What can be madder than a morning spent whizzing around the countryside looking for Sussex follies? And for those that don’t know, a folly is an expensive if small ornamental building built with no practical purpose in mind. With that description in mind, perhaps not all of Mad Jack’s follies are really follies at all, but I digress. Let’s start at the beginning. Who was Mad Jack?
John Mad Jack Fuller 1757 – 1834
Mad Jack Fuller was born in Hampshire and educated at Eton. In 1777 he inherited his uncle’s Sussex estate Rose Hill (which is now known as Brightling Park) and his Jamaican plantations. A philanthropist at heart, he was elected several times as an MP and is alleged to have spent prodigious amounts bribing the electors! He was later High Sheriff of Sussex and a captain in the Volunteer Sussex Yeomanry Cavalry as well as a founding member and passionate supporter of the Royal Institute. He also financed the building of the Belle Tout lighthouse at Beachy Head and was a supporter of Eastbourne Lifeboats.
What made him mad?
Of his madder antics, he allegedly always travelled to London on his own in a coach and six (horses) and with all the outriders in full regalia and was apparently suspended from parliament for calling the Speaker, “an insignificant little fellow in a wig”. He also bought Bodiam Castle to save it from ruin. But most of all, rumours and legends abound about Mad Jack and his lifestyle, not least because he left some very visible reminders in the form of a number of follies to be found in and around Brightling in East Sussex.
The Sugar Loaf
There are various walks you can do to join the dots of the follies but for my part, it was a happy deviation on a sunny day on the way to nearby Bateman’s to be whizzing about in a mini trying to see if we could find them.
The first folly that you come to if you’re travelling either east from Heathfield or west from Battle or Rye, is the Sugar Loaf, so named presumably after the way in which sugar used to be stored and sold. It’s in a field just off the B2096 and a short walk from the road, and at 10 metres high there’s something rather magical and mystical about it! The story goes that Fuller had bet a dinner guest that he could see the spire of Dallington church from his sitting room and when he realised that he couldn’t, he had the Sugar Loaf (aka Fuller’s Point) built in order to win the bet.
The Pyramid and the Tower
Next, you head into Brightling village where you’ll find the Pyramid in the churchyard. Built in 1811, it is nearly eight metres high and was designed by Sir Robert Smirke as Fuller’s tomb. More rumours abound here, with an untrue story that he was entombed inside fully dressed, with a top hat and seated in a chair with a glass of claret and some fowl! It’s not true but don’t let that spoil the moment.
A short walk from the village across a couple of fields vaguely in the direction of Robertsbridge and you’ll come to the Tower in a small copse. Over 10 metres high, it’s thought to date to about 1820 and yet again, it’s a building with aura of mystery. One story has it that Fuller had it built so he could keep watch over his workers at nearby Bodiam Castle but this was probably untrue as he didn’t buy Bodiam until 1829.
The Observatory and the Needle
From Brightling village you have to head back on yourself and follow the signs for Batemans. You’ll see the next folly in the distance which is the Observatory although perhaps that’s a misnomer as it was equipped when built with a camera and telescope so, it not completely without practical purpose. It was also designed by Sir Robert Smirke and completed in 1818. It’s now a private house and although you can see it from a distance, they have a large hedge that prevents any close-ups.
But just up the road from the Observatory, is the Needle (aka the Obelisk). This stands proud in a field known as Brightling Down and is 20 metres high. Again, it’s on private land so you can’t get very close and there are various accounts of why it was built which include as a lookout in the event of an invasion by Napoleon, to commemorate Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805, or to celebrate Wellington’s victory over Napoleon in 1815. We’ll never know.
There’s one final folly in the grounds of Brightling Park known as the Temple. I thought I could see it in the distance from Brigthling village but I couldn’t be sure. At nearly eight metres tall, it is said that Mad Jack entertained ladies here (and perhaps more than one at a time) and some believe he also used it for gambling parties.
I can’t quite put my finger on what’s so magical about this strange collection of Sussex follies. Is it the legends that go with them? Their diverse and beautiful shapes or their unexpected nature in this quiet corner of Sussex. Whatever it is, it’s tangible, and if you have the time, I’d thoroughly recommend you spend a little while gadding about in the footsteps of old Mad Jack.