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Well, I didn't know the ferry was moving

I wish you had told me about the tower

By Alan RussellPublished 2 months ago 5 min read

For one of my birthdays my wife gave me a day’s yachting experience sailing out of Lymington, across to the Isle of Wight and back. After a champagne and pasta lunch anchored off of the Isle of Wight it was my turn to take the helm and as there was no wind we had to travel under power.

When the helm was handed over to me the skipper asked me to pick a mark on the horizon, steer towards it and then as the tide would be coming against us we could hitch a free ride back into Lymington. I chose my mark and steered towards it. The skipper and I had a chat about sailing and how sensitive the steering is. Much like flying in that it only takes the subtlest of adjustments to keep the vessel on the chosen course. After a few minutes he asked me where my mark was.

‘There it is, there on the horizon ‘I said as I pointed out the mark I had chosen.

He looked.

‘Really? That is actually the Isle of Wight ferry from Lymington to Yarmouth. I had rather hoped you would have chosen the Sway Tower. If you steer towards that we should be fine. It is two seven zero on the compass.’

Whoops. I had committed the maritime equivalent of the mountain climber’s folly of taking a bearing on a living, breathing and wandering sheep rather than a static outcrop of rock or a tree.

Sway Tower is sixty six metres tall and is a Grade II listed building. That means it is of special architectural or historical interest. So, what makes this tower deserving of this singular treatment?

Its claim to fame is that it is the tallest building in the world made from non-reinforced or free standing concrete. I find this absolutely amazing as, at the time of writing, in late 2023, there is an ongoing crisis over a type of concrete used in schools, hospitals and shopping centres thirty years ago that is beginning to fail causing buildings to be closed off because of safety fears. Whereas the tower is still standing and is still inhabitable without any concerns for safety.

Its height makes it visible from much of the New Forest, the English Channel and of course from the Solent where I was sailing. RAF pilots based at airfields across the southern part of the New Forest in World War II used the tower as a marker to navigate their way home from raids over Europe. At least they had the good sense not to take a fix on a ship.

The tower is sometimes referred to as ‘Peterson’s Tower’ after it’s designer and builder one Andrew Thomas Turton Peterson (1813 – 1906).

Looking at Peterson’s life story it is no surprise that he would eventually design and build something as eccentric as this tower. As a young boy he ran away to sea and took charge of his ship following a mutiny. Once back in England he studied law and became a barrister.

Peterson had spent many years working in India as a judge. and had seen the great towers that had been built there. It was those towers that influenced him enough to embark on his architectural folly. Locals thought he was building a sort of mausoleum to commemorate him and his wife after they died. This idea was shelved quite soon after he had shown his wife where their bodies were to be interred at the base of the tower.

Peterson was a strong believer in spiritualism and claims to have had advice and instructions from Sir Christopher Wren through a medium during the design and construction of the tower. What a shame that the 21st century architects who designed the buildings now causing public concern didn’t follow his example. Buildings like Grenville Towers in West London where improper cladding ignited. Or, the schools built in the 1970’s and 80’s using ‘raac’ concrete that doesn’t have the durability of the concrete used in Peterson’s Tower.

Building started in. 1879 and was completed in 1885. There were forty workmen engaged in the construction and it was all completed without any scaffolding. Even though no workers were harmed in the construction of this building today’s health and safety practitioners would have had apoplectic seizures if they had seen it being built. No high viz clothing or hard hats.

As well as gaining a reputation for architectural eccentricity he was known as a model employer. At the time of building there was a high level of unemployment in the area. He only employed those who were out of work and paid them the highest wages in the area.

The plan for the tower to be an after life place of rest could have been the source of the local rumour that he was eventually interred at the top of the tower. That is all it was, a rumour. What actually happened was that he was cremated at Woking in Surrey. His ashes were brought to the tower where they were spread on a table built into it. Those ashes would have soon been carried away across the forest by the wind replicating, in a sanitised way the Zoroastrian after life ritual of the sky ceremony.

After a major mid course correction of about ninety degrees, which none of the others onboard noticed as they were still sleeping off their lunches, we headed towards Lymington and the yacht basin we had left from. The 'fixed' point on the horizon that we steered towards was a flagon top of the harbour master's office. That was when the steering needed a lot more attention. Instead of riding directly against the tide or with it we were crossing it and constantly had to adjust our course accordingly but with only the slightest of movements on the wheel. The skipper took over just as we approached the markers for the main channel into Lymington. It was then that the others woke from the post lunch snoozes none the wiser to my error.

Whenever we are driving to Ringwood along the A31 from the east we see the Sway Tower to our left. From the car the tower is not a navigation point as we know the way home. Instead, it is a comforting marker telling us that we are only a few miles and a few minutes from home.

July 2015


About the Creator

Alan Russell

When you read my words they may not be perfect but I hope they:

1. Engage you

2. Entertain you

3. At least make you smile (Omar's Diaries) or

4. Think about this crazy world we live in and

5. Never accept anything at face value

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