View of the Farm from alongside Dowling's Wood
My earliest recollections of the 'Folly' as it was always called, takes me back to the 1940s. We lived in Featherbed Lane, which runs behind the north eastern boundary and which served as the route for colliers who lived in the village of Clutton working at Bromley pit. When I was a small boy, my Grandfather would take me along the lane and I remember him explaining to me that the occasional pile of white dust in the side of the lane was carbide from the acetylene miner's lamps which they carried on their bicycles. Cleaning out the lamp must have been a welcome rest as they pushed the bike up the steep lane on their homeward journey after a hard day's work many feet down underground. We would walk to the Folly across the field where the first reservoir now stands, or down the lane as far as the rusty iron gate opposite Honey Gaston where the cart horses would be often seen. Farmer Stevens had it seems, 'put them out to grass' in the Folly, possibly because he couldn't bear to part with them after acquiring his Fordson Major tractor; or was it simply because they could have been pressed back into service should the need arise? Because of the horses, village children rarely visited the Folly. They were seen as 'wild horses' and the other children were afraid of them, possibly due to the horses' high spirits on some previous occasion.
The war was drawing to an end around this time and the lane had seen some activity with the R.A.F. manning a decoy searchlight in the corner of the field where the British Gas station is now situated. From this spot, Bristol (and even the old Severn Bridge) can be clearly seen and there was great excitement locally in June 1941 when a stick of bombs fell in the Folly near the searchlight. Five of the six craters can be found even today, - if one knows where to look! (Some years later I used to sit in the summer sunshine in one of these grassy holes to do my A-level revision where I had absolute peace and quiet.) An evacuee from London, Billy Rainger, who was close to one of the bombs behind a barn in an adjoining field, was injured when it suddenly exploded.
Picnics and Footpaths
As I grew older, we visited the Folly* for the occasional picnic, entering from Featherbed Lane by the public footpath across the small field alongside the first reservoir from the A37.
The picnics took place usually by the large chestnut tree which grew at the head of the gully which filled the round pond. The tree had large boughs which touched the ground or came near enough to swing on. It was possible for the more intrepid to climb along the boughs right into the centre of the tree; the tree itself has long since disappeared. These picnics were usually organised by my Great Aunt, Rose Tiley, who had no children of her own but had an adopted grown son living in Bristol with his young family. When they visited her, it was a good excuse for a picnic whereupon we all got invited along to make up the party with a wicker basket of food, the kettle of course, a can of water for the tea, homemade jam tarts and lemonade for the children. We would have a ring of stones in one of the ruts left by the tractor or the cart and light a fire for the kettle using sticks gathered from the hedge for fuel. The picnic would be followed by a game of cricket on the level ground behind Four Mares wood. Sometimes we would have a crowd of curious cows as spectators but the horses despite being 'wild', never bothered us that I can remember.>
During the mid 1940s, Dowlings Wood was cleared of its heaviest timber by a local timber contractor, Norman Minto from Ubley, using ex-army machinery, lorries etc. I remember being taken by my father to watch the trees being felled and winched up through the undergrowth to the top of the hill near Stowey Top**. My father had an agreement with the contractor that he could take the large chips of wood brought out by the axes during the felling operations and he and a local pensioner, Fred Cook, gathered them up one Sunday morning into sacks, bringing them back along the Folly in ancient wheelbarrows. This was my first introduction to Dowlings Wood; I later got to explore it fully and discover the remains of the evergreen cover planted for the pheasants, and the metal panels and wire ropes abandoned during the timber felling work.
At around this time, when I was about eight years old, we were visited one sunny day in autumn by a business friend of my father, George Wrey, with his wife and young son from Southville in Bristol. Mum, Dad, myself, Aunt Rose and the three of them went blackberrying in the Folly which was a popular pastime for local people; the fruit grew in abundance. We were down near the shallow round pond in what I now know is called Little Folly Mead and the baskets were being filled. The round pond, good for tadpoles in the spring after the winter rain had filled it, had dried up in the late summer sun and we had been cautioned about going near it as a hard crust had formed over the slimy mud beneath. However, Andrew, a town boy, was not alert to the dangers and marched across the mud which inevitably broke, whereupon he fell flat on his face. Our fathers both rescued him and scraped him down using stones and twigs before taking him home and scrubbing him in our bath before dressing him in some of my clothes for the trip home on the bus. As his name was Andrew Wrey it seemed appropriate at the time that the current popular film showing in the cinemas was "The Mudlark" starring Ted Ray's son, Andrew Ray!
