Towers have been built throughout history by all sectors of mankind. As standalone structures or part of grandiose castles, they have adorned the earth’s landscape from prehistoric times through to modern day – managing to hold some mystical appeal along the way.
Their uses are, of course, many and varied. Whether for a strategic advantage in medieval times, or a practical application such as receiving signals, there is one thing that all towers have in common: the ability to provide a clearer view of the surrounding landscape.
John Bryant has a tower – in the front paddock of his 25-acre property deep in the Blue Mountains World Heritage area. It is not there for any industrial purpose, nor is there a great threat of marauding travelling adversaries, but it’s fair to say that it has provided him with a clear view of the landscape – as much in a spiritual and emotional sense as anything.
I must admit that when I went to visit John, I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going. I’d never been to the Blue Mountains (a tragedy I now acknowledge freely), and the GPS signal is not great in that neck of the woods. But let me say this – if you live in the type of area that is not the easiest to navigate and people complain about how difficult it is to find your place, may I suggest building a tower in your front yard? At over 14m in height and with a wonderfully authentic cone-shaped roof … well … needless to say the lack of GPS signal was not such a problem.
John built his tower himself. The emotional need for it had probably been there most of his life, but the actual inspiration came from an overseas holiday in 2003.
“My wife’s been a keen gardener all her life and the one thing we always promised each other is that we would do a crawl through the gardens of Europe,” explains John.
“So we took off and went through all the big name gardens in France, England and Scotland. I wasn’t so interested in gardening but was happy to go along and travel through these great countries. But as we were travelling, I started to fall in love with the amazing medieval architecture.
“In no time, I was trying to work out how I could build some sort of medieval structure back home. I should add, I have no building background whatsoever, but I was intrigued as to how they constructed these incredible abbeys and cathedrals, so I actively started learning as much as I could.”
John’s tower is constructed from an interesting locally-produced building material that looks like sandstone and contains 60% sawdust – thereby making it very environmentally-friendly, whilst still providing an authentic look. In his spare time, John runs a business-consulting service where he provides help and advice without a fee for those who need it. The inventor of this building block was one of John’s former clients.
“It all seemed to come together in my head,” says John. “I had access to these blocks; I had a passion about medieval architecture; and the space to do it. I knew I didn’t have the skills to build an entire cathedral, but I was sure I could build a simple tower. Best of all, I could stumble along at my own pace, far enough away from the house so my wife wouldn’t be tempted to keep tabs on me.”
He started by sketching out his ideas and taking them to his local council to check development codes. What followed was a number of official architectural drawings, some consultation with neighbours and a year-long debate with the town planner. It is the type of process that would put many people off, but John’s tower is as perfect today as it was in his head – and he has remained friends with all of his neighbours along the way.
The construction of the tower was a challenge logistically and physically. John was determined to build it himself, so despite numerous offers of assistance he remained true to his plans and only accepted help where absolutely necessary.
“I think most men lie in bed at night and think about what they have done that day and what they are going to do tomorrow. And throughout this whole construction time I would lie in bed and tick these things off – almost like a little mini movie in my head – it’s a very satisfying and soothing process to go through.
“I would work through the issues as they appeared in my head. Things like: how to dig eight holes 2m deep but only 400mm in diameter for the footings, all while making sure I didn’t end up with a Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
Other issues, such as how to install electrical wiring inside the single block walls or how to attach the stairs to the walls and hang internal floors inside were all considered and worked through during the “in-head-in-bed” planning process.
While he could conquer most challenges, there were some areas where John physically could not undertake the work on his own. The amazing cone metal roof (into which John hand-drilled over 5000 holes so he could rivet on the individual shingles) did have to be craned into position. Equally, there are large curved windows at the top level that had to be made to size and installed externally with a large cherry picker.
Although John is a self-professed “stubborn bugger”, he did also take advice from friends along the way.
“No matter how well you plan things, there are going to be some things you just don’t consider – and I did need to remind myself here and there that I do not come from a building or trade background.”
The worst of those moments was when a builder friend visited John’s tower with the roof installed and asked him what he was going to do about the condensation.
“It hadn’t even crossed my mind,” confesses John. “But a metal roof on top of some thermally efficient building blocks with a slow combustion wood stove internally and the natural cold of the Blue Mountains… well… it would have been like a river in here.”
He worked out that the best way to line a curved surface like that was to apply a spray-on urethane foam insulation to the interior of the roof. Best of all, he was able to do it himself and then line it with 58 lineal metres of curtain material to cover the insulation and complete the themed look. There is also a trapdoor in the peak of the roof which John can open and shut to release hot air in summer or retain it in winter.
Equally, another friend suggested the installation of a lighting conductor on the roof, which has proven to be very wise precaution as the area is well-known for lightning strikes.
