On Pistyll Dewi Hill, Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire, is one of my favourite follies: Paxton’s Tower, otherwise known as Nelson’s Monument. Managed by the National Trust, this triangular ‘Gothick’ monument with three towers has three spiral staircases rising to a first-floor dining room. The towers continue but visitors can only ascend to this first floor. Originally the windows had stained glass, adding to the medieval aesthetic. The hexagonal prospect level above has corbelled machicolations
The monument was commissioned by Sir William Paxton of Middleton Hall and (like the hall itself) was designed by Samuel Pepys Cockerell and dates to c. 1805. The story goes that Paxton failed to be elected MPin 1802 by 45 votes and built the folly instead of the bridge he had promised to spite the electorate. However, this is as likely to be part of a landscape of elite hospitality, the folly utilised as a banqueting room for guests. Whether the primary motive or not, marble plaques once above the entrances stated the memorial function of the building: to commemorate the naval victories and death of Lord Nelson. These were in three languages: Welsh, English and Latin.
“To the invincible Commander, Viscount Nelson, in commemoration of the deeds before the walls of Copenhagen, and on the shores of Spain; of the empire every where maintained by him over the Seas; and of the death which in the fulness of his own glory, though ultimately for his own country and for Europe, conquering, he died; this tower was erected by William Paxton.”
Paxton’s Tower is therefore, in part, a mortuary monument: a cenotaph. As such the monument fits a pattern of ‘patriotic’ memorialisation in the late 18th and early 19th-century British landscape. Follies were not ‘follies’, they were statements of power, privilege, entertainment and patriotism.
Austin and Thomas (2012) have recently explored the landscape history of the Middleton Hall estate in some detail, showing its rise to prominence from the 17th century to William Paxton’s take-over of the estate. What they do not address is the relationship between that estate and Paxton’s Tower.
Today, the folly is set within an irregular hexagonal fenceline. Historically it sat within a slightly larger oval earthwork enclosure. The earthwork can still be visible from Google Earth and on the ground, marking a change in the inclination of the hill-slope. What date is this? The Archwilio and other online discussions of the monument give no details about this feature.
I speculate that this would have originally defined and protected the folly from livestock and presumably from unwanted visitors. Equally though, I wonder whether the hill-top has older origins and the visible earthwork boundary re-defines an earlier prehistoric enclosure? If so, might this have been a component in the choice of monument’s location, embedding Nelson’s monument into a far more ancient landscape?
As stated above, above the first-floor triangular banqueting hall is a hexagonal prospect room with roof terraces. Apprehending vistas were clearly central to the social utility of the folly. Indeed, the panorama from Paxton’s Tower is phenomenal. Views southwards are more restricted; the hill is a distinctive knoll upon a larger hill on the northern edge of the Middleton estate and was clearly intended for walks from the great house to afford views northwards. Indeed, it is the beautiful vista over the Tywi valley, and conversely the fact that Paxton’s Tower is skylined for large tracts of the valley, that define the folly’s significance.
More specifically, one acquires striking views over two dramatic sets of ruins: the castles of Dryslwyn and Dinefwr. As such the medieval allusions of the folly’s architecture resonate with the ruins they look towards in no uncertain terms and provide a distinctive dimension to the social memories concocted from the tower for Paxton as much as for Nelson.
Austin, D. and Thomas, R. 2012. A garden before the Garden: landscape, history and the National Botanic Garden of Wales, Landscapes 12, 1: 32-56