Historic East Devon tower folly is restored to its former glory

Historic East Devon tower folly is restored to its former glory

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Historic East Devon tower folly is restored to its former glory

A 19th-century octagonal tower folly, built in a hidden East Devon location as a surprise birthday present for the 1st Baron Rolle in 1839, has been restored to its former glory. 

Over the past year, the China Tower, a castellated building with four floors and a separate stair turret, has undergone extensive refurbishment and is now available for self-catering holidays through the historic buildings' charity, the Landmark Trust.

An official opening on Thursday 25th April 2013 involving Anna Keay, Director of the Landmark Trust, representatives from Clinton Devon Estates and members of the Clinton family - owners of the tower - will mark the end of restoration work and the beginning of a new era for the 100ft Gothic tower.

The Grade II listed building is located on a forested knoll at Baker's Brake within view of Bicton College, which was once known as Bicton House and the main home of Lord Rolle and his young second wife Louisa Trefusis - daughter of the 17th Baron Clinton. 

Clinton Devon Estates' Head of Property and Land, Leigh Rix said: "Thanks to the vision and commitment of the Landmark Trust, we have achieved a stunning restoration of a very important piece of East Devon's history. We have done our best to keep the tower true to Lady Louisa's vision while, at the same time, introducing a few home comforts to ensure that holiday guests can fully enjoy the eccentricity of the building and its beautiful surroundings."  

Anna Keay, Director of the Landmark Trust agreed: "We are delighted to be working with Clinton Devon Estates and thank them for giving us the opportunity to provide a new future for the delightful China Tower. I am certain this unique building will become a much-loved setting for many memorable holidays. The chance to explore this fascinating and beautiful part of the country and retire to your own tower will be an extraordinary experience."


The history


Records show that Louisa, Lady Rolle, was only 26 years old when she married the 73 year old John, Lord Rolle in 1822.  Their union was childless, but the marriage was, by all accounts, a contented one with the couple spending much of their time creating and elaborating the renowned arboretum, pinetum and gardens at Bicton. On Lord Rolle's 88th birthday, his wife presented him with the surprise gift of a tower folly - complete with 210 interior steps.

J.C Loudon, a writer who visited most of the great early 19th century gardens, recorded, after a visit to Bicton in September 1840: "This tower is understood to have been built by Lady Rolle, entirely unknown to Lord Rolle, and undiscovered by him, as an agreeable surprise for his birthday, October 16th 1839, when he completed his 88th year; and the following birthday, Lady Rolle surprised Lord Rolle with the china room... It contains several rooms; in one of which, appropriately fitted up, a rich collection of china is tastefully displayed."

It is not clear whether Lord Rolle ever managed to walk to the top of the tower himself to enjoy the distant views of the sea - or whether he was carried up in a chair by two footmen.

The history books record that he famously stumbled twice on the steps to the throne as he paid homage to Queen Victoria at her coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1837.

Queen Victoria recorded the incident in her own diary: " Poor old Lord Rolle, who is 87 and dreadfully infirm, in attempting to ascend the steps fell and rolled quite down, but was not the least hurt; when he attempted to re-ascend them I got up and advanced to the end of the steps in order to prevent another fall."


The restoration


Having stood empty for many years, the Grade II listed China Tower had fallen into disrepair and needed significant funds to fix its leaking roof. Clinton Devon Estates approached the Landmark Trust for help to secure its future. Following the restoration, repair and conversion works, funded by Clinton Devon Estates, the Landmark Trust has now taken on a lease to let the tower for holidays.

Restoration work began in 2012 with the entire tower being scaffolded so that the render could be surveyed and repaired. Electricity and water have been connected for the first time and air-source heating installed.

Originally there were a few comforts in the tower; just a simple range on the ground floor, presumably for servants to prepare refreshments, and a single small fireplace on the third floor.  

Since work began, an original flagstone floor was found beneath a later floor and has now been restored and is kept warm with underfloor heating. The Landmark team have made a new kitchen and installed a small shower room into a rear extension. The first and second floors have been transformed into comfortable bedrooms and, on the top floor, there is a sitting room where a collection of china vases are displayed on wall-mounted plinths. Windows at every available angle offer stunning views across East Devon and out to sea. 

In recognition of the China Tower's origins, the Rolle-Trefusis Arms above the door to the stair turret were skillfully restored. The approach to the tower, along Lady Louisa's Green Drive, has also been resurfaced.

The China Tower is available for self-catering holidays for up to four people for 3 night weekends, 4 night midweek breaks or by the week with prices starting from £506 for a week.

The Landmark Trust has a unique collection of historic buildings, including 38 in Devon; a clock tower in Lympstone, a huge stable block near Cullompton and an ancient thatched cottage in Branscombe. Income generated by holiday letting pays for ongoing maintenance. 

Do what you can to elevate your profession. It is an honourable one

– Robert Lipscomb, Steward 1865 – 1892

…and the Lord Clinton was, by the whole Council, brought to the King’s presence, who after like thanks was given, was pleased that he should be made High Admiral of England and one of his Privy Council…

– Official record of appointment of 9th Baron Clinton as Lord High Admiral for life on 4th May 1550

Handing over something more valuable than we have today,

– Estates ethos

We are trustees for life of the countryside

– 22nd Baron Clinton, 2002

to set out against the Scots, the King’s enemies and rebels

– Instructions given by Edward 1 to John de Clinton on 8th April 1298, prior to him leading the Royal army to victory at the Battle of Falkirk. As a direct result the Clinton Barony was formed on 22nd July 1299