The night was black and thick with rain as we travelled along the Landsdown Road, north of Bath. I’d been warned that the turning for Beckford’s Tower creeps up on you, appearing out of nowhere like a spectre in the night; so I drove cautiously, squinting into the darkness as the headlights illuminated what they could of the road ahead.
The sign for the tower seemed to lurch out of the undergrowth, startling me and causing the car to veer sharply under braking in order to make the tight entry between an old stone wall and the roadside cottage. We bumped along, down a short track, and there in the gloom stood the tower, its ominous heights obscured by the heavy rain and the moonless night.
Using the car lights to guide our way, we dashed through the rain, up the large stone steps into the relative calm of the porch. A choice of three doors now faced us. The first door I tried had a different lock to the others, and appeared to be the entrance to the tower. The next door, straight ahead of us, wouldn’t open. Finally, I tried the door to our left, and the lock gave way with a reassuring clonk, slowly creaking open under its heavy wooden casing to reveal a dark hallway ahead. An eerie tomb-like warmth greeted us as we crossed over the lintel and cautiously moved forwards into the shadows. I ran my hand tentatively over the wall to locate the light switch.
Shutting out the filthy night behind us, I flicked the switch to illuminate our home for the weekend, and at once the scene was transformed. Blinking in disbelief, my eyes passed over the beautiful Gothic stone ceiling above us. To our right, a doorway led into a fully equipped kitchen with a bespoke sideboard which rather unusually had the appearance of a church altar. This in turn led into the drawing room – a truly magnificent sight to behold. A painted wooden beamed ceiling, heavy velvet drapes either side of the deep set arched windows, paintings adorning the walls – portraits of noble men and women with eyes that followed us around the room – and comfortable antique furniture around the fireplace.
The bedroom was similarly in keeping with the building, featuring a huge dark wood wardrobe along one wall, a comfortable wood-framed bed, and a wooden towel rack. I peered through the window as best I could, but the moonless light allowed no surveillance of our surroundings. I would have to await the first light of morning before exploring the property in earnest.
Thankfully the Landmark Trust who operate Beckford’s Tower do not keep televisions or radios at their properties, which is a relief in this age of information overload. All we had for company was the howling wind and the spray of rain against the windows, and of course, each other. A number of parlour games had been kindly provided, along with interesting books including the biography of William Beckford, which I planned to peruse at a later date.
We settled down to a game of Guess Who, each trying to identify a well known person that we had picked at random from the cards provided. The names that evening included Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. Rather appropriate for such a Gothic setting.
Time seemed to work to its own rules at Beckford’s Tower. No sooner had we finished another cup of tea from a tray thoughtfully left for us by the housekeeper, and the clock turned midnight; the witching hours were upon us and we retired to bed.
I found it difficult to sleep that night, as I always do the first night spent in a strange and unfamiliar place. Besides the wind and rain outside, there were a number of alarming noises from within the building that, each time, temporarily had me frozen like an antelope on alert for the prowling lion. A heavy creaking of the floorboards outside our room; the sound of something dropping; and was that a faint murmur I heard? No matter, old buildings like this are alive with their own eccentricities. It is only the human mind which invents things that aren’t there. I kept telling myself that, over and over.
I awoke in the murk of dawn, the light softly creeping through the shutters and falling upon the bedsheets like a thin finger, beckoning me to the world outside. Curious about our surroundings, I quietly slipped out of bed and opened the heavy wooden panels covering the windows. The sight before me was unnerving; a Gothic graveyard, heavily overgrown with ivy covering cracked tombs hundreds of years old poking out of the uneven turf. I walked softly into the drawing room and threw back the heavy drapes to reveal yet another aspect of this graveyard, this monument of death. If I had known what was on the other side of the window the previous night, I surely would not have slept a wink.
Later that morning, after a restorative cup of tea, I ventured outside to take in the full height of the tower; an imposing building with contrasting sharp angles and curved walls, a contradiction of sorts, much like the man who built it. Beckford was a wealthy Georgian socialite, heir to a family fortune made in the sugar trade. He married and had daughters, but within a year of his marriage a scandal about his sexual orientation ensued, and he was cruelly rejected by polite society. Tragedy followed with the death of his wife only 3 years after their marriage, and Beckford became ever more reclusive, spending the next 10 years mostly abroad in self-imposed exile.
The tower had been built as Beckford’s private retreat where he housed his collection of art and artefacts, and the rooms during the day had a wonderful, peaceful warmth about them. A walk up to the top of the tower reveals far-ranging views over Bath and the Cotswold countryside. There is also a museum in the tower, open to the public at certain times throughout the year.
The next night I felt at peace with our surroundings. A full moon lit the graveyard in a most atmospheric way, and I half expected Peter Cushing to burst into the room, proclaiming sinister warnings about keeping garlic and crucifixes around us at all times. But far from being frightening, this Gothic holiday retreat was one of the most characterful and charming places I have ever stayed, and the many entries in the guestbook agreed with me – families and couples all writing stories of their happy experiences there. Beckford’s own life may have been marred by controversy, but his tower remains a testament to Gothic architecture and is a haven for those with a taste for the unusual. I think he would’ve been thrilled to know that it now brings enjoyment to so many people. I can’t wait to return, wooden stake and garlic in hand…
For more information, booking and other Landmark Trust properties, visit the website.