From the age of about ten or eleven, the Folly* became almost my second home. By now we had acquired a Boxer dog and either my father or myself would take him for his daily exercise along the Folly where he loved to chase the many rabbits into the bushes. He never ever caught one! We would often meet Lord Strachey walking his boundary with his Great Dane and he would stop and pass the time of day. Later on, after the Boxer's demise, it was soon replaced by an Alsatian which became my constant companion throughout my teens. Unusually, she was totally afraid of sheep; she would never enter a field where they were; she would just sit at the stile leading from the lane into the Folly and whimper until either you returned or the sheep were gone. The other children in the lane, Pat, Kathleen, and Roger Parsons, would also often accompany me exercising the dog in the Folly. Sometimes we would meet Michael Baylis whose retired father, Victor, worked for Farmer Stevens helping with the haymaking, thistle cutting, or attempting to clear the bramble bushes with a slasher and reaphook. Often a man from the village, Mr. Howman, an amateur artist, would be discovered seated at his easel on a folding stool, painting the view down the valley. We were always intrigued by the ring of bushes on the slopes of South Hill, covering a definite shallow annular depression in the ground about 50 metres in diameter. Above this, higher up the ground are similar rectangular grooves, these can still be seen today. Is it some ancient earthwork or settlement? We were equally curious about the small stone walls across the gully near where the track then zig-zagged up East Hill. This has now been explained as 'cascades' on the map but where has all the running water gone?. I am pleased to see that the track has recently been cleared after forty years of dereliction, thus jogging my memory of seeing the old tractor with Ben Stevens at the wheel, towing the mower or a load of "basic slag" up to the upper fields. We also discovered the series of cisterns down the gully from our picnic site, past the round pond into Little Folly Mead. The large concrete cistern at the bottom of South Hill intrigued us, we could hear water running into it from a spring higher up the hill so assumed it to be the farm's water supply before the mains water came through.
In the early 1950's the view from the Folly through the Chew Valley gradually grew a huge scar as the trees and fields were cleared away to form Chew Valley Lake. Shortly after, the Folly itself saw some disruption when the pipeline to carry water from Stowey treatment works to the storage reservoirs in Featherbed Lane was underway. The line of the trench which carried pipes of about 18" diameter ran through Folly Wood and diverged at the head of the gully. One pipe went to the lower of the two underground tanks to feed West Gloucestershire, the other ran around the top of the Folly and into the Bath City Waterworks reservoir, both reached from Featherbed Lane. The contour of the hillside at this point, just in front of Honey Gaston, has never been quite the same since. Each reservoir had a spill or washout pipe back to the respective gullies. We watched with great interest as the lorries carrying the pipes from Clutton railway station arrived and off-loaded; then later on the Ruston-Bucyrus excavator emerged from Folly Wood, slowly making the great trench across the field. The stacks of pipes, being some 25 ft long, made ideal tunnels for us children to explore and crawl through. Some were intriguing bends and thus more difficult to negotiate. We would arrive home covered in black smears of the protective bitumen from the pipes. I remember being curious about the name "STANTON" stencilled on them; later on in life I was to discover that it was the ironworks where they were made in the Midlands, not the name of a local village as we had supposed. In the late1960s, a film company arrived at the top of the Folly near the iron gate leading to Honey Gaston. The edge of the wood was to be used to film a scene from one of the many television series of 'Robin Hood' for HTV. One of the scenes was to be of someone being thrown from his horse by an overhanging bough and there was a suitable spot there for that purpose. During one of his walks with the dog, my father got drawn in as an extra; he spent most of that week there and earned some pocket money and all his meals.
Under this beautiful woodland path in Folly Wood there runs an 18" water main!!!
Having inherited my parents' interest in the countryside, it soon became clear to me that Folly Farm was a haven for wildlife, both fauna and flora. One day I returned from an expedition with the Alsatian dog, and informed my father that "Folly Farm should be made a nature reserve". A prophetic statement for one so young!
There were many species of birds to be seen throughout the seasons of the year. Green Woodpeckers were my favourite, they could always be heard, and often seen hunting for ants in the proliferation of anthills around the area. An electricity line ran across the Folly, diagonally from Southwest to Northeast, carried on double wooden poles which were nearing the end of their useful working life. They were removed in the early 1960s. The woodpeckers found them good nesting sites as the centre cores rotted first and were easy to hollow out. We occasionally saw and heard Great Spotted Woodpeckers but they inhabited Honey Gaston and frequented Mrs. Walker's birdtable at the bungalow called 'Roundhill'. Nuthatches nested in the tree by the pond in Great Wall Close and also visited the table. Moorhens nested there too in those days and also in the pond under the chestnut tree by the stile at the corner of South Hill. We frequently saw Kestrels, Buzzards, Jackdaws and Swifts which nested at Stowey Top. Often we would disturb a Pheasant or Woodcock or flush out a Tawny Owl from a tree, this would startle us. In the winter we saw Fieldfares, Redwings and sometimes a flock of Bramblings. Goldfinches loved the Folly, they were to be seen on the many thistles, often feeding in flocks. Long Tailed Tits and Goldcrests inhabited Folly Wood; we would creep quietly through there under the pine trees, knowing that we were close to the farmhouse, and find nests of Woodpigeons and Jays. One evening my father returned late after dark from a walk with the dog. He excitedly told me that he had been listening to a Nightingale singing in the copse in Little Wall Close; we then returned to near the spot with the car, walking the rest of the way. Sure enough, the bird was still there, in almost absolute darkness, singing its heart out; the only time I have ever heard one, a sound I'm so glad I never missed. On the top of East Hill and South Hill, there were a couple of small stunted oak trees and one hollow ash. Under the oaks we found owl pellets, unfortunately something rarely seen in the Folly today. We could climb right up inside the hollow ash on South Hill which gave a commanding view of the Farm and all the Chew Valley. From this spot we often watched with interest when the scouts, guides or boys brigade groups camped in the small paddock containing the row of chestnut trees alongside Great Folly Mead. To us, they were the 'enemy', the 'cowboys', we were the 'indians', and we would stalk down through the bushes to see how close we could get without being seen. We got pretty close - we were never spotted that I know of! Sometimes, while gathering primroses or violets behind the stone wall alongside Great Wall Close and Little Wall Close, we would disturb a lizard or a grass snake newly emerged from hibernation and basking in the spring sunshine. We never see them now.
