Hawkstone Park Follies is a remarkable tourist attraction north of Shrewsbury. Visiting is like stepping into a fantasy land dreamed by an eighteenth century imagination. This is a landscape park, created over two centuries by the Hill family, owners of Hawkstone Hall (now private). The idea was to amaze and impress visitors with awe-inspiring views, Romantic scenery and curious conceits, from a network of caves to a resident hermit. Today the park has been restored and brought back to life (minus the hermit), and it is a fascinating place to spend several hours or even a whole day.
The grounds extend along either side of a wooded valley with a long hill one side and a stony outcrop (Grotto Hill) the other. The park is toured on foot, along a signposted route (a map is provided). A guidebook is a worthwhile purchase if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the park’s eccentric features.
Highlights of the park include a tall statue-topped monument built in 1795. This is a steep climb up a spiral staircase, but worth it for the outstanding views, including a glimpse of grand Hawkstone Hall and Hawk Lake, part of the original landscaped estate (the Hall is now a religious centre). Natural and man-made features with colourful names (the Awful Precipice, Fox’s Knob, White Tower) pepper the wooded slopes of the park.
Purely for entertainment value, the Hills built a Gothic ruined arch. A pathway like something from Tolkien climbs up the Cleft, a narrow gully between rocky walls which leads to a complex of man-made caves carved into the sandstone, divided by supporting rocky columns. From the caves, exits lead onto little rocky ‘terraces’ with views over the hills and valleys, including a golf course, which were all once part of this estate. The Hermitage is a small cottage where, in the 19th century, visitors were entertained by an aged Hermit who would be seated surrounded by reminders of mortality such as a skull and an hourglass. He would thrill his Romantic-minded audience with recitations of morbid lines of poetry. At some point the Hermit was replaced by an automaton.
What did the local labourers think as they toiled to create these rich man’s follies? The amount of work that has gone into the park is remarkable – the buildings, the caves, the rock-cut steps, pathways and their maintenance, and the owners would have provided a great deal of employment locally as well as attracting visitors to the area and to the nearby inn (now the Hawkstone Park Hotel).
The park is impressive and enjoyable for both adults and children. It’s exciting to explore and Grotto Hill, in particular, is a very pleasant place to sit and enjoy the views (when you’re not exploring caves). Anyone with an interest in nature, landscape design or garden history will find lots to contemplate. Aficionados of Gothic and Regency romance or fantasy films and fiction should also thrill to the fantastical landscape and intriguing anecdotes of the park. Parts of the landscape feel very much like Tolkien’s Middle Earth: exploring the rocky Cleft, for example, with no-one else around, feels like a very intrepid adventure.
Plenty of time should be allowed for visiting the Follies – the full circuit of the park takes three hours, and although there are some slightly shorter routes, the site is best enjoyed at leisure. Wear sensible outdoor shoes or boots, be prepared for lots of steps and slopes, and come equipped with water and provisions (or visit the tearoom). Take a torch to explore caves and tunnels.
At the entrance to the park is a small shop/ticket office with an introductory exhibition about the history of Hawkstone Park. Behind this building is a tearoom serving drinks, cakes and light lunches.
In the area is the pretty village of Weston-under-Redcastle – between the village the Follies car park, look out for the Citadel, a grand ‘castle’ built for relatives and dependents of the Hill family of Hawkstone. Between Hawkstone Park and Shrewsbury it’s worth stopping to visit Moreton Corbet Castle (English Heritage), a wonderfully evocative ruin alongside a historic church. If you are touring, you can stay on the spot at the Hawkstone Park Hotel. Other (and better-reviewed) options in this area north of Shrewsbury include the four-star Inn at Grinshill and the Georgian Old Rectory Hotel in Wem.
In summer the attraction is open seven days a week, but opening times and days vary throughout the year so check before you travel.