“We do get a lot of lightning up here, and I think it’s fair to say that we’ve been hit a few times. Without the conductor there’s a very good chance that the tower could have exploded or at the very least cracked and collapsed.
“So the $3,500 worth of copper rod and wiring has very much paid for itself.”
Despite his very practical approach, there was also time for personal touches in the design. The floors are made from local timber from his daughter’s property – cut and milled to size. There are also four sodium spotlights that throw a soft yellow glow on the tower at night.
Unquestionably, it was a massive challenge in a great number of ways, but when John talks about it, you can’t help but share the joy and satisfaction of him having done it himself.
“Aside from the personal reward in seeing the progress each day, there is the sense of achievement you get when working on a project,” he says.
“I think my most exciting moment was when I had finished the top floor and I got a chair up there and I just sat down and looked out from my tower. The rest of it was not really sorted and I had mess everywhere, but that was when it became very real.
“I just sat up there and thought ‘this is fantastic – I made it.’ It’s a great feeling.”
Sitting in a comfortable chair in the top level of his tower I can grasp a small element of what it must have felt like for John. He is a very calm man with a gentle nature, but the flicker in his voice and subtle shifts in body movement still convey the pleasure and contentment of a man who has realised his dream. And the view is indeed quite spectacular.
When all is said and done, John’s execution may be a little more eccentric than the average man, but his motivation is no different to someone who restores a car or transforms the corner of the garage for some special hobby. He is – if anything – simply more in-tune to what he ultimately wanted.
“I spend time in here every day – I just love it. I do some writing, some work, or just use it as a place to think and organise my life. It provides the solitude I need,” he says.
“There is full power, phone, internet, bar fridge and a television all wired in – which enables me to use it as an office. A wood stove on the ground floor, with internal flue, heats the entire tower, and the windows are perfect for purging heat in summer, so it’s very comfortable all year round. I even put a bed on the second level, so I can have a little nap if I want to without having to walk back to the house.
“At the end of the day, it’s a great place for contemplation and provides a tranquil retreat from daily pressures.”
It is a joy he is also very willing to share with others.
“I made an open offer to anyone at my church that they could come and use my tower if they wanted some time out. And there are quite a few people – particularly businessmen with pressure-cooker jobs – who have taken me up on the offer.”
This sense of helping others with a community-minded approach is fundamental to John’s life. Whether it is through his ‘fee-free’ business consulting work, his website where he offers help and advice to others who want to build their own tower, or his belief in the bible, he is quietly determined to help others – and the tower acts in some ways to bring those different elements together.
“I’ve been really interested in studying the bible all my life – but somewhat disinterested in what I would call ‘organised religion’. For me – the key to life is understanding why we’re here, where we’re going and developing a relationship with my Creator. So I studied a lot of different things – Buddhism, Mormonism, mystical eastern philosophies and more ‘isms’ than I can remember. I started as an atheist, but after investigating the alternatives I felt that the bible represented the ultimate truth and that’s where I’ve gravitated for the last 35 years or so.”
Given John’s deep connection to the bible, yet his self-professed frustrations with “organised religion”, it is no surprise that his tower is a form of personal sanctuary.
Indeed, sitting on the top level and looking out through the large curved windows to the picturesque landscape in front of you, there is a wonderful calm and spiritual presence to it. In much the same way that a church or cathedral evokes a peaceful composure – whether you are religious or not – John’s tower seems to instantly relax anyone who enters.
In a fleeting moment, it even crosses my mind that to yell in here would somehow be breaking sacred rules.
It should be noted however that this mystical presence does not in any way come from the interior fit-out. In John’s own words, the majority of the items in the tower are “things that are not allowed in the house” and many of them for very good reason.
Put it this way … I think it’s fair to say that the physical status of the tower, combined with the surroundings and perhaps our instinctive behaviour when entering a cathedral-like construction contributes to the lovely calm … not the mummified animals that adorn the base of the coffee table or the mismatched collection of memorabilia that adorn the walls…
“I had a lot of stuff scattered around or caught up in storage in the garage,” laughs John. “It’s basically all the things my wife didn’t want in the house, but I certainly didn’t want to throw them out.
“To me, it’s all interesting stuff, but I know that no one would really want it sitting in their lounge room – and that’s fair enough. The tower gives me somewhere to keep it, enjoy it; and it doesn’t seem out of place.”
Coincidentally John has since become quite interested in gardening and so landscaping the surrounding areas has become the next stage of development. It is a lovely added bonus for him as it means the tower remains an on-going project to be continually worked on.
Not that he is content with a single tower.
“I have a little battle going with my wife at the moment,” he smiles. “She loves the tower, but I’ve spent a bit of time recently working over how I could build a second one – but this one would be in the middle of our 3-acre lake and only accessible by row boat. I’ve proven that it’s possible, but I haven’t been able to convince her that we could use a second tower.”
On previous efforts you would be foolish to think he won’t get there.