Hadlow Tower: the height of good taste
Holidaymakers in search of a room with a view can now head to the village of Hadlow near Tunbridge Wells and take up temporary residence in its 170ft Grade I listed Gothic Revival folly, writes Stephen Cousins.
Built in 1835 as part of a castle that was demolished in the 1950s, the folly has now been fully restored and converted to a high-quality holiday let by contractor Mansell.
Its original owner, Walter Barton May, commissioned the tower to rival William Beckford’s gothic tower folly in Wiltshire. He used its ninth floor eyrie as a vantage point from which to survey his lands, but it later took on a more practical purpose during the Second World War when it was used as a lookout by the Home Guard.
The structure is notable for its use of Roman cement, a unique lime-based cement developed in the 1700s to mimic stone, which was originally used both as render over the red brick structure and for the intricate gothic precast decorative elements.
However, the structure was allowed to deteriorate, particularly during the great storm of 1987 when its distinctive 40ft-tall octagonal roof lantern partially collapsed. In 2008, Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council issued a compulsory purchase order, and won a £2.4m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to carry out a restoration.
Building preservation charity Vivat Trust took on the project in 2011, appointing architect Thomas Ford & Partners and Mansell to restore the original features, create a three-bedroom holiday apartment spanning floors one to five, and a ground-floor exhibition space and a new steel and glass lantern at the top.
“I specialise in listed refurbishment work and although Hadlow Tower features similar gothic mouldings, quatrefoils and other elements to some churches, it beats them all in terms of the sheer quantity of detail. It is phenomenal,” says Rodney Palmer, contract manager at Mansell.
Mansell worked with specialist Paye Stonework and Restoration to develop designs for the precast moulds used to recreate missing or damaged external pinnacles, spirallets, crockets, fleurs-de-lis, rosettes and battlements. These were developed based on survey data and fragments of mouldings that had fallen from the tower and subsequently been stored in a shed by local residents, and cast using Vicat Prompt — a lime-based binder from Grenoble, France.
What the Romans did
The original tower was finished with Roman cement render, which was made by burning septaria, or nodules found in clay deposits [that contain both clay minerals and calcium carbonate]. A modern version of the material was recreated by Paye by mixing grey-toned Vicat Prompt with brown dust from Oxfordshire Horton Brown limestone. Roman cement is liable to craze if the mix is not right, so several different render samples had to be created and left for five to six weeks to cure before selecting the most stable mix.
The material is also fast setting, so it was important to get the material up the tower as fast as possible before application, says Palmer. “Using a conventional hoist, the cement would have dried too quickly, so we designed an intricate hose system with booster pumps to pump water up to storage tanks positioned at various levels on the scaffold. This enabled operatives to mix the material at the workface and ensure it stayed malleable,” he says.
Internal modifications included the strengthening and replacement of oak floors on levels one to five, the application of lime plaster on walls to match original plasterwork and replacing windows throughout the tower.
Above level five, the remains of the original timber floors were removed and replaced by a new steel and timber structure which incorporates an open steel spiral staircase that hugs the inside of the octagonal tower and rises several storeys to the top. The final ascent to the lantern viewing gallery is via a new small steel staircase that climbs up inside the lantern.
The lantern is supported on cranked steel beams installed at level nine. Temporary structural propping was required to support the base of the original lantern before removing the old supports and installing the new steel structure. According to Palmer, the biggest logistical challenge was installing the new structures without damage to the existing building fabric.
To achieve this, Mansell and structural engineer The Morton Partnership devised a system of hoists and running beams installed on each floor. All the steels were lifted up the side of the tower using a material hoist, then pushed in through window openings on to the running beams.
Internal hoists positioned in the centre of the tower then lifted and located each component. “This was completed in sequence working from the bottom of the tower upwards,” says Palmer. “The large external precast elements of the building were positioned in the same way using hoists located on the outside of the building.”
Scaffolding was another challenge given the height and octagonal shape of the building. Mansell worked with scaffold contractor TRAD to design a bespoke structure that then had to be modified at various stages to enable access for workers and materials. The tower is also a nesting site for peregrine falcons, so the scaffolding had to be erected outside the nesting period and covered with debris netting to prevent the birds nesting on the scaffolding or tower during the contract.
Hadlow Tower is now accepting bookings, giving visitors with a head for heights a stunning view across the Medway valley, and restoration enthusiasts a chance to experience a unique project.