Hadlow Castle, Hadlow, Kent
viewed from the churchyard of St Mary’s Church.
5 exposure HDR from one RAW file shot on a Canon EOS1000D and processed in DPP and PS8.
The famous tower was built by Walter’s son, Walter Barton May (b.1783 – d.1855), who had grown up between the ages of seven and twenty watching the house develop. Perhaps inspired by this Gothic construction and being wealthy enough to not need to work, Walter devoted his life to study and reproduction of the architecture of the Middle Ages. It was therefore unsurprising that he wished to add to his father’s work – but he was not able to do so quickly. In the meantime, in 1815, aged thirty-two, and eight years before his father’s death, Walter took over the estates and in 1821, aged thirty-eight, he married Mary Susannah Porter of nearby Fish Hall. It was only in 1832 when he inherited £22,000 from his mother’s family that he was able to start work.
Fonthill Abbey, in Wiltshire, was an obvious inspiration for Walter. Designed by James Wyatt and built between 1796 and 1818 for William Beckford, a reclusive, eccentric man who was reputed to be the wealthiest commoner in England with a vast inheritance and enormous annual income. Beckford had decided that he wanted a house built on the same scale as a cathedral having probably been influenced, in part, by writings such as Edmund Burke’s theory of the Sublime which emphasised “…feelings of awe and terror arising from dark and gloomy colours, vastness of size and conception, and compositions of rugged grandeur.”5. Part of this effect was to be achieved through his vast central tower which rose to 270ft, though inadequate foundations ensured that it collapsed in 1825.
To ensure such a disaster did not befall his tower at Hadlow, May employed the architect George Ledwell Taylor (b.1788– d.1873) who had been responsible for Sheerness and Chatham dockyards. Not that Taylor lacked style; he also designed many of the streets in Paddington in London, part of Hyde Park and Gloucester Squares and the eastern side of Trafalgar Square. Taylor built May a tower which rose to 170ft and with firm foundations it was made to last. Inside were three octagonal rooms, one above the other on each floor. It was certainly one of the local wonders, being described as “…a tower of extraordinary elevation, which forms a striking feature of that part of Kent, and is seen from the distance of many miles.”6. Despite this it became known as ’May’s Folly’, though no-one has definitively proven why. One suggestion is that as construction started about the time his unhappy marriage broke down and his wife moved back to nearby Fish Hall, the tower would allow him to spy on her – or to be a constant reminder to her.
This was not the final form of the tower – in 1840, May added a lantern to the tower. In 1852, he another smaller tower, built in a 14th-century style, to the other side of the house. It’s almost as though he was putting into practice some of the ideas from his lifelong study of ancient buildings. Walter Barton May continued to live in the house for the rest of life, dying in 1855. Unfortunately Walter’s death was also the start of the decline of the house – though it was to take 100 years to reach the final act. The estate was left to his only surving son, Walter Horatio May (b.1822 – d.1907), but oddly, he stipulated that his sister was to receive the entire income of the estate until her death, which she enjoyed for eight more years. Walter Horatio obviously did not inherit his father’s passion for architecture as he had not even moved in when he put the estate, now comprising some 700 acres, up for sale in 1858. He then lived in Brighton and Tendring, Essex before his death in 1907, after which he was buried in Hadlow churchyard.
Today the most obvious sign is the grade-I listed tower – despite it’s current denuded appearance. Sadly, the Great Storm in 1987 caused significant damage and weakened the Gothick decorative stonework causing three pinnacles to fall and so the decision was taken to remove the remaining decorative stonework and store it until it can be restored. Eventually, because the structural damage wasn’t repaired, it weakened the tower and so in 1995 the council removed the lantern and placed it in storage too.
Recently however, there have been some promising developments. In 2006, the council issued a compulsory purchase order and agreed to transfer the tower to the Vivat Trust who will complete a full restoration of the tower and conversion for use as a holiday let plus ground floor exhibition space. This should provide long-term security and ensure that the glory of the Hadlow Castle tower will remain as a local landmark for future generations.
Text from Englands Lost Country Houses