How to live in a folly

English gentleman Sir James Scott inherited a family folly. He tells Jonathan Christie the surprising story behind his unusual home
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The Independent Online

Turning into Rotherfield Park off the A32 in Hampshire, you are unexpectedly presented with an Arcadian scene. Cows graze beneath mature oaks and a meandering track draws you over a stone bridge into a timeless landscape. Glimpses of a grand house flash between the trees while away to the left, nestled amongst the lush green, is a what appears to be an imposing castle.

It stands tall and neat, Rapunzel-like with asymmetrical twin-roundel towers topped with wide crenullations, corbels and machicolations. Rough stone walls contrast with the dressed, vertical slivers of window and the only hint of modernity is a television aerial perched precariously on its highest parapet. It looks to have stood there for a thousand years, but it's ancient appearance is a deception ... a folly in fact.

It's actually a piece of 19th-century whimsy – an architectural conceit purely to be gazed upon and enjoyed. The Gardener's Tower, as it is now known, sprang into being about 1870 and is up for rent courtesy of the Park's current owner, Sir James Scott, who has fond memories of his mock castle.

"It wasn't built for a gardener as it's actually quite big," says Sir James, "but I do remember a gardener living in it. He couldn't wait to get a bungalow. Originally the main house was Queen Anne in style, built around 1820, but my family couldn't keep their hands off it and 50 years later it ended up being High Victorian, complete with a detached castle."

Gardener's Tower was converted for rent about 25 years ago and has enjoyed some high-profile tenants. It was once occupied by disgraced former Conservative MP for Winchester, John Browne, before his fall from grace in 1992. "A bit of local spice," according to Sir James. But political scandal aside, there can't be many rented properties that have such spectacular accommodation, position or outlook.

The eccentricity of the façade continues inside with broad, circular rooms all accessed from a tight, spiral staircase that winds up the smaller tower. These treads are too tight for furniture, so floor hatches are used to haul beds, sofas and bookcases up and down through the building. The stairs may deter families with small children, but the rooms are flexible and spacious allowing up to three bedrooms if needed. A wood- burning stove in one of the sitting rooms adds a cosy charm whilst the dramatic top floor drawing room has an ornate mezzanine, perfect for a study or library. But the real "wow" factor is saved for the turreted roof terrace which surveys great swathes of Hampshire countryside as well as the estate's grounds.

The tower has access to plenty of parking and a small private garden. There's also the park itself, which stretches to 4,500 acres of landscaped garden, farmland and woodland. Sir James keeps two dairy herds here and the tower's tenants are encouraged to use the myriad gravel drives, footpaths and tracks that criss-cross Rotherfield Park and Plash Wood. The small town of Alton is five miles away where you can pick up a train and be in London in just over an hour, while 30 minutes drive west gets you to the larger town of Winchester.

The house and grounds have been in Sir James Scott's family for 200 years and in 1962 his grandfather became a baronet, ensuring a hereditary knighthood is passed down from father to son. Sir James inherited the property 15 years ago and after a career in agricultural journalism and a spell in Brussels, he's now "quite involved" with the Historic Houses Association, "putting the case for rural landowners and reminding people that their heritage is still mostly in private hands". But the HHA has its work cut out. There are more privately owned houses, castles and gardens open to the public than all those in the care of the National Trust, English Heritage and their equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. It's clearly a passion of his.

Rotherfield Park is a thriving estate and any new tenants at the tower will soon get used to the daily bustle. Alongside the cows and productive fruit orchards, the listed 12 acres of garden are open to the public twice a year as part of the National Gardens Scheme. And there's the main house, which has starred in several film and television productions including an episode of Poirot, the 1997 mini-series of Rebecca with Charles Dance and the Scottish wedding scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

But really it's Gardener's Tower that's the star here and tenants looking for something unique will be hard pushed to top this. "It really is a jolly lovely part of the world," muses Sir James, and what better way to drink in those beautiful views than from the safety of ones own castle.



Gardener's Tower is for rent through BCM (01962 763 900; www.bcm.co.uk) for £1,500 per calendar month

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