Ten Gothic Gardens

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Tong
Not sure what to do about Tong, even now. It was never really a Gothic 'Garden', more an entire landscape, and most of it has gone. What qualifies it for inclusion here is the sheer mania behind it.

Tong is now a small village in Shropshire. To be fair it always was. There was once a castle, and a collegiate church associated with it, but the village itself never developed into a town like some other castle settlements. The church is still there, grand and elaborate, far too extensive for the tiny congregation that now worships there and the parish that it serves. You can find the monuments of the owners of the estate inside - the Pembrugges, the Vernons, and the Durants. It is Mad George Durant who concerns us here.

George Durant the First made his fortune at the sack of Havana and bought Tong to retire to. He converted the medieval castle into a Gothick fantasy house and left it to his son, also George, to ascend the heights of madness when he inherited the estate at the end of the 18th century. He installed a hermit in a cave in Bishop's Wood, and filled the wood with urns and pillars. He then set about transforming the whole village.
Tong ruins

There were already some pleasing ruins in the form of the old College buildings just below the church. To these George added, so we are told, a wheelwright's shop in the shape of a coffin, whale's jawbones to mark the driveway to the castle, Aeolian harps, Gothic seats and a 'pulpit' based on the outdoor one at Shrewsbury Abbey, and pyramids for chickens and for pigs at nearby farms. He spattered the estate with mottos - some of them 'improving', some just apparently jokes - and crosses cut into walls and gateposts.

One monument was less a joke, the 'Tower' Mr Durant built on Tong Knoll to commemorate, of all things, winning a lawsuit against his first wife. His sons - by her - took the opportunity of his death in 1844 to blow the thing up with two barrels of gunpowder. Perhaps this feuding explains why so few of the Durant follies now remain.
As Headley & Meulenkamp put it in their book on Follies, 'On first sight the follies present a riddle ... Their only reason for existence appears to be their owner's eccentricity, but one wonders whether there may be something deeper to Tong - an iconographic programme ... mocking religion, chivalry and nobility ... maybe also a celebration of death and decay. Suddenly it starts to get grim, the obsession with harps, walls, ruins and crosses; the fear and hatred of the children who destroyed mad George's gloating mounument on that night of death. Where do jokes end? Where does madness begin?'
Tong wallsTong crosses
You can't really see the crosses, saltire and Maltese, carved either side of the gate posts leading into the churchyard, but they're there, and they're also there along a farmyard wall about half-a-mile to the north.
Tong churchyard crossThis red stone cross stands outside the church, on a patch of land once known as Chrysom's Cemetery and supposed to be a burial ground for unbaptised children. No information in the church ascribes it to Mr Durant, but once you learn it was erected in 1823 and used to bear verses by Scott, Thomas More and Byron (Byron? In 1823? There's rebellious for you), the Maltese cross form means it can't be anyone else's work. What was he thinking? Tong building
In the centre of the village is this Gothic wall - a meaningless facade but which must also be part of the Durant collection.
Tong garden
'There's a lot more hidden away' said the man in the church when I talked about follies. He may have been referring to the curiosities of the church, but in a back garden I spotted this castellated outhouse. How much more is there? And one set of Tong residents are getting into the Durant spirit as this child and pedestal in their garden display.Tong garden
And that, sadly, seems to be about it as far as the follies of Tong are
concerned. I visited the place on a day of grim, lowering skies and
drizzle, but notwithstanding that it has a strikingly cold, unfriendly feel as
though something sour has seeped into the soil. Barely five minutes'
journey away from the village, the sun had come out.



 
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