National Treasure: St Leonard’s Tower

Richard Byatt, freelance writer and editor, celebrates the romance and mystery of a Norman tower in Kent.

National treasure_St Leonards Tower2_Richard Byatt

The squat, square, stone tower sits on a rise watching over the southern approach to the village. If we were in the Borders it might be the remnants of a castle keep. In Cornwall it could be the ruined engine house of a tin mine.

But we’re in Kent and this is the mysterious St Leonard’s Tower. Since we moved to West Malling, near Maidstone, from London over 28 years ago, the tower has been our favourite spot to walk. Sitting on the steps below the big oak door, looking over the fields is a great place to unwind and put the world to rights.

What makes the place even more special is that no-one is quite sure who built the tower and why. One fact seems clear, the tower takes its name from a chapel dedicated to St Leonard that stood nearby. The most popular theory is that the tower was once part of a castle, built between 1077 and 1108 by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester.

This would give our humble tower very grand connections as Gundulf, a Norman monk who came to England after the Conquest, built several castles, including Rochester, Colchester and the White Tower of the Tower of London. He also founded St Mary’s Abbey in the centre of West Malling, now occupied by a community of Anglican Benedictine nuns offering hospitality to those seeking a peaceful retreat from the pressures of the world.

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In A Short History of West Malling (1951) Anthony Cronk says: “When we see how St Leonards Tower still dominates the road into West Malling, it is easy to understand that it was built to defend Gundulf’s lands and abbey from the maraudings of the wild Saxons from the Weald.”

An alternative theory says the tower’s builder was Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half brother of William the Conqueror and thought to have commissioned the famous tapestry.

The sides of St Leonard’s Tower are around 33 ft and it stands about twice as high, pretty much its original height. The 6ft thick walls are built of coursed rubble (roughly shaped stones on level beds) but with dressed stones quoins.

The tower is in the care of English Heritage which says it originally had a basement and two floors. Joist holes showing the level of the wooden floor of the first-floor chamber can still be seen. A spiral staircase in the north-west turret connected the floors. The turret has narrow openings through which arrows could be fired.

The original entrance, in the east face, was reached by a wooden staircase. This was later blocked, and a new round-headed archway formed on the west side at ground level. The tower is lit by round-headed windows.

National treasure_St Leonards Tower1_Richard Byatt

Below the tower is a small field and a huge wall on a medieval base runs down to St Leonards Street. The wall may have formed part of an enclosure attached to the tower. At the end of the wall the Ewell spring emerges, with the stream flowing under the road and into a lake, now part of Manor Country Park but previously within the estate of the Grade II listed II 18th century Douces Manor, now converted to apartments. Roman burial urns were discovered beside the road near the spring in 1892.

At the far end of the lake the stream is channelled under another lane and through the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey, to emerge in the village once more as a beautiful cascade. Turner captured it in a watercolour held by Tate Britain – the subject only recently identified by a local resident.

The stream links the tower to the manor house, the abbey and the village, a reminder of another age. You catch glimpses of St Leonard’s Tower as you walk or cycle around West Malling. It’s a true landmark, seemingly unchanging as the years roll by yet in need of protection and care if it is to endure. I shall be raising a glass to Bishop Gundulf (and to Odo just in case) on 6th November, the feast day of St Leonard.

This article appeared in the autumn 2014 issue of the SPAB Magazine. The magazine is one of the benefits of SPAB membership.


The Listed ‘Lizards’ of Crystal Palace

Q. When is a listed building not a building? A. When it’s a dinosaur

South east London isn’t a favoured destination on the fossil hunter’s trail – visitors aren’t known to walk the streets of in search of ammonites and the petrified remnants of a much earlier era.

However, an eccentric and – to the modern eye, enchanting – Victorian vision of prehistoric life can be found in Crystal Palace Park. These concrete beasts are the result of a collaboration between Professor Richard Owen and Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins and were commissioned by The Crystal Palace Company in 1852.

Wildly inaccurate, the dinosaurs are still important pieces of architecture. They are examples of early concrete use and ingenious Victorian design. In 1973 they were given Grade II-listed status and in 2002 they were deemed a vital part of our built heritage and were reclassified as Grade I-listed.

Professor Owen, originator of the term ‘dinosaur’ and eminent Victorian naturalist was tasked with producing the thirty three life sized dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park. With the help of the famous sculptor and natural history artist, Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins, Owen used comparative anatomy to flesh out the design of the sculptures. Owen and Hawkins wanted their sculptures to be educational as well as awe inspiring so every detail, from the size to the natural habitat of the creatures, was discussed with the best palaeontologists and archaeologists of the day. Although not immediately obvious, the dinosaurs are in fact arranged in chronological order. Paxton and Hawkins wanted to take visitors on a journey through time, a controversial decision when Creationism rather than evolution was widely accepted. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was not published until November 1859; five years after the Crystal Palace Park was opened to the public.

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Often Hawkins had only small fragments of bone to work from and the process was in large part creative guesswork. There are some charming anatomical quirks to the dinosaurs as they stand today. For example, the enormous iguanodons that languish beside the tidal lake have an impressive horn on their heads yet we now know this would have been one of their thumb spikes. As only one such fossil was found, Hawkins came to the entirely logical conclusion when comparing the iguanodon’s bone structure to that of a rhino that the horn would be in a similar place. In fact, no one could agree on whether the iguanodon more closely resembled a rhino or a lizard so Hawkins represented both imagined incarnations. One Iguanodon stands proudly on all four legs whilst the other has more lizard-like hind legs, its torso dragging on the floor.

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But without the Crystal Palace itself the dinosaurs would never have been commissioned. The creatures were designed to fill up space and add interest to the enormous 200 acre plot the Crystal Palace Company had purchased in the Sydenham countryside. At nearly 500 metres long it was an impressive addition to the landscape.

The new Crystal Palace was intended to provide everything that central London galleries did but in a relaxed, rural setting. The Crystal Palace Company just didn’t have the clout that the well established London museums did so they had Byzantium Galleries and Medieval Galleries filled with very expensive reproductions.

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Sir Joseph Paxton, the landscape designer and architect for Crystal Palace, wanted to build an opulent pleasure park, with more fountains than the Palace of Versailles. Over 22,000 fountainheads were installed in the Park grounds producing an incredibly opulent display. The enormous volume of water had to be stored somewhere so the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was brought in to design the water storage towers. The water from the fountains collected at the bottom of the plot of land, forming a boggy area that held little interest to the Crystal Palace patrons. The dinosaurs were introduced to this far corner of the park not only as a way to fill the space but to entice visitors back to the Palace. After they had seen the reproduction exhibitions inside and enjoyed the shooting ranges in the grounds, Hawkins hoped that visitors would be so enthralled by the beasts he had created that they would return again and again. The Crystal Palace itself, built to a Beaux-Arts design, suffered severe damage from a series of fires and was finally destroyed in November 1936. You can still visit the dinosaurs though!

By Ali McClary

An extract from the autumn 2013 SPAB Magazine. The Magazine is a benefit of SPAB membership.