Its gothic crown is visible for miles around, from Bidborough to Sevenoaks, jutting out from the Kent countryside like a wayward limb. But its roots are planted firmly behind a modesty curtain of trees and houses, visible only to a privileged few.
Hadlow Tower is an enigma, even to those who walk or drive past it daily — everyone in this part of West Kent knows its sky-high silhouette, and many are intrigued by it, but few have been inside.
Until now, that is. After a turbulent few decades, which most recently saw the eight-storey turret up for sale during lockdown, Hadlow Tower finally seems to be in secure hands. It’s a stipulation of the funding that went into restoring the building about a decade ago that it must be open to the public 28 days each year, though it’s still far from a main pin on the tourist map of Kent.
Hadlow Tower started life as a castle, but the main building was demolished for construction materials in the 1950s. That’s the sort of luck this place has had; used as landmark by the Luftwaffe on the way to London, losing its original ornate lantern during the great storm of ’87.
Thankfully in 1998, the World Monument Fund recognised its significance, and set about restoring what was left. The remaining tower claims to be the tallest Victorian folly of its kind in the United Kingdom (Yorkshire’s Wainhouse Tower takes the overall record). For context, Hadlow’s 175ft height puts it 6ft above Nelson’s Column. South London’s Severndroog Castle — another of our favourite follies – sits at a mere 63ft tall, and still manages to offer views over seven counties on a clear day.
Needless to say, at almost triple that height, we had high hopes for Hadlow’s own vistas.
Entering the tower via a solid, church-style door, the reception room is surprisingly modern. Circular, and littered with shoes escaping from underneath a wooden bench (and, oddly, a poster of The Beatles), it’s akin to stepping into a private home.
The footwear, we’re reassured, belongs to the people currently staying in the tower’s holiday accommodation, and there’s no need for us to remove ours in a similar fashion before beginning our ascent.
The next big surprise is the lift. A 17th-18th century tower is the last place you’d expect to find a shiny Schindler, but there it is, ready and waiting to whisk visitors up to the fourth floor (the first three floors are the guest accommodation, so not open to visitors when occupied). The fourth floor too opens into a light and airy double bedroom, but you get the feeling this one’s more for show than for sleeping in.
From here, it’s stairs all the way to the top — but we’re once again surprised as we come face to face not with the worn stone, spiral staircase you’d expect in such a building, but a wider, modern metal and wooden staircase, installed as part of a complete refurb in 2011.
The wide staircase has a trio of information panels mounted to its walls, giving background info about the tower and castle, its inhabitants, and the local area. Local rumour has it that the tower was constructed to allow its original owner, Walter Barton May, to spy on his wife after she left him for another man. Realistically, it was more likely a vanity project to allow him to show off his wealth.
It’s fascinating stuff, but our eyes are more drawn to the slit windows which encircle the building, tantalising us with a foretaste of the views from the open-air viewing gallery at the top, the reason for our visit.
Finally, at the top, we step outside to the viewing platform to feast on that panorama. The platform is narrow — two people can just about pass each other — and wraps around the entire perimeter of the octagonal building, meaning you can see the full 360 view if you’re willing to do a bit of ducking and diving.
The walls are around 7ft tall, punctuated by quatrefoil peepholes, just big enough to stick your face through for a thorough gander at the view. Just the folly’s ornate lantern still towers above us, silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky on a summer’s day, its gothic shape putting us in mind of the rooftop of Barcelona’s Casa Batllo.
This is no sprawling metropolis though, and this part of Kent isn’t replete with recognisable landmarks, but it’s still a beautiful view. The countryside around here is littered with Kentish oast houses, punctuating the skyline like an armada of little sail boats.
Another surprise comes in the form of a vineyard and fruit tree farm, its greenery against the parched golden landscape of August 2022 putting us more in mind of Tuscany than Tonbridge.
Speaking of which, the town of Tonbridge sits around three miles from Hadlow Tower, but manages to blend itself into the foothills of the surrounding countryside almost seamlessly. A camera with a strong lens can pick out some of the landmarks — the college, St Stephen’s Church — but even Tonbridge Castle remains resolutely hidden. Perhaps it reappears in the autumn as the trees shed their leaves.
Below, the village of Hadlow — to most, a mere blip on the main road between Tonbridge and Maidstone — spreads itself out like a toy town, revealing secrets like a cleverly-obscured bowling green. To the north, the manor house of the historic Oxon Hoath estate reigns over the hillside, and to the south, agricultural land punctuated with the occasional barn. Communication masts on the distant hills of North Farm and Riverhill are the only real signs that we’re in the 21st century.
Hadlow Tower’s height may be within 6ft of Nelson’s Column, but its views are a whole world away.
Hadlow Tower, Hadlow Castle, High Street, Hadlow, Kent, TN11 0EG. Public open days are free, but need to be booked in advance — check the website for upcoming dates. The private accommodation on the lower floors of the tower is available for short term holiday rentals.
For further views over Kent, Riverhill Himalayan Gardens is worth the climb. If, like us, you love a jolly good folly, hit up Painshill Park in Surrey or Severndroog Castle near Eltham.
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