Kent's stairway to heaven
The Oldie Magazine|July 2021
Walter Barton May’s Hadlow Castle is the ultimate Gothic folly
Lucinda Lambton

Pugin said, ‘Gothic is more holy the nearer it reaches Heaven.’ After his myriad ecclesiastical designs, he would have been refreshed by the domestic rarity of the Gothicry of Hadlow Castle in Kent.

What a building! What a heart-soaring, sky-kissing, slender beauty of a building; a fantastical flight of architectural fancy that, out of the blue, you suddenly come upon, rearing out of a little village in the flatlands of Kent.

Built over a number of years from the 1780s by Walter Barton May, it must have been startling from the start. The fiery radical reformer William Cobbett expostulated, ‘It was the most singular looking thing I ever saw. An immense house stuck all over with a parcel of chimneys with caps on the tops to catch earwigs.’

Little did he know what was going to appear 15 years later, when, at the behest of Walter May’s son, Walter Barton May, a 170-foot-high Gothic tower was attached to the body of the building. Built eight feet taller than its contemporary Nelson’s Column, it was then to be stretched yet further into the clouds by an octagonal lantern, decorated with delicately dancing pinnacles!

Photographs survive of this extraordinary apparition in the 1930s, soaring skywards as a backdrop to children playing hopscotch in the countryside. Walter Barton May was obviously a most winning character. It was said that ‘He was no less remarkable for his quaint and agreeable manners than for his love of Gothic architecture.’

In building his tower, Walter Barton May created a folly that was to become famed nationwide. Shell trumpeted its glories as one of their renowned ‘Britain’s landmarks’.

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