A look inside Sway Tower

Sway Tower is both a folly and home

Sway Tower is both a folly and home - Credit: John D Wood

Do you fancy living in a folly? Here’s your chance... Emma Caulton meets the owners of Sway Tower

In the sitting room, the fireplace was made by Paul from reclaimed wood

In the sitting room, the fireplace was made by Paul from reclaimed wood - Credit: John D Wood

There are more than 320 steps up Sway Tower, and every single one is worth it for the extraordinary view from the cupola at the top: across to the Isle of Wight and the Needles in one direction, over heathland towards Fawley in another (the distant chimneys just visible through a misty haze), while the dense greenery of the New Forest stretches across the wide horizon behind me.

Owner Julie Atlas accompanies me to the top, the stairs spiralling clockwise within an adjacent hexagonal tower. We pass the first four floors – each one given over to a bedroom suite with big double bed, room for a sofa, fantastic views on three sides, dressing room and bathroom. We pass Julie and husband Paul’s own bedroom which has such a high ceiling it accommodates a mezzanine floor. (Just in case you’re wondering, and I was, the windows on the east side of the tower can be removed and furniture winched up the outside of the Tower.) Julie says: “There are 70 steps to my bedroom. My osteopath thinks it is wonderful. He says do it for as long as you can!”

Up we go. We pass a floor given over to water tanks, and three more are occupied by communications equipment which brings in significant income. Others are empty - one in particular, with deep windows on all four sides, I could not help but fantasise about turning into a lofty study or an art studio high in a garret or a spectacular sitting room in the sky.

Sway Tower is a home for dreamers, albeit ones with a practical bent. Julie’s husband, Paul, bought Sway Tower in 1973, before they met. Julie says she still remembers the first time she found out Paul owned the Tower and being totally amazed. He bought it as he lived in the property next door, The Lodge. Paul says, “As the two properties shared a driveway it seemed a reasonable thing to buy the Tower when it became available.”

What he bought was not the comfortable, if eccentric, home I visit today. It had been built not as a house, but as an exercise in construction. It is a folly - even if it is described as Hampshire’s finest folly. Andrew Thomas Petersen, barrister, amateur architect, philanthropist and spiritualist, was said to have been inspired to build the Tower by none other than Sir Christopher Wren - supposedly communicating with Petersen through a medium. It was the first major building in Britain to be built from concrete and, at 218 feet high and 14 floors, is thought to be the world’s tallest unreinforced concrete structure.

The conservatory frame was specially shaped to echo the Gothic arches of the Tower

The conservatory frame was specially shaped to echo the Gothic arches of the Tower - Credit: John D Wood

Paul and Julie have become the Tower’s unofficial experts. Paul says there are many stories about the Tower and that locals still refer to Mr Petersen with respect. He was a man with a social conscience: he only employed the unemployed to build the Tower, giving something like 40 people work over a period of six years, from 1879 to 1885. He paid the living wage as well as building cottages (in concrete) for the poor on his estate. In all the Tower cost him around £30,000 - an enormous sum of money at that time.

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Paul’s first job, after buying the Tower, was to clear nearly 100 years’ of occupation by pigeons. The staircase tower was full of droppings – amounting to two tipper loads, about 18 tons! His next job was to remove the sand on the seventh floor left by the Home Guard. They had brought in sandbags when the Tower was used as a defence against enemy aircraft. Paul remembers shovelling sand down what he describes as the longest dustbin shoot in history!

Then for 17 years Paul used the Tower as a garden shed and workshop. After all, it had never been intended as a home. Paul and Julie explain: “It had no floors, doors or windows, or door frames or window frames either, no gas, no electricity, no anything! It was just a shell.”

But then, says Paul, “The hurricane came along in 1987, as they do, and a couple of biggish bits dropped off.”

At this point New Forest District Council, Hampshire County Council and English Heritage became involved. A report listed remedial work to be carried out, which Paul undertook himself, including installing steel supports on every floor, with the approval (and compliments) of structural engineers, one from English Heritage and another, Richard, who lives in Sway and came every day to sign-off Paul’s work.

Far reaching views across the Forest from the top of the Tower.

Far reaching views across the Forest from the top of the Tower. - Credit: John D Wood

Following this work, Paul and Julie were wondering what to do with the Tower when Julie had the idea of doing bed and breakfast. So, they converted the Tower into living accommodation. Julie says, “We had 16 chaps working here. The first day they all came down for coffee at 11am and we lost an hour’s labour with them all coming down and going back up the stairs. After that we sent them up with flasks and packed sandwiches!”

Paul continues: “We opened a restaurant as well, Petersen’s Restaurant, and it became a bit like a hotel. This was back in 1991 - we had all sorts of interesting people staying, like Albert Finney!

“The last guest left on January 1 1995 and we sold The Lodge and moved into the Tower in February. Our son was nine and our daughter was 11 and they each had their own floor in the Tower, which they liked.”

It makes an unlikely, but impressive family home with Gothic arched windows and doorways and soaring ceilings. It has the feel of an ecclesiastical building – accordingly a stained glass window made by a friend of theirs sits above the entrance.

On the ground floor they have created a series of linked flexible living spaces. The entrance opens onto a sitting room made cosy with old Chesterfield sofas and woodburning stove in a large, ornately carved fireplace salvaged by Paul. There’s a raised central room used as a drawing room, but at Christmas they move the dining table in here for a big family celebration. Another space has been divided into dining room, kitchen and utility - all the pine doors were salvaged. So, too, are the stained glass lights which add character to this trio of rooms.

Beyond this they’ve added a conservatory, a vast space specially designed to complement the Tower with the steels bent by a specialist firm to mirror the shape of the Gothic arches. They regularly eat out here. Appropriately for the period, it is reminiscent of a glasshouse at Kew.

Their style of decoration is charmingly and suitably eclectic. Paul and Julie are collectors who have gathered together some lovely pieces which sit very comfortably in a Victorian folly. How they mix pieces from different countries, eras and styles is an inspiration. There are French antique wall lights and a Chinese goddess on a rather lovely carved plinth above a mid-century metal framed leather sofa. There’s a much loved Victorian buttoned sofa under a wooden chandelier that is probably German. Best of all is the colourful collection of carpets, rugs, runners and tent girths (from the nomadic people of the Middle East) used as wall hangings and injecting colour and warmth.

The Tower may look out, but the property is very private sitting in walled gardens with lawns, tennis court and a courtyard garden overlooked by a large swimming pool. However it is the Tower that’s the talking point and I feel privileged to have ventured to the top. You may get the opportunity, too. If you have a flight of fancy for a fine folly, then Sway Tower is on the market with John D Wood, Lymington, www.johndwood.co.uk.

Paul and Julie’s top tips

“Make sure you’re feeling fit and well so you can stand a bit of stress! Be prepared to spend a long time renovating or else have the finance in place. We undertook the reconstruction work in three months and converted it in six months.”

Favourite finds

• Best purchase: I made the fireplace from reclaimed wood. It was covered in pitch black paint when we bought it.

• Favourite store for your home project: Salvage yards. We don’t buy anything modern. We know people who are very stylish and would put masses of glass in and it would look sensational, but because it was built in Victorian times we have respected that.

• The one purchase you couldn’t live without: Paul uses the swimming pool a lot. Our daughter became a swimming teacher and I think that was to do with growing up with a pool.

• Your favourite place in the house: The central room downstairs. I just like the way it is with its archways. It is a privilege living with Gothic arches. A local artist visited and he said the whole building had been built according to the Golden Section, making it a special place to live.