monument (to what?), Racton Tower, or even Stansted Castle. No one’s alive to tell us what happened there, before or after it fell into disrepair. Sadly, it has been the location for at least one suicide. There was talk, they say, of turning it into a dwelling, but nothing came of it. There are rumours of smugglers. It is a relatively isolated spot – an ideal place for folk to do things they shouldn’t, away from prying eyes. Inevitably, it attracts stories; you know the sort of thing. I have read that evidence of witchcraft has been found there – surprisingly recently. Paranormal groups have investigated reports of bricks being thrown out of upper windows; the ghostly figure of a woman walking through the ruins; a disembodied face at a window; even a phantom tractor. One group of investigators experienced eerie whisperings in their ears, and the sensation of being touched. Sceptics say the reports have been fuelled by overactive imaginations, adolescent pranksters, alcohol, or drugs.
So what do you think? This is no obvious tourist attraction. The dense foliage shuts out the modern world. Overhead, cawing rooks wheel in the sky and dying leaves rustle in the breeze. Did you imagine someone walking outside, behind you; hear shuffling behind the wall? Was that a murmured sigh coming from that room, or rats scavenging in the mess on the floor? The air of desolation and decay is uncomfortable. Really, there is nothing to worry about; it’s just an old, slightly weird, ruin.
But people will be back, searching for something, you know they will. Some may even go on the eve of All Hallows, when spirits ride through the sky laughing, the souls of the dead are abroad and sensible folk stay at home and bolt their doors.
By the way, it is worth mentioning that there is a Racton Man, found on farmland nearby. He is an almost complete skeleton of a Bronze Age warrior who died sometime between 2150 and 2300BC; but there’s no need for concern – he’s safely in Chichester’s Novium Museum now.