The Garden Guide

Book: Gardening tours by J.C. Loudon 1831-1842
Chapter: Middlesex, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Wilshire, Dorsetshire, Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent in the Summer of 1832

Fonthill Abbey estate

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We spent the greater part of two days in looking over this place, even to the cottages and cottage-gardens in the village; and, having met with some of the old men who had worked on the grounds during the whole of Mr. Beckford's time, we indulged ourselves in asking questions, and procured much curious information respecting the building of the abbey, the mode of life of Mr. Beckford while he resided in it, the falling down of the tower in Mr. Farquhar's time, and the general effect of Mr. Beckford's immense expenditure on the surrounding population. It appears that Mr. Beckford pursued the objects of his wishes, whatever they were, not coolly and considerately like most other men, but with all the enthusiasm of passion. No sooner did he decide upon any point, than he had it carried into immediate execution, whatever might be the cost. After the abbey was commenced, he was so impatient to get it finished, that he kept regular relays of men at work night and day, including Sundays; supplying them liberally with ale and spirits while they were at work, and when any thing was completed, which gave him particular pleasure, adding an extra 5l. or 10l. to be spent in drink. The first tower, the height of which from the ground was 400 ft., was built of wood, in order to see its effect: this was then taken down, and the same form put up in wood covered with cement. This fell down, and the the tower was built a third time, on the same foundation, with brick and stone. The foundation of the tower was originally that of a small summer-house, to which Mr. Beckford was making additions when the idea of the abbey occurred to him; and this idea he was so impatient to realise, that he could not wait to remove the summer-house, to make a proper foundation for the tower, but carried it up on the walls already standing. The kinds of masonry, brickwork, and carpentry which were used may easily be ascertained from the parts remaining. Nothing can be worse: the walls are carried up in some parts of brick, in others of stone, and in others of studwork, sometimes enclosed in stone or brick casing, but always of the very worst description of workmanship. The mortar seems to have been particularly bad, and never to have united either with the stone or with the brick; since, even in the most solid parts of the wall which remain, it may be picked out with the fingers in a state of powder. The appearance of the ruins, as they now stand, produces an impression of meanness mixed with grandeur that it is impossible to describe. The greatness of the dimensions of the parts which still exist, and which, from being covered with cement, have the appearance of stone; and the shattered remains of lath and plaster, studwork, and bricks, and bond timber; and, above all, the long strings of tarred pack-thread hanging from the nails and other remains of what were once mouldings worked in Roman cement, have a tattered apearance, the very opposite of the grandeur produced by durability of execution. We feel as if we had discovered that what, at a distance, we had supposed to be a marble statue, was, in reality, a mere bundle of rags and straw, whited over to produce effect.