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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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