It may have been built as a folly, but the plight of Clavell Tower has gradually become deadly serious. Perched precipitously above Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset, the tower is just a couple of yards from the edge of a 300ft cliff, inching nearer every year as erosion takes it toll.
Now, finally, the tower, which was an inspiration for such authors as Thomas Hardy and P D James, is being been brought back from the brink of the precipice, literally.
Work began yesterday on a £900,000, 18-month operation in which the tower will be moved brick by numbered brick 80 feet inland and turned into one of the country's more unusual holiday destinations.
The delicate operation to move the tower is the culmination of a major fundraising exercise by the Landmark Trust, which is now leasing the property from the surrounding Smedmore estate. The building is a much-loved landmark for locals, walkers, naturalists and sailors and is a distinctive feature of the so-called Jurassic Coast, the only part of Britain's coastline to be accorded World Heritage Site status.
Alastair Dick-Cleland, the projects officer at the Landmark Trust, said: "We are very excited to finally begin work to save this very special tower. Since we have been involved with the tower we have been really encouraged by the affection shown by so many local people towards the building. We are delighted to be able to find a solution to enable it to remain as a much-loved feature in the landscape of this stretch of our coastline."
Although in a decaying state and now ringed by barbed wire, the 40ft tower, also known as the Tower of the Winds, will be renovated after the move and converted into a two-person holiday letting for the Trust, which manages a number of similar unusual properties around the country. "It is the most incredibly romantic place to stay," added Mr Dick-Cleland. The first bookings are expected to be for Christmas next year. Most of the funding for the project has come from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The public will be allowed access on open and changeover days.
Rodney Legg, a local historian, said: "Clavell Tower is the most conspicuous man-made landmark on the Purbeck coast and it is in a very dramatic position. To lose it would be like the Purbeck coast losing its front teeth. It will be slightly less distinctive in its new position, but at least it will be there. It's great news."
The tower, which is a Grade II listed building, was built as an observatory and folly in 1830 by the Rev John Richards after he inherited the Smedmore estate, which has remained in the same family since the 14th century. It is three storeys high, with a distinctive Tuscan-style colonnade. Most of the stucco fascia has now disappeared, as have the four Napoleonic-era cannons which once surrounded the base.
Clavell Tower was well known to Thomas Hardy, Dorset's most famous literary son, who courted his first love, Eliza Bright Nicols, there. A picture of it was featured on the cover of his Wessex Poems collection. Later, it was used by the estate as a guest house and then for a period by the coastguard, but has been derelict since suffering fire damage in the 1930s.
Since then, its main claim to fame was that it became the inspiration for P D James in her bookThe Black Tower, published in 1975. She described yesterday how she had first set eyes on the tower, on a windy day with a rough sea, with the black limestone cliffs topped by the "extraordinary" tower. "The whole scene looked amazing and very dramatic. All of a sudden I had this dark picture of a woman in a wheelchair being pushed over the top of the cliff and that formed the story of The Black Tower."
She added: "This is a very important tower... It is wonderful that these things that mean so much to us all can be preserved."
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