architecture, belvedere, country house, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, Kent, landscape, Observatory

Holly Hill Tower, Hernhill, Kent

Deep in woodland on Holly Hill, near the village of Hernhill in Kent, stands a bedraggled belvedere. It was built by Edwyn Sandys Dawes sometime in the late 19th century, as a prospect tower with a ‘view unsurpassed in the county’.

Dawes (1838-1903) had made a fortune in the world of shipping and related broking trades. In the 1870s he settled at Mount Ephraim, near Faversham, a Dawes family seat: he demolished the existing house and erected the mansion, complete by 1878, that stands today. Further land was acquired to create a model agricultural and sporting estate. He made ‘extensive alterations’ to improve the roads, including providing ‘rustic seats for the weary pedestrian’, and created plantations until the estate could not be equalled for ‘order and picturesqueness’.

Sometime before 1896 he erected the ‘observation tower’ on Holly Hill. The grounds of Mount Ephraim often hosted charitable events, and in 1897 the local Sunday School enjoyed climbing the new tower to admire the ‘magnificent view’. The belvedere (which is variously known as Mount Ephraim Tower or Holly Hill Tower) soon became a ‘well known landmark’: at the January 1904 funeral of Sir Edwyn (he was knighted in 1894) at St Michael’s Hernhill mourners could see it in the distance.

Early 20th century postcard of the tower in its prime. Image courtesy of

The story is told locally that the tower was built so that Dawes could watch his ships approaching London, and that the construction provided work for men at a time of want. Dawes was certainly respected locally, and has three monuments in St Michael’s: a stained glass window, a brass plaque given by his son celebrating ‘an unselfish life rich in good works’, and a marble tablet erected by the ‘large number of workmen’ for whom Dawes had ‘provided employment’ as he improved and cultivated his estate.

Barbara Jones visited the tower when preparing her book Follies and Grottoes, first published in 1953. The photograph taken at that date shows the tower still in pretty good condition, and in her notes Jones recorded that the iron staircase up to the viewing platform was intact.

Photo from Barbara Jones’s research files, courtesy of a private collection. The photographer is not known, but it was not Jones herself as she appears in the shot, taking notes or sketching.

In April 1953 it seemed that the tower’s days were numbered: the local paper reported that the Sittingbourne Scouts had been invited to ‘blow up’ the tower. Happily, this turned out to be a wide game (for the benefit of those who were never scouts or guides: a game played over a wide area), and the detonation was not literal – but the tower began to deteriorate soon after. Jones returned to the ‘dumpy little’ tower when updating the Follies & Grottoes text in the early 1970s. By then the internal iron staircase and floor were gone: a photo’ from this revisit shows how the tower had decayed.

Photo’, c.1970, from Barbara Jones’s research files, courtesy of a private collection.

Jones noted the decay, but was distracted by the vast number of ants, which were ‘everywhere’ around the tower: hopefully they weren’t a problem in 1969 when the East Kent Cycling Club chose the grassy area in front of the tower for their ‘outdoor luncheon party’.

The tower on a January day of icy winds. Far too cold for any ants to be active.

Today it would be very difficult to have any sort of party by the tower, as the little glade is now overgrown. The tower is snugly tucked in amongst trees and shrubs, and long ago ceased to function as a belvedere. But it is still a delight, and well worth the climb on a freezing winter’s day.

Thank you for reading, and if you would like to share any thoughts on this post please scroll down to the comments box at the foot of the page.


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14 thoughts on “Holly Hill Tower, Hernhill, Kent”

  1. Judy says:

    I finally got Follies and Grottoes out of my local library. Makes a weighty tome but fascinating reading! Shame about this tower.

    1. Editor says:

      Morning Judy. Very pleased you have enjoyed the Barbara Jones book, it’s always my starting point. Holly Hill Tower needs some attention, but it’s not in immediate danger, so there’s still hope.

  2. John Davies says:

    What a perfect little folly! I love your ‘..bedraggled belvedere.’ …. and belated happy new year to you.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello John. It is a beautifully placed tower, and what it has lost in loftiness is replaced by the mysterious walk through the woods in search of it. Happy New Year to you too.

  3. Garance Anna Rawinsky says:

    So lovely to have FF back in my Saturday inbox. I do hope she is not too ‘bedraggled’ from all of those IT frustrations.

    1. Editor says:

      Good afternoon Garance, and thanks for the kind words. I was indeed suffering from website weariness with the IT problems, but it is good to be back!

      1. Moira Garland says:

        Too far for me to travel, but I hope it gets restored in some fashion. I do like its design.
        Also I feel ‘bedraggled belvedere’ is such a pleasing phrase. On some days I might describe myself like that 🤣

        1. Editor says:

          Hello Moira. It’s good to hear that you like the bedraggled belvedere – the building and the phrase!

  4. Hugh Featherstone Blyth says:

    i’m with moira! i looked at myself in the mirror today and thought: keep the beard? scruffy. lose the beard? scraggy. trim the beard? poseur! so … i think i’ll just go with “bedraggled belvedere” for the next decade.

    1. Editor says:

      Good evening Hugh. Well I must admit that when I used the phrase ‘bedraggled belvedere’ I had an architectural rather than human model in mind. But I am delighted that it has resonated with you. Good luck with the beard decision!

  5. Gary Tong says:

    Back in the early 50’s we used to still be able to climb to the top, as the spiral staircase was still in situ although a few steps were missing at the bottom. We also had to jump across a gap at the top to the top floor. A few of us kids used to get our young jackdaws up at the top where the birds nested every year. The jackdaws could be taught to speak and became very friendly and lived a number of years. I lived in Courteney Rd Dunkirk and used to be able to see the top of the tower from the road. In one of my old photos of the tower you can make our some gargoyles they look as if they’re made of ĺead. I still live locally and often visit the tower, sad to see the slow decline these last 60 years!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Gary. Thanks for sharing your childhood(and later) memories. You are right to say that it is sad to see the tower’s decline. I really hope it can be maintained in the future. Thanks for getting in touch.

  6. K Rose says:

    It is thrilling to see this tower written up here. I moved to Dunkirk nearly twenty years ago and love to roam the forest, but would never have found Holly Hill Tower, had I not been pointed to it by a local person in a chance encounter in the woods. I have wondered about its history ever since. Thank you for writing about it and also for providing the photos of the tower in its former glory.

    1. Editor says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to my post. I’m delighted that you enjoyed learning more about the tower. Thankfully we had good maps when we explored, or we would have been desperate for a local to pass by and point us in the right direction!

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