My mother had an interest in wild flowers, I often carried a specimen home to be identified.One of my best finds was Herb Paris, it can still be found on Folly Farm. Folly Wood was a wonderful spot in the autumn for different species of fungi and I remember finding a huge horse mushroom there once and was mystified that it should grow under the pine trees. Mother used to enjoy making table decorations which she took to the local WI. and I recall her pleasure during a trip to Dowlings Wood to gather moss, when she discovered some Soldier's Caps or Silver-new-Nothings as we local people call them. I have since returned to the wood to find them and was pleased to be able to show them to my wife; thinking back, even this was as long ago as the late 1960's, how time flies! I used to enjoy getting up early at dawn for walking the dog in the Folly; often I could gather mushrooms or blue stalks (Common Blewett) in Little Folly Mead or Plain North Hill fields and bring them home in time for breakfast.
Autumn and Spring brought the glorious colours of the trees. I used to stand (and still do, February 2007.....!) on the brow of East Hill and marvel at the shades of green, brown, even red and orange to be seen down the valley. One evening just as it was getting dusk, I climbed up over the brow of South Hill to be confronted by a large fox just feet away on the skyline. He was as amazed to see me as I was him; we just stood regarding each other for what seemed like some minutes before he lolloped away and I continued my walk. How can so-called civilised people want to hunt and kill such a beautiful animal for no good reason?!
The winter snow was a wonderful excuse to visit the Folly with our homemade toboggans although we were very limited as to where we could get a good run because of the anthills. Believe me, an anthill can bring a wayward toboggan to a very abrupt stop, thus precipitating a small boy into a very nasty accident. I recall Michael Baylis running home bellowing in tears after one such incident; I seem to remember I had the blame! A narrow clear run was down East Hill, ending at the spring which once bubbled up to feed the cascades. During the bad winter of 1963, the bungalows in Featherbed Lane were cut off for some six weeks and the only way in with milk and newspapers was across the neighbouring fields and along the top of the Folly where the snow had blown away. During the month of December, as we played in the Folly, we were instructed to keep our eyes open for holly with berries, for Aunt Rose to make wreaths for the family graves which she tended in Clutton churchyard. Sometimes we made a trip to Folly Hill *** (Round Hill) or the copse in Great Sleight where a small amount of mistletoe grew, it was always too high for us and we always returned empty-handed.
Peace, perfect peace
To me, the Folly has always been an attraction. I must have seen it in all its moods, all its seasons, and at most times of the day; it is sheer magic at dusk,. It has been a playground, and a larder. A place to explore and always find something new. To one local man, it was even his last resting place; he had loved it so much, his family scattered his ashes there. It has been a spot to relax and reflect, an absolute haven to unwind especially during a sunny summer evening after a busy day at work. It has one of the best views in all Somerset, or as my father would have said, in the whole country. May we all continue to enjoy it in peace and tranquility for many years to come.
A guide to the walks around the farm
(This article was originally written many years ago, for the late Penny Jetzer, a local historian, for her archives for the Wildlife Trust and at her request. I felt it was of sufficient interest to publish on the Web. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed Folly Farm over many years)
Eric G. Brain 30-3-94
( Captain Robert Scott in his final letter to his wife while he was dying in the Antarctic, in respect of his young son, Peter Scott, who went on to found the famous Wildlife and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge. Glos.)
How very true....!
Updated 21st October 2007
and again July 2011
Note. The references to the enclosures or fields forming Folly Farm
are taken from the early map in 'Folly Farm -a history' compiled by the
late Penny Jetzer. As local people we never knew them by these names; we
call Round Hill - 'Folly Hill' *** and Richards Hill - 'Stowey Top' **
and the whole area simply "The Folly"*
email -<eric dot brain at btinternet.com> (anti-spam - replace the "at" with @)
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