Setting aside the towers found on medieval castles (which were an essential part of their military design), or their modern equivalents (such as Pleinmont Tower on Guernsey, a stark concrete lookout and gunnery-rangefinding tower built by the Germans in the Second World War), church towers, or useful and necessary structures like lighthouses, most tall towers have been follies. A folly is the eccentric creation of a rich landowner, intended to be a decorative feature in a landscape, possibly a recreational amenity, but otherwise serving no useful purpose. Where there are stairs to the very top of the folly, it might achieve some definite but unimportant aim, such as to be the highest point in the county. Rival landowners sometimes built rival follies to outdo each other.
If you are at all interested in the follies of Great Britain, then I recommend tracking down a secondhand copy of Follies - A National Trust Guide, by Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp, which was first published in 1986 by Jonathan Cape (ISBN 0-224-02105-2). I have that first edition, which I bought in 1999. It's been out of print for some time, but Amazon have some used copies for sale at this very moment. This must be the A-Z of British follies, complete with photographs of the best of them. I will be quoting from this book later. (In Towers 3)
Let me kick off with the tower at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Sissinghurst is a National Trust property, renowned for its gardens, and once owned by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. The tower here represents the surviving part of a much larger Elizabethan courtyard complex that has vanished. It looks noble and ancient, and because it was a proper building, not a folly, it consists of a series of usable rooms, each higher than the last, and linked by a wide spiral staircase. It has a spacious roof from which all the gardens can be viewed. Thoroughly recommended! Here are various shots, from 2002 onwards:
Church towers, if open, are sometimes very well worth the climb. The town church at Rye in East Sussex is one of the most rewarding. It stands at the highest point of the hill upon which the old town was built. So its conical roof can be seen everywhere, overtopping all the other roofs. My pictures were taken in 2006 onwards.
The church is reached by cobbled lanes lined with nice shops, and tea rooms that are open all year round. Once inside, you can buy a ticket for the tower roof. It doesn't cost much. The way up begins with modern, easy-to-climb stairs, but soon gets narrow and steep. Don't attempt the ascent if you are enormously fat! The stairs lead into the room where the bellringers do their stuff. There is also the mechanism in there for the church clock, which will fascinate those with a penchant for clockwork.
From this point, there are only steep ladders, and a little agility is required. (Not much - I managed it) Above the bellringers' room is the bell chamber itself. You can have a jolly good look at the bells and their mountings, and imagine the movement and din when they are being rung. I always think of what might happen if trapped in a bellchamber when the bells are clanging away, as was the case (with lethal consequences) in Dorothy L Sayers' novel The Nine Tailors.
Then it's out onto the roof. The walkway is narrow, the parapet not especially high, and on a windy day one might feel a bit nervous. But the view over the town (and beyond) is wonderful!
You don't often get as close as this to a wind-vane:
Hmmm...this is enough for a post. I think I'll take a break now, and come back later with part three. I'll be looking at three rather more whimsical towers, in Suffolk, Essex and Surrey.