History of Broadway Tower

Spring Hill Tower - 1752-1809

Formerly known as Beacon Tower at the turn of the 19th Century, the origins of Broadway’s majestic tower has inspired many elaborate legends behind the purpose of it's construction. The story actually begins half a decade earlier with a fellow known as Sir George William - born to William Coventry as the second eldest son. After succeeding his father in the Earldom to become the Sixth Earl of Coventry in 1751, Sir George William ordered extensive work to be carried out on the dwindling Croome Estate he had recently inherited. It was here that he became acquainted with the great 18th Century landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, when he commissioned him to work on the designs for his estate. Remembered as 'England's greatest gardener', Capability Brown continued working at the Croome Estate for many years and was held in high esteem for his idealised flowing landscapes.

Ten years later in 1761, Sir George William purchased an estate of land on a beacon hill overlooking Broadway, which became his Spring Hill estate. In the years following, he once again called upon Capability Brown's brilliant landscaping vision to design an ornamental folly that would sit on top of the hill. The wheels were set in motion to build a tower that would go on to spark many myths about its origin centuries later. Sir George William recruited the help of highly revered English architect, James Wyatt, to assist with the completion of the design and construction of the folly following Brown’s death in 1784. By 1799 the iconic Beacon Tower was completed - standing at an impressive height of 65 feet, 1,024 feet above sea level. The result was a mini-Saxon castle made up of three turrets, detailed with balconies and gargoyles that suggests a Norman influence in its design. Brown never did see the completed tower, but through Wyatt's designs and vision, his early achievements still live on. As such, Broadway Tower will always be remembered as Brown and Wyatt's combined brainchild.

Middle Hill Tower - 1809-1872

In 1809 Sir George William died, leaving Spring Hill in his will to be split up between his children. John Coventry, his second eldest son - who acquired the tower on Spring Hill, did little to preserve it and subsequently gave it away in 1819 to the new neighbouring estate, Middle Hill. Middle Hill had recently been inherited by an eccentric chap and proclaimed bibliophile, Thomas Phillipps - who is most notably remembered as one of the greatest private collectors of books and manuscripts of the 19th Century. Despite acquiring his father's estate after his death in 1818, the will was structured in a way that ownership of the land actually belonged to his grandchildren, not Phillipps himself. It's possible this perceived act of betrayal from his father led Sir Thomas to abandon any interest in maintaining the Tower. Or the more likely scenario: his father astutely predicted his son's obsessive behaviour would one day see him disregard any assets he had. That's exactly what happened as Thomas Phillipps never much cared for the tower, instead choosing to move his printing press in there to establish the Middle Hill Press in 1822, at the expense of it's condition. The printing press did serve a wonderful purpose however; Phillipps generously distributed printed manuscripts and catalogues from his collection to libraries for free, and welcomed serious researches and scholars to his tower as a refuge for learning. As such, it was to Phillipps' credit that Broadway Tower was romantically regarded as 'the lighthouse of wisdom'.

By as early as 1827, the Tower was now in poor condition. The windows were in such bad state that they flooded every time it rained, causing more damage to the walls. Gradually over decades of neglect the tower slowly deteriorated, leading to a total abandonment in 1864 - when Sir Thomas Phillipps moved out following a bitter fall out with his eldest daughter, Henrietta, and his son-in-law. Phillipps left the Tower and moved all of his possessions with him to Thirlestaine House in Cheltenham in a bid to stop Henrietta, who laid claim to Middle Hill, from inheriting his entire collection of literature too. From 1864 to Sir Thomas Phillipps' death in 1872, the tower was left empty and the condition declined even further. Unknown to Thomas Phillipps at the time, but this period of neglect would only be short-lived. In fact, a few short years later, Broadway Tower became associated with a profound new design movement, and a popular countryside retreat for influential pre-Raphaelite artists - and from there it's history takes a different turn.

The Preservation of British Heritage

During the summer of 1876, the pioneer of the influential Arts & Crafts movement, William Morris, first became aware of Broadway when his old friend, Cormell Price, took a lease out on Broadway Tower. Morris, along with many other prominent pre-Raphaelite artists of the day, would frequent the Tower - using it as a countryside retreat to get away from the bustle of city life to breathe new inspiration into their work. Morris cherished the tranquillity of the views so much so, he often took his wife, Jane, and their daughters with him to enjoy the tranquillity. Little did anyone know at the time, but Morris' great affection for the Tower and other local historic monuments would convince him to start a major development in the preservation of British heritage. Concerned that the intricately beautiful church in Burford was being subject to what he called 'destructive restoration', it is believed Morris penned the letter in Broadway Tower that eventually founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. The Tower, that was once home to one of the greatest collections of rare literature, also stands as a contributing symbol for the preservation of British heritage.

