Britain: Wainhouse Tower- the world's tallest folly

Wainhouse Tower, a 77m (253ft) tower masquerading as a chimney. It was built between1871 and 1874 and is the tallest ‘folly’ in the world.

Why visit?
To climb the 369 steps and look out at the magnificent post-industrial Yorkshire landscape from the tallest folly in the world.

In the UK – King Cross, near Halifax, West Yorkshire. Nowhere near London. Map

WAINHOUSE TOWER PRESIDES over the local landscape like a very tall and fancy black pencil. It has always been famous locally not only due to its height but because, for a chimney, (which used to be pretty common in this mill town) it has a very ornate design. 

How many chimneys do you know that incorporate a ‘corbelled and balustrade balcony, surmounted by a lantern dome and finial’? Its construction also has a colourful backstory. It was commissioned as a chimney by John Edward Wainhouse who owned the local dye works, to comply with the new smoke abatement act which aimed to reduce the smog that blighted this deeply industrial area. But it was never used as a chimney. Why?

Local folklore is ripe with tales of feuding between Wainhouse and a wealthy landowner Sir Henry Edwards whose estate was next to the dye works. One tale has it that the tower was built so high to enable Wainhouse to look down upon his boastful neighbour’s estate. People often questioned why a utilitarian chimney needed to have a spiral staircase with an ornate balcony at the top. 

Before the tower was even completed, the dye factory was sold but the new owner refused to pay the construction costs of the tower, so Wainhouse kept it for himself. Wainhouse Tower was never used for its original purpose – instead the chimney became a ‘folly’.

It has however been used for a variety of purposes since. Its entrance has been used as a hen house, the tower itself as part of an experimental radio station, the military used it as an observation post during World War II and it was once suggested that the grounds around the tower could be used as a graveyard and the chimney as a crematorium! The tower has been owned by the local authority since 1974 and is opened up on a few days each year for local people to climb the 369 steps and look out at the magnificent view.

This was my second ascent of Wainhouse Tower; my last was many years ago as a young child and I still have the certificate to prove it. This time I was slightly disappointed that you could only ascend to the first balcony of the corona top, but was assured by a man in a hi-vis vest that this was for our safety; there were no balconies up on the second level to stop people plunging to their death.
On this occasion I was only too pleased to comply with ‘health and safety’. Despite there being a couple of graveyards handily located at the bottom of the tower I didn’t fancy settling into one of them just yet.
My disappointment over, I took in the view. Surprisingly (this being Northern England) it was a clear and sunny day and we could see miles and miles of smog free beautiful Yorkshire landscape. There was a very friendly atmosphere up there on the terrace, people pointing out all the local landmarks (‘look the fire station!’) and deliberating over just which house was their grandmother’s. 

Surprisingly for a very tall, rather thin tower, it felt very, very safe and solid. I’m sure if you had a fear of heights you might not feel this way, but it felt really, really secure up there, like the tower was going to last forever. Maybe immortality was partly Wainhouse’s motive for building it; this way, at least his name wouldn’t go up in smoke. The tower was closed for three years between 2006 and 2009 so that repair work could be carried out, but I think it’s amazing that Wainhouse Tower is in such good condition despite being subjected to more than 140 years of the all that the British weather can throw at it.

Growing up in the shadow of this tower, I didn’t realise that it was the tallest folly in the world. It was just the ‘tower of spite’, a show-off industrial construction built by a rich factory owner that had become a bank holiday weekend treat for the locals. 

And despite being in the Huffington Post’s ‘Top 10 Pieces of Folly Architecture’ its place in the British tourist industry is extremely low key. 

Once you find your way to the base of the tower (we had a bit of help from a man putting his rubbish bins out), you turn up and pay your £2.50 to a man leaning against his van. And if you want a certificate to prove you went up there, you can pay another 20p to the man. 

Don’t expect a guided tour. Don’t expect to see any mills or factories anymore. Do expect a solid stone spiral staircase and lots of squeezing past fellow climbers who are slower than you. Do expect lots of Yorkshire accents. And do expect 360 degree spectacular views for miles and miles and miles………….

Getting there
Halifax is located roughly halfway between the Northern English cities of Leeds and Manchester. There is a train station in Halifax and a five minute taxi ride will take you to Wainhouse Tower. Follow the big black chimney and you will eventually find your way to the entrance.

Useful Links
The tower is only open on a handful of days a year, usually bank holiday Mondays. This link will give you the dates for 2016 and some more information about the tower’s history.

For a great drone video, check this out!

About the author:

Vicky Turner was born and raised in West Yorkshire in the UK but has gradually been moving South (via the East Coast of the USA) for the last fourteen years. She currently explores in Kent.