Architectural Folly saves Navigation Folly

Sway Tower


A couple of years ago I was on a yachting experience out of Lymington across to the Isle of Wight. On the return sector I took the helm under power and the skipper told me to choose a mark on the horizon and head towards it. After a few minutes the skipper asked where my mark was and I showed it to him.

‘That is the Isle of Wight ferry coming out of Lymington. You might be best to steer towards the tower over there’ he said pointing to Sway Tower standing proud above the New Forest like an Arianne rocket ready for all systems go.

Whoops, I had repeated my navigation error from 50 years ago when mountain climbing in Wales when taking a bearing on a sheep rather than an outcrop of rock.

I changed my bearing and we returned safely to Lymington Yacht basin thanks to Sway Tower.

Sway Tower stands over 60 metres high (200 feet) and is a Grade II Listed building. That means it is a building ‘of special architectural or historic interest and makes up 94% of all listed buildings’. So, what makes Sway Tower deserving of this special treatment?

Its main claim to fame is that it was the very first major building in Britain to have been constructed entirely from freestanding concrete. Building started in 1879 and was completed in 1885 with the help of 40 labourers without the aid of any scaffolding. Today’s health and safety lobby would have had an apoplectic shock if they had witnessed this construction process.

Sway Tower is also sometimes referred to as ‘Peterson’s Tower’. It was Andrew Thomas Turton Peterson (1813-1906) who designed and built the tower fulfilling his belief in the use of concrete. Rumour has it that he was visited by the ghost of Sir Christopher Wren when he was designing the tower and that the ghost still makes occasional wafting visits to inspect the structure.

Peterson had spent many years working in India and had seen the great towers that were built over there and these very structures may well have influenced Peterson strongly enough to embark on his architectural folly. It is thought that he was building a mausoleum for both his wife and himself but this idea was shelved when he showed her where their respective bodies were going to be entombed at the base of the tower. This idea could be the basis for the village rumour that Peterson was buried at the top of the tower. In fact he was cremated at Woking and his ashes were spread on a concrete table built into the tower.

Trinity House, the guardians of Britain’s coastal waters and the safety of all shipping within them refused permission twice to Peterson when the tower was completed. The first refusal was against his request to put clock faces on the four sides. The second refusal was for the installation of electric lighting throughout the building. In both cases the grounds for refusal were that such installations would be a hazard to shipping.

Clock faces or no clock faces? Electric lighting or no electric lighting? Peterson’s or Sway Tower salvaged my navigation skills on that afternoon yachting experience.

Oh, and if you fancy living in this unique piece of British architectural heritage with stunning views across The New Forest, The Solent and the Isle of Wight it is now available for £2m plus.


About alangrenville

I live in southern Britain near the fabulous New Forest. While studying for a BSc in International Studies I have developed a strong belief in 'NIBAW' or 'nothing is black and white'. Hence my favourite saying "Too often we...enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought" (John F Kennedy).
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