architecture, Berkshire, eyecatcher, Folly, Oxfordshire, Tower

The Tower, Woolstone, Oxfordshire

In 1938 John Betjeman wrote a feature on ‘Gentlemen’s Follies’ for Country Life magazine. In it he noted a number of well-known follies, including the then very new tower built by Lord Berners at Faringdon, close to where Betjeman lived. He also mentioned another local folly, a tower in the village of Woolstone (then Berkshire, now Oxfordshire). So whilst the house above doesn’t look much like a folly, it does have a great folly story attached.

Betjeman described the folly as ‘a red-brick house, four storeys high, one room thick, and without a staircase’. The tale behind it is of the ‘tower of spite’ variety – according to Betjeman the builder intended to construct a house overlooking Woolstone Lodge, the squire’s garden, in the belief that ‘if his house was higher than the squires, he would be squire himself’. The builders (for there were two) soon ran out of cash and the project was abandoned.

A village history written by John Hadow in 1975 elaborates on the story. Woolstone Lodge was home to George Butler who owned the White Horse Inn (named for the chalk figure at nearby Uffington) where Alexander Noake was the tenant. Butler and Noake are said to have fallen out, and Noake began to build the tower so he and his brother William could look down on the lodge. The 1871 census records confirm that Alexander Noake was the innkeeper and also farmed 36 acres, whilst his brother William Noake was a builder.

It was presumably William Noake and his men who constructed what is now known as Tower House. There is no disputing the date it was erected for 1877 is picked out in coloured bricks, as are the brothers’ initials A.N. and W.N. Village tradition has it that the Butler family said this stood for ’A Nuisance’ and ‘Worse Nuisance’.

Butler had the last laugh as the Noakes were declared bankrupt before the tower was complete. Butler bought the ‘newly-erected three-storied dwelling house in an unfinished state’ at the liquidation sale in June 1879.

Betjeman mentioned the Tower House again in the 1949 Murray’s Guide to Berkshire which he co-edited with John Piper. Writing about Woolstone, the ‘most perfect of Berkshire villages’, Betjeman admitted that time had mellowed the brick tower, but concluded it was ‘ugly’. Nikolaus Pevsner didn’t think it worthy of a mention in his 1966 volume on Berkshire.

The tower still stands, but has lost its folly status having been extended to become a sizeable home. Much as the Folly Flâneuse admires Sir John Betjeman, she can’t agree that the building is unattractive, although it certainly stands out in a village of more conventional cottages of timber, chalk-brick and thatch. The White Horse, very much in the vernacular, is still going strong.

Tower House is a private residence, but can easily be seen from the road through the village.

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4 thoughts on “The Tower, Woolstone, Oxfordshire”

  1. Michael W. says:

    Thanks for this post: I had never heard of this building & must have a look. The choice of polychromatic brick is interesting: controversial in Oxford when Butterfield designed Keble College, which was being built between 1870 and 1878. I don’t know whether it was considered a fashionable style by 1877, or controversial.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Michael and thanks for raising this issue. I did wonder if the builders knew Keble, or if the builder brother had even been involved. I only discovered this building through Betjeman’s article, and it took some time to find its history (or what little of it has been recorded). It’s interesting to think that it was only 60 or so years old when Betjeman first saw it.

  2. Edward Mirzoeff says:

    Thank you for this enjoyable piece. The 1938 Betjeman essay ‘Gentlemen’s Follies’ can be found reprinted in his prose anthology ‘Coming Home’ (1997).

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Edward. Yes, I should have said that the article was reprinted in the anthology ‘Coming Home’ in 1997. This was compiled by Betjeman’s daughter Candida Lycett Green