At risk: Severndroog Castle

Wanderers new to Shooters Hill Woodlands may be surprised to find signs pointing them ‘to the castle’. But Severndroog Castle is in fact not a castle at all but a folly. Nor is it a sham castle but rather another popular form of folly – a triangular tower, a fashionable style for ambitious follies of its day. The 60-foot gothic brick tower designed by Richard Jupp – featuring a hexagonal turret at each corner – is found in Castle Wood, atop South London’s highest point. Built in 1784 by his widow to commemorate Commodore Sir William James and his capture in 1755 of the Indian island fortress of Suvarnadurg (rendered in English as Severndroog) – a castle seems a most appropriate form for his memorial to take.

Plaque commemorating Sir William James.

Although classified as a folly – which is generally held to be a structure without a purpose – Severndroog Castle has actually given itself over to a number of uses throughout the years. This is mainly owing to its great height – the roof of its tower is 50-feet higher than St Paul’s Cathedral cross. Its vantage point across seven counties has been put to good use in linking up England and France trigonometrically (in 1797), in the surveying of London by the Royal Engineers (1848) and during World War Two as an observation post. Some of this view has now been lost as the trees have grown up around the castle.

Now sadly boarded up, the castle once boasted a cafe on the ground floor and, according to Hilary Peters from the Folly Fellowship who visited the site in the 1970s, ‘a perfect eighteenth-century interior: original flower paintings on the original green walls, original plasterwork, original shutters’. She also reveals that one of the towers encloses a staircase, while the others are cabinets off the main room; the first and second floor rooms were kept locked – though Barbara Jones described ‘a hexagonal room with a fine plaster ceiling’ on the first – but visitors could ascend the stairs to the platform on the roof and take in the views.

Unfortunately the interior has been seriously vandalised, while Peters believes that the Georgian flowers were painted over by ‘official vandals’ some time ago. This Grade II* listed structure currently finds itself on English Heritage’s Buildings At Risk register. The Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust is now working to restore and re-open the castle, having almost secured an agreement to lease it from Greenwich Council. They have secured Heritage Lottery Funding of £595,000 but this covers only 70% of the full cost – more funds are needed for the Trust to meet its full target of £840,000. You can donate or ‘buy a brick’ for just £5 through Just Giving. Hopefully Severndroog Castle can lose its ‘at risk’ status – a sad fate for a building that folly hunter Gwyn Headley once described as the earliest and best folly tower in London.

What you can do: you can donate/buy a brick to support the castle here

For further information & advice on how to get to the site (the postcode is SE18 3RT): Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust


Sydenham Hill Wood and Folly

‘A folly might be defined as a useless building erected for ornament on a gentleman’s estate’ – Barbara Jones.

‘The mark of a true folly is that it was erected to satisfy and give pleasure to the builder, and greatly to surprise the stranger’ – Sir Hugh Casson.

While there is much debate about how exactly to define a folly, there’s little doubt that many visitors must be fooled by this folly in Sydenham Hill Wood. These ‘ruins’ actually only date back to the Victorian era, and were built as an impressive garden feature in the grounds of a large house once on the site – Fairwood, which was built around 1864. Its owner, Alderman David Henry Stone (later a Lord Mayor of London), contracted the firm of James Pulham & Son (inventor of the artificial Pulhamite rock) to construct these sham ruins. Ruins had been a popular type of folly since the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when wealthy landowners inspired by their Grand Tours of Europe wanted to re-create some of the classical sights in their own gardens.

The folly and rockery

The Sydenham folly depicts a ruined church or monastery – apparently remains of stained glass were still present in the windows back in the 1950s and early 1960s. It’s thought that the arch would once have been complete – although it’s hard to be precise when you’re talking about ruins, and fake ones at that! There are also the remains of a rockery leading down to what was once an ornamental stream. Previously a group of six or seven large houses, including Fairwood, had been built on this 9-hectare site, but these were demolished by the end of the 1970s and the area returned to a woodland state (with a few Victorian era plants thrown in for good measure). It has been managed by the London Wildlife Trust since 1982.

Although it was the folly that drew me to Sydenham Hill Wood, this little slice of woodland also has several other points of interest. As difficult as it is to believe given its rather pristine current state, a railway line once ran right through this area – and not just any line, but the Crystal Palace line transporting people from Nunhead to the Crystal Palace. Camille Pissarro painted the view from the Cox’s Walk Footbridge in the wood in 1871 (see picture below left), which looks remarkably different today (below right). You can also see the 1865 tunnel mouth that the railway once passed through – now home to a colony of bats. Much like the story in Vauxhall, this is an open space that has reverted to type, in this case with the wood and its inhabitants reclaiming the space.

Sydenham Hill Wood is located in SE26 – there are entry points on Crescent Wood Road and Sydenham Hill. Forest Hill and Sydenham Overground are the closest stations, while the buses that will get you here are the 363 and 356. It even has its own Twitter account: @SydenhamWoodLWT

London Wildlife Trust Sydenham Hill Wood page

If you’d like to see more photos of the folly you can visit the Londonphile’s Flickr set.