Thereafter, primarily occupied by tenant farmers, Broadway Tower remained part of the Middle Hill estate until 1949 when on the death of Miss Emily Hingley it was offered to the National Trust as a gift, but declined. It was to be rescued by Hon. Anthony Wills, subsequently Lord Dulverton.

Its prominent position however was to give it another significant role in history.

Observation and Secrecy

As the second highest point in the Cotswolds (after Cleeve Hill), the height and location of the tower offers a unique geographical feature - a 62 mile radius viewpoint of visible landscape, stretching across sixteen counties. It's possible to see as far as the Black Mountains in Wales to the West and as far as Buckinghamshire to the East. This view over the landscape was recognised as being a unique vantage point, which later became useful as a surveillance spot during the war. During the First World War, Broadway Tower remained largely isolated from the events in the war – the tenant farmer William Sherrat was exempted from compulsory military service on condition he remained a farmer. However after frequent and devastating attacks by the German Zepplin in the First World War, the Observer Corps was established in 1925 and over 200 observation posts were installed around the country, with one built just 250 yards north of the Tower.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Mr Hollington, the tenant farmer living in the Tower at the time, joined the Observer Corps and served along with other volunteers, on the roof of the Tower surveying for enemy aircraft. The role of these men would have been to stand for long hours to spot enemy planes and plot their flight path. (Recognising the important service given by members of the Corps during the Battle of Britain, the Corps was given a royal warrant and became the uniformed Royal Observer Corps (ROC) in 1941).

Significantly, on June 2, 1943, a Whitley bomber plane crashed less than 200 yards from Broadway Tower due to poor visibility whilst carrying out a non-operational training flight. The crew from RAF Honeybourne were all killed, despite Hollington's and Albert Lowe’s (a fellow officer), best efforts to rescue them. After the tragedy, the Tower was no longer used for aircraft recognition, instead a dug out pit was built a short distance away, where 24-hour surveillance was introduced. Shortly after WWII ended, in 1950, a new above ground concrete slab observation post, known as an Orlit A, was added. A very basic structure it consisted of two small, separate rooms, equipped with little more than a phone line that connected the men to the regional control centre.

Following the 1945 atomic devastation of Hiroshima and the disconcerting threat of a possible nuclear attack by Russia, a secret Royal Observer Corps nuclear bunker was built in 1961 approximately 180 metres from Broadway Tower. As part of a larger network of 1,653 bunkers around the country, it served as an early warning system - built to study the effects of radioactive fallout from a nuclear attack. The bunker, just north of the tower, reaches a depth of 7 metres with the ceiling of the structure around 2.5 meters underground. Local members of the R.O.C. voluntarily spent several hours a week inside the bunker and their role was to raise the alert of any potential incoming missiles. In the event of a nuclear strike, the bunker was equipped with the technology to determine targeted location reports and the measuring of radiation levels from the blast. It was manned continuously from 1961, up until it's decommissioning in 1991 at the end of the Cold War.

Broadway Tower - Today

Today, Broadway Tower remains a cherished and celebrated historic icon of the community, and one that has been looking over Broadway's shoulder for the last two centuries. Lord Dulverton, developed the land around Broadway Tower as a country park, restored a second turret staircase in the tower itself and opened to the public in 1975. The Tower passed hands again in 1980 and has been further refurbished under the private ownership of the Will family to offer three museum floors chronicling the folly’s history. It serves as a wonderful local attraction for visitors to the Cotswolds, who are able to explore it's interior and climb to the top of the roof for breathtaking and inspired views. In the Tower Deer Park, in surrounding grounds, visitors have the chance to watch Red Deer at close quarters and no visit is complete without calling in at the stylish and contemporary Morris and Brown café and gift shop.

With support from ex-members of the R.O.C. and other museums the Nuclear Bunker has been restored and re-equipped to how it used to look whilst still in commission. It reopened in June 2010 to the general public, offering people the chance to experience what life was like down in the bunker. It is one of only a few remaining fully equipped Nuclear Bunkers left in England and tours are available at weekends.

After over two hundred years, the image of the Tower has remained relatively the same; its usage though has changed with the times making a significant contribution to the nation’s history. Perhaps there is yet another chapter to come for the 'highest little castle in the Cotswolds'.

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