Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Hampshire Follies 1 Suffolk Vistas 1

You’d expect a 218-foot tower to dominate a rural skyline, but that’s not the case with Sway Tower, Judge Peterson’s late Victorian spiritualist folly. The surrounding New Forest area undulates, trees and hedges are grown out and the roads bend round so that one minute the Victorian unreinforced concrete ‘scraper may be staring at you, the next it has disappeared.

Not only does its full bearing elude the eye from many angles, but the tower doesn’t deliver full impact in other ways. On a clear, bright day in Sway, you expect clear lines, vertical definition, the pride of the phallic shape. We walked the long way from Mead End: as we got closer, the brighter mirage from afar is muddied with the darker hues of the overhung trees and houses. When we’re at the closest, ie, still barred by the ring of houses, the Dorset and Hampshire-sourced stone looks dull.

This lack of substantial aspect lends itself to romantic interpretation of a building intended as a soaring mausoleum to its creator, and one whose is most subsequent use was briefly as a B&B.

Closer to a San Gimignano medieval tower than modern erections, this illusive building still pulled me in. While the others walk on, I can’t resist turning back, thinking on the chimera and the connections. Mary Girling’s Shakers, a major influence on Peterson, turned up down the road via SE London, she is buried in the church my sister got married in, there was the aristo spiritualists up on the edge of the New Forest at Broadlands while her early patron Auberon Herbert ended his life in reclusive architectural eccentricity round Burley. Moreover, Phillip Hoare, the chronicler of these fin-de-siecle religious shifts (and whose Spike Island book was cited recently by Owen) came from Bitterne in Southampton where my Dad was brought up.

Perhaps this building will always best fuel the imagination in its liminal status between living building and ruin. If the Trusts or Heritages did take over and the public were allowed in, it would surely be blanded out of existence by safety and security concerns, green signage at every corner and a tacky visitors’ centre on the ground.

Girling came from Suffolk, where our walks continued to liven up the snack-happy lethargy of the festive season as we moved to the near-Constablean environs of the southern edge of the county. Here, our ramble was extended by the overconfidence of my wife’s hazy reverie of the back routes from her late childhood (‘spliffs’, ‘hay stacks’, ‘boys’, ‘hypnotism’), and my faith in one’s own inner compass. The truth of where we were lay somewhere in between but the uncertainly led to another hour of hiking around the bridalways somewhere near but not quite in any of Leavenheath, Honey Tye and Assington.
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