There was always an air of mystery about this place. When everything was new, and a car was a novelty, Dad used to occasionally take us for Sunday afternoon drives. Passing along the lanes of the South Downs north of Chichester, he’d invariably comment, “Oh, there’s Racton Folly.” And there it was, a grim looking tower hiding in the trees on a slight hill. He spoke as though it was vaguely familiar; I’m sure it was my childish imagination that allocated to it a sinister appearance. On one exciting day, together with my two older brothers, we actually visited it. I recall crossing a field – so perhaps we were out for a walk – and being confronted with a forest of bramble and a broken fence in front of what looked like a ruined castle. It seemed forbidding and therefore totally inviting. I wasn’t allowed to go in. My big brothers were – of course; I think I stood guard, or something – that was probably my dad’s way of making missing out mildly thrilling and marginally less disappointing. They never told me what it was like, or what they’d seen. Years later, as an adult, I’d sometimes drive past it in the distance myself and say, to whoever happened to be in the car with me, “Oh look, there’s Racton Folly.”
Racton Folly was built between 1766 and 1775 by the 2nd Earl of Halifax, a statesman who briefly owned nearby Stansted Park. Halifax, whose name was George Montagu-Dunk, “contributed so largely to the commerce and splendour of America as to be styled ‘Father of the Colonies’”. Halifax, Nova Scotia, is named after him and he has an elaborate memorial in Westminster Abbey. It has been suggested that the folly enabled Halifax to see his ships dock at Emsworth harbour about 3 miles away. In fact, no one knows why he ever built the thing; it may have been just a rich man’s whimsical fancy, perhaps some kind of summerhouse. But Halifax sold Stansted in 1781 so, whatever the intended purpose of his folly, he did not get much use from it.
It’s certainly elaborate. Constructed of brick and flint, it has a triangular base with a small round turret at each vertex and a tall, tapering, central tower of four stories – about 80 feet high. Today, it’s a Grade II listed ruined curiosity. It could be a romantic building, ivy-clad, straight out of a Gothic fairy-tale. But, oh no, it is a cold, unpleasant, place. The floors and roof have long gone, it is littered with rubbish, covered in graffiti and has a distinctly nasty ambience. Sometimes it’s known as Racton Monument (to what?), Racton Tower, or even Stansted Castle. No one’s alive to tell us what happened there, before or after it fell into disrepair. There was talk, they say, of turning it into a dwelling, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile, it is an isolated spot – an ideal place for folk to do things they shouldn’t, away from prying eyes. Inevitably, it attracts stories. I have read that evidence of witchcraft has been found there – surprisingly recently. Paranormal groups have investigated reports of bricks being thrown out of upper windows; the ghostly figure of a woman walking through the ruins; a face at a window. One group of investigators experienced eerie voices whispering in their ears, and the sensation of being touched. Sceptics say the reports have been fuelled by pranksters, alcohol and drugs.
So what do you think? This is no obvious tourist attraction. The dense foliage shuts out the modern world. Overhead, rooks wheel in the sky and dying leaves rustle in a breeze. Did you imagine someone walking outside, behind you; hear shuffling the other side of the wall? Was that a murmured sigh coming from that room, or rats scavenging in the mess on the floor? The air of desolation and decay is uncomfortable. Of course, there is nothing to worry about; it’s just an old ruin.
But I’m sure the people will be back, searching for something. Some may even go on the eve of All Hallows, when spirits ride through the sky laughing, the souls of the dead are abroad and sensible folk are tucked up at home in bed. if you want to find Racton Folly, you can do so by walking up a bridleway, just to the south of Walderton on the B2146. Don't forget your garlic, holy water etc.
There is more about Racton at West Sussex.info.
There is more on A Bit About Britain about Halloween and its origins.
Finally, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that there is actually a society, The Folly Fellowship, dedicated to, well – follies. Their website is fascinating. Follies are by no means confined to Britain, but they have listed over 1100 in the UK. Checkout the Folly Fellowship’s website – this link takes you to their UK map page.