Private sale of historic tower restored with £3m of public money is folly, say angry locals

Victoria Ward
Hadlow Tower in Tonbridge, Kent - Strutt and Parker

When the 175ft high gothic Hadlow Tower was bought last year for just £425,000, it was an undisputed bargain. More than £3million of taxpayers money had been ploughed into the restoration of the majestic, Grade I-listed folly, considered the tallest of its kind in the world, and the buyer became custodian of a vertiginous landmark.

But the historic property near Tonbridge in Kent has been put up for sale for £2million, prompting fears that the public will lose access to the tower and anger that a private individual will reap the financial rewards of a building project brought to fruition by the hard work of a local community group.

Lord Lloyd-Webber is among those to express grave reservations, warning that the sale could undermine everything the tower, in all its majestic glory, represents.

“A huge amount of public money was spent on this project,” he said. “If it’s going to be sold, it should be returned to Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. It can’t go into the pocket of a private person.

“I don’t think the public purse should be used to speculate – this seems to have slipped through the net.”

The Save Hadlow Tower Action Group fought relentlessly to get the tower restored after it was severely damaged in the Great Storm of 1987 following years of neglect.

The interior of the tower Credit: Strutt and Parker 

Its dedication was recognised when it won two English Heritage Angel Awards, founded by Lord Lloyd-Webber, one of which, voted for by Telegraph readers, celebrated the work of local communities in rescuing important sites.

The musician and impresario is not only angry that the tower, which looms over Hadlow village, is being sold at such a vast profit, but he is also concerned at suggestions that any potential purchaser might try to buy their way out of a legal covenant that requires the tower to remain accessible to the public 28 days a year.

When contacted about the sale, James Mackenzie, a director at Strutt & Parker, claimed the vendor, Christian Tym, a banker, had not had to show anyone around the property since he bought it 12 months ago and suggested that the covenant could be broken, at a cost.

Lord Lloyd-Webber said if that were to happen, “we may we well stick two fingers up” at the Angel Awards.

“Here we are trying to talk about the unsung heroes all over the country, raising money and giving all of their time to get public access for these buildings and this campaign was a huge success.

“What we are trying to do with the Angel Awards is to say thank you to those people. With this tower it was the locals who came together and really fought for this. This sort of thing is exactly what we are trying to avoid.”

The stairwell of Hadlow Tower Credit: Strutt and Parker

Built in 1838, the tower was the brainchild of Walter Barton May, a wealthy merchant. It was used as a lookout post during the Second World War, but fell derelict before being rescued by the artist Bernard Hailstone.

It changed hands several times before a compulsory purchase order was served by the local council in 2010 and it was sold to the Vivat Trust, a charity that preserved historic buildings, for £1.

More than £3 million of public money was then ploughed into the tower, including more than £50,000 raised by community campaigners.

The tower action group designed, financed and staffed a visitor centre on the ground floor, and from 2013 it was open to the public weekly in summer.

In 2016, the Vivat Trust went into liquidation and Hadlow Tower was put on the market for offers over £1 million, as a four-bedroom home set over five of the tower’s eight storeys. It was eventually sold to Mr Tym, who is married with four sons, who said he was attracted by “the novelty factor”.   “However, the stewards decided to discontinue working there, the visitor centre closed and the number of visitors dwindled to zero.”

Caroline Wetton, one of the organisers, said: “We raised a huge amount of money for this project and put in a lot of our own time. We are deeply disappointed it has come to this.” She said that 800 people visited the tower in 2017. 

Mr Mackenzie insisted it was never Mr Tym’s intention to sell so quickly but he had found the building unsuitable for a large family. He told The Daily Telegraph the owner had “worked quite carefully” to change a lot of the legal covenants attached to the property to make it a more attractive purchase.

The Heritage Lottery Fund said Mr Tym was due to report to it later this month with evidence of his compliance with the covenants and said they had no reason to doubt he had not done so.

Mr Tym declined to comment.