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.
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.
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
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?'|
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.|
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? |
|In the centre of the village is this Gothic wall - a meaningless facade but which must also be part of the Durant collection.|
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.|
|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.