Philanthropist succeeded in his folly but failed with the hermit

THE Druid's Temple at Ilton on the Swinton Park Estate near Masham in North Yorkshire is probably one of the least known follies in the county. However, despite its relatively low profile, the monument was built to recognise a much admired and eccentric country squire.

Situated on moorland close to the luxury Swinton Park Hotel, the Temple is on private land but can be explored by anyone who uses the hotel or those who attend the many events held in its grounds across the year.

The grand house itself was built by the owner William Danby (1752-1833) with the help of James Wyatt, John Foss and Robert Lugar. According to Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp's authoritative books on follies, sadly currently out of print, the house took a good 50 years to build, and its central tower is something of a folly in its own right.

Danby was a man who not only liked to get his hands dirty, but also enjoyed putting his thoughts down on paper, and from his seat at Swinton he wrote several literary works including the intriguingly titled Travelling Thoughts, Thoughts Chiefly on Serious Subjects and Ideas and Realities.

He was also a philanthropist, and in later age his mind turned to relieving the problem of local unemployment. The first job creation scheme he dreamed up was the building of a mini version of Stonehenge. The exact date the temple was built is not certain, but it is known to have been in place by 1803. What his labourers thought of the strange task at hand is not known, but no doubt they simply took the money and saved their speculation for private moments.

A giant oval of altars, menhirs, dolmens and sarsens were arranged, with an aisle of standing stones leading into the temple. Other Druidic ornaments have appeared in the grounds of country mansions such as Alton Towers, but none as elaborate as this.

There is even a cave, in which the Squire is said to have tried to persuade a hermit to live. Headley and Meulenkamp report that a 1910 tourist guide to the area perpetuated the hermit story, claiming that Danby had offered to provide "food and a subsequent annunity" to anyone who would live the primitive life in the temple for seven years, speaking to no-one and "allowing his beard and hair to grow".

Several individuals are said to have attempted the feat, but all were defeated – one having spent four and a half years in seclusion but receiving no reward in the end.

As to Danby's interest in Druidism, he did live in an age when there was a good deal of speculation about its practice, which led to the publication of many books.

Antiquarians and poets, including Blake, Wordsworth and Southey were all fascinated by Druidism, with some intellectuals of the time arguing that the Druids were British patriots and the earliest men of learning in England.

A certain Mr P T Runton wrote to Lord Swinton in 1936 praising Danby's accurate interpretation of the Druidic Temple, adding that it had been built "by a man who must have had great mystical knowledge of such symbolism". After his death Payne was mourned as a benevolent landlord and considerate employer.

For information on the hotel and events at Swinton Park: www.swintonpark.com or 01765 680900.