Travel review: Remarkable druidic North Yorks folly

'The Druids Temple', a folly built by William Danby in the late 1700's on the Swinton Estate.
'The Druids Temple', a folly built by William Danby in the late 1700's on the Swinton Estate.
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Fancy slumbering among the druids? Greg Wright turned the clock back...

IF you believe that England in the years after Wellington’s triumph at Waterloo was a land of plenty, then a trip to the Druid’s Temple ought to make you change your mind. This handsome, if rather incongruous, folly in the heart of North Yorkshire was built by workmen who would have starved without the far-sighted philanthropy of local landowner William Danby.

There were no safety nets for the working classes in 19th century Britain, so the poorest died first during an economic slump. But Danby, a scholar and writer, who owned the Swinton Park estate near Masham, was determined to dream up a job creation scheme that would feed local families when times were hard. Mass unemployment was all too common in the first two decades of the 19th century.

Danby was blessed with an eclectic mind. A more prosaic man might have paid locals to improve the drainage system, or rear livestock. This would have smacked of drudgery to William. According to local tradition, he paid unemployed labourers a shilling a day to build the folly, which has the appearance of a mini-Stonehenge. The Druid’s Temple was completed in 1820 on part of the Swinton estate, and today, most visitors would be fooled into thinking it was much older. The giant structure includes a large stone table, altar stone and a sheltered cave, which are all the mod-cons a respectable druid would have needed.

It was not, apparently, the perfect place for a 19th century Yorkshireman to inhabit. Folklore says that Danby offered a salary to anyone who could live in the temple for seven years. It is claimed that one hardy soul stuck it out for four and a half years before the elements got the better of him.

Danby is a larger than life figure crying out for a modern biographer. Born in 1752, he rebuilt his mansion at Swinton so that it included a library and a richly furnished museum of minerals. The poet Robert Southey found him a wealthy and entertaining host during a trip to Yorkshire in the late 1820s, and his benevolent legacy still looms over the estate he helped to form. He is best remembered as the driving force behind Yorkshire’s quirkiest folly.

Today, Swinton Park, and its 20,000 acre estate, is a hive of activity. It boasts its own cookery school and walled garden, and the imposing castle also has its own private dining and conference facilities. It’s also the perfect base for those with a passion for walking, riding, fishing and shooting.

There are also signs of environmentally-friendly life close to The Druid’s Temple. The area might not have been to the taste of your archetypal 19th century hermit, but modern families are finding it much more welcoming. A new settlement - the Swinton Bivouac - has been created by Swinton Park’s owners, Mark and Felicity Cunliffe-Lister, to appeal to people who love the outdoors with a touch of luxury. Sitting on the moor edge beside the Druid’s Temple and woodland, the accommodation includes a camping barn with shower facilities, luxury yurts and hand-built woodland shacks.

In keeping with William Danby’s belief in local sourcing, the woodland shacks have been built using sweet chestnut timber frames and larch cladding from the Swinton estate. While the experience is intended to be essentially rustic, creature comforts such as linen, heating and a hot tub are included. There is a carbon neutral woodchip boiler, which uses timber thinnings from the Swinton estate forestry, and solar lighting.

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