The wonderful thing about follies is no-one can be really sure why they were built, leaving us free to speculate and for myths and stories to blossom. The UK countryside is dotted with them – some tucked away on private land, others standing proud and bold for all to see.
On a glorious autumn day we took a stroll around the East Sussex village of Brightling to seek out the six (yes, six!) crazy structures left for posterity by John “Mad Jack” Fuller.
Our first stop seemed to confirm that Squire Fuller deserved his nickname. His final resting place is a grandiose pyramid in the grounds of the local church. It’s so out of place that passing cyclists and ramblers do a double take and are forced to stop and ask, “What the heck is that doing there?”
Rumour has it that Squire Fuller was buried in this mausoleum, sitting upright at a banqueting table, goblet in hand with the floor before him strewn with broken glass to deter the devil. The truth of the matter is that he is simply interred, in the normal way, below the floor of this mock-Egyptian edifice.
And how was he allowed to get away with taking up almost a quarter of the graveyard in death? Well Squire Fuller, or Honest John as he preferred to be called, was a philanthropist, a patron of the arts and sciences and a generous supporter of the church.
Even so his donations generated conjecture. It’s said he only gave the tiny church its magnificent organ because he thought the singing of the choir to be distinctly below par. He also, rather bizarrely, gave them nine bassoons (or possibly trombones, the story varies) to accompany them and kitted them out in smocks, breeches and cloaks.
But you don’t get a bust put up for random acts of weirdness and Squire Fuller also paid for a new peal of five bells to commemorate Wellington’s victories and for a new church wall, an iron gateway and additional stone pillars – all of which were necessary for his pyramid to be safely constructed.
The fact that the local vicar didn’t object to this idea suggests that Squire Fuller was well liked by his neighbours who were perhaps even proud of their eccentric and larger-than-life benefactor.
And large he certainly was. He grew into a big, outspoken man, weighing 22 stone, with extravagant views he voiced in loud, bellowing tones.
Who was Mad Jack Fuller?
His wealth came from his family who made their fortune in the burgeoning iron trade. By the mid 1600s nearly half the population of nearby Heathfield was employed in the Fuller Foundry. The family motto was “Carbone et Forcipibus” – by charcoal and tongs. Marriage to a family with a West Indian sugar plantation didn’t do them any harm either and by the time Fuller inherited Brightling Park in 1777 at the age of 20, his fortune was secure.
He became an MP (with a political life that was not without controversy) and a patron of the sciences, funding Fullerian Professorships at the Royal Institution, indirectly supporting the development of inventions such as Faraday’s electric motor, Dewar’s thermos flask and Roget’s slide rule.
In 1829 he bought Bodiam Castle when it was under threat of demolition, and after hearing of an horrific shipwreck endowed Eastbourne with its first lifeboat and supported the building of the original Belle Tout lighthouse at Beachy Head.
It comes as no surprise to learn he never married (although he did propose to Susannah Thrale, daughter of Streatham brewer Henry Thrale and diarist Hester Thrale, but was rebuffed) and he never had any children. So the stage was set for his epic folly-building.
The Rotunda Temple
Built on private land in Brightling Park you can get good views of this mock temple from the footpath which runs through the estate. It has Doric columns and a circular dome in the Grecian style.
Its base is hollow, giving rise to rumours it was used for storing smuggled goods but it’s just as likely Mr Fuller used it to keep wine and party goods for afternoon tea visitors as it’s the perfect picnic spot.
Others have suggested Fuller frequented it with ladies of ill repute – although he never married he had a reputation as a ladies man. I don’t think he’d mind such rumours.
If you follow the circular walking route you may catch a glimpse of two other oddities in the grounds, a summerhouse and stone pillars near the house.
A mysterious structure, in a copse just outside the walls of Brightling Park, which you can get to via a footpath running through a field (full of very friendly and curious cows when we were there).
It’s a two storey, circular building with a Gothic entrance (securely padlocked now to stop adventure seekers) and battlements on the top.
The theory is that it was built at the same time as Fuller bought Bodiam Castle and it was used to monitor progress of the restoration, as the castle can be seen from the top.
Everyone is agreed on why this odd thing was built in the nearby village of Dallington. Apparently Fuller bet a friend while they were both in London that he could see the spire of Dallington Church from his his ancestral home. But he’d forgotten about the ridge that was in the way. When Fuller returned to Brightling Park and realised he was going to lose the wager he had the Sugarloaf erected in one night.
The story is possibly true as it does seem to have been put up very hastily and isn’t well designed. Nevertheless it was lived in for several years – a pretty strange home to have – and from a distance it does look very much like a church spire.
The Obelisk (Brightling Needle)
Standing on the second highest point in Sussex, to the north-west of the village it was probably built to celebrate Wellington’s victory over Napoleon in 1815 or it’s possible Mad Jack simply commissioned it to give the villagers work in a time of severe unemployment.
It’s on private land so you can only catch a glimpse through the hedgerows.
You can’t really call this a folly – as it was built with a real purpose. It was at one time a fully working observatory. It may have been put up to satisfy Fuller’s amateur interests but the records show it was well furnished with the most sophisticated equipment available at that time including a camera obscura.
But, as with all Mad Jack’s buildings, there are stories attached to it. It’s said that the dome on top provided his servants with an ideal lookout so they could get advance warning of their master’s approach and make sure everything was in apple-pie order.
Again this is now privately owned so please be sensitive when taking a look at this oddity which can be clearly seen from the road.
Follies are fun, silly, scary or thought-provoking but they are a vital part of our heritage. Many of them fall outside the rules for public funding and rely on the goodwill of private individuals to maintain, even when they are, like these, an official Listed Building.
Mad Jack’s structures are beginning to show signs of wear and tear and it would be a shame if they were allowed to become overgrown and crumble, because Britain would be a sadder place without its follies.
More information about Fuller’s Follies
Several footpaths take you close to all six. Do be careful to check the exact route of the paths as they aren’t always well marked, but locals will set you right if you stray.
If you are interested in learning more about John Fuller himself, the church at Brighting has a lovely little book, written by Geoff Hutchinson, which is available for just £3.
For more information about follies in general check out the Folly Fellowship
Looking for somewhere to stay near Fullers Follies? Tripadvisor has a wide range of hotels in the area.