The International Writers Magazine: Follies in the UK
Tower of 'Spite':
John Wainhouse's Pride of the Calder
in the Calder valley on the fringe of the Yorkshire/ Lancashire
border is Sowerby Bridge. It's a small and, largely unassuming
town that lives in the shadow of the culturally flamboyant and
wildly colourful, Hebden Bridge. Casting an elongated, phallic
shadow over Sowerby is 'Wainhouse Tower', the pride of the industrial
history of the Calder valley.
The tower is the
creation of the eccentric industrialist, John Edward Wainhouse, who,
prompted by the Smoke Abatement Act of 1870, designed a tower, with
the aid of architect, Isaac Booth that would comply with newly passed
It was stated in the design that the wastes of the nearby dye works
would be fed via an underground flue to the tower, which was tall enough
to elevate the detritus high enough above the town, before being belching
it out over the vast Calder valley.
Work began in 1871, but three years later in 1874, Wainhouse sold the
dye works to the manager, who flatly refused to take on the burdening
costs of finishing the tower.
Wainhouse subsequently decided to claim the tower as his own. He took
away the purpose of it being used as an industrial implement and re-employed
it as a more leisurely, 'General Astronomical and Physical Observatory'.
This would mean radically designing the tower. Wainhouse made Booth
redundant and in his replacement, he hired Richard Swarbrick Dugdale
to finish the project.
The towers' design was soon radically re- worked and instead of it bearing
a conventional industrial appearance, the summit is adorned with a maniacally
gothic cupola that boasts an elaborate and intricate series of splendid
finials, pillars, buttresses and balustrades. Unfortunately the overly-
elaborate design of the towers' summit was ultimately the undoing of
its new purpose. When the tower was finally finished in 1875, at an
amazing cost of £15,000 the cupola was so intricate and compact,
that Wainhouse was left with no room for any scientific equipment.
Given the amount of enjoyment that I reaped from reading about this
architectural wonder/ flop, I felt compelled to visit it.
If you don't have transport of your own, as I dont, the best method
of reaching Wainhouse Tower is by catching the train directly to Sowerby
Bridge in West Yorkshire, which is the nearest station. Sowerby station
is deep in the bottom of the valley basin, and stepping from the train,
I had an over- whelming notion that I'd not merely stepped from the
train into a different town, but also stepped into another time zone.
As I walked precariously along the main road that links Halifax to Hebden,
I couldn't help but feel that this place wouldn't have been that different
in, say 1960, or even before that. On one side of the road is a high
wall of weeping sandstone with various vegetating and other unsightly
protrusions that fancied my chagrin. On the other side was the river
Calder. Rusted by copper deposits upstream, it slid oppressively eastward
with some unseemly swells and rips afforded by the heavy rainfall, which
are not uncommon in these parts of Yorkshire. They have a tendency often
to leave its rivers in spate.
It never ceases to amaze me how you can seldom visit these places in
the Calder valley and have a dry day. The wetness of the place often
tends to depress the atmosphere quite impressively. My head sank into
the collar of my jacket and I pressed on sluggishly along the road,
tightly clutching the straps of my back- pack.
Sporadically along the side of main road are timber yards, pallet workshops,
gas canister warehouses and various other doomy and gloomy establishments.
Even though the tower is a good mile and a half from Sowerby rail station,
it's difficult to stress just how much the 275 foot monument dominates
the skyline. There is no point on the journey to the tower where you're
not gifted, astonishing views of it.
At about three-quarters of a mile along the dreary asphalt road, you
leave it in order to cross the tumultuous river and begin your ascent
up the valley wall. At this point, once you're afforded the chance to
loose the unwelcome traffic and push up into the green hills, the journey
begins to get interesting, yet testing.
Seldom outside of the Calder valley will you walk along roads as steep,
or as soul wrenching as these. Sometimes they can be hellaciously grueling
and at one point when I came across a road- sign that warned me about
'frogs', I took it as a sign to have a time out. I sat aside the road
on a chunk of local Yorkshire sandstone in order to sip at water and
repeat my name and parents' names aloud, just to remind myself that
I was still lucid.
Once composed and refreshed, I started on my way again. I would be false
for me say that the tower was in sight by now, as its 'in sight',
after all, for many miles in all directions. But I was within a short
walking distance of the structure which, the closer you get, begins
to exponentially take on the appearance of a demented chess piece.
The very last part of my journey took me to the base of the tower along
a muddied grass embankment (I'm sure this route is optional, though.).
As you reach the base of the tower, it is an experience to sit against
the lowest stone and gaze up in awe at the three- hundred- foot, industrial
goliath. (Indeed, the tower is 275 feet from the door to the top of
the cupola, but there is another 25 foot to the base on the opposite
I also read that the sheer height of the tower had served to provoke
and upset Wainhouse's neighbour, Sir Henry Edwards, a stern and cynical
Yorkshireman that thoroughly loathed industrial chimney- stacks. He
resolutely believed that Wainhouse had merely built his tower so tall,
as a means of goading him and ultimately, he accused Wainhouse of using
the towers' observatory to keep an eye on his neighbours' activities.
Edwards would refer to Wainhouse's creation as the 'Tower of Spite'.
(I also read that Edwards loathed, with an equal passion, white linen
hanging outdoors to dry. Sadly, I couldnt find any evidence to
suggest that Wainhouse had taunted him with any laundry-related provocations.)
It is possible to climb to the observatory, via a strenuous 403 steps
that corkscrew through the center of the tower. Though, since the towers'
ownership has been left in the capable hands of the National Trust,
it's possible to count the days in which it's open, on the digits of
one hand. Unsurprisingly, I'd arrived on a day in which it was closed
to the public.
It comes as a slight anti-climax that once you arrive at the towers'
base, in one direction, you can look out over the seemingly infinite
verdant and patchwork countryside of the Caldervale, with it's life
essence, the river Calder trickling inauspiciously through the center.
However, turn your person 360 degrees and you are faced with a polluted
main road, a charmless and anonymous chain store and an equally un-
welcoming pub, complete with a grizzled bar tender wiping suds from
a glass with his shirt.
Anyway, as a means of trying to eek out the Sowerby experience, I strolled
over to the five- foot, steel entrance (strange, that). I was hoping
to peer through some opening, or orifice in the door to catch a glimpse
as to what lay inside. As I leant forwards and put my weight against
the door to look through a hole where a rivet had been hammered out,
the thing moaned and groaned in a kind of masochistic ecstasy and swung
open (this is absolutely true). Inside, I was met with the Tungsten
lit golden sand- stone, which the tower is built with. It was perfectly
untainted, unlike the West Riding uniform black of the exterior. To
my immediate right, was an arch, containing the first of the steps leading
to the summit. I was no longer capable of rational thought, or bodily
control. One foot followed the other and before I knew it I'd passed
the threshold. Alas readers, I havent been lulling you into some
kind of gothic horror tale; I prefer to keep those lugubrious pastimes
separate. Before I knew it, a soupy Scottish accent was calling me back.
"Oi Oi Oi Oi Oi
Whattya thing yer deeing? Dats not open
Dats not open.
I was hurried back out of the tower and swiftly re-acquainted with the
grim Yorkshire weather. The Scott heaved his small, yet ample frame
in front of mine and dragged the door back into place, before securing
it with what seemed like a gratuitously large, industrial padlock.
Once finished, the panic- stricken fellow, whom I quickly ascertained,
must have been a National Trust employee, for there was no other way
of explaining the needlessly abrasive attitude of him.
He went on to try and explain when I could and could not enter the tower,
but I wasn't interested. I slipped into a reality- induced catatonia,
before turning my back and walking off.
I paused at the lip of the valley wall and gazed with uncomfortable
sobriety at the distance of the journey back to the train station. With
that, I realised that the Sowerby dream was over and I began my descent
through the wondering satin- like veil of fine, Yorkshire drizzle.
Alex Clark © 18.04 2005
360 degree view from the top of the tower here. - we save you the bother
of going there.
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