‘the most singular looking thing I ever saw. An immense house stuck all over with a parcel of chimneys, or things like chimneys, little brick columns with a sort of cap on them at the top to catch earwigs’. William Cobbett, riding through Hadlow in 1823
Hadlow Tower, or May’s Folly as it is affectionately known, once formed part of a grand house in the Romantic Gothic style built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by Walter May (formerly Barton), a yeoman farmer, and was erected on the site of Hadlow Court Lodge, a much older manor house existing in the 16th century but having unknown origins. The house was designed by a Mr J Dugdale to an architectural style promoted by Hugh Walpole when he built Strawberry Hill at Twickenham.
The castle and ornamental gardens covered 6 acres with beautiful lawns, an ornamental pond with bridge, wilderness walks, a chestnut walk, herbaceous and rose borders, rhododendrons and fine specimens of monkey puzzle trees, Wellingtonias, sycamores, planes and yews. There was a walled kitchen garden, a grape vine and peach, nectarine, cherry, pear and plum trees.
The Tower at Hadlow Castle was commenced in 1838 by his son and heir, Walter Barton May, to a design by George Ledwell Taylor. It bears a striking similarity to that at Fonthill; however Hadlow Tower’s foundations were to prove much sounder than Fonthill’s, which collapsed in 1825. Built of brick and rendered with Roman Cement, it stands 175 feet high, commanding the local landscape. It is 8 feet taller than Nelson’s column which was constructed contemporaneously between 1839 and 1843.
The house and estate lands passed through several families during the intervening years until the estate was split up and sold in the early 20th century. Since the 1840s only minimal maintenance was carried out to the Tower, with the inevitable decline in the fabric of the building. In the Second World War it served as a vegetable store and a lofty observation post for the Observer Corps and Home Guard. It was doubtless used as a landmark by Luftwaffe pilots on their way to London, who dropped bombs in nearby fields.
In 1951 the main building of the castle with its ‘arches, groins, ramifications and various flowers of Gothic grandeur’ was tragically demolished for building materials. It was only the timely intervention of Bernard Hailstone RP, a local portrait painter, who purchased the Tower and the remaining courtyard buildings, that prevented its demise.
1976 saw the Tower converted to a dwelling. However, it was the damage caused by the exceptional storms of 1987 which started the major problems which beset the building, and during the mid 1990s Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council carried out urgent safety work, removing the 40ft ‘Lantern’, pinnacles and gables totalling 90 tons of masonry.
In 1998 the World Monument Fund considered the building to be important enough for it to be included in the top 100 most endangered historic buildings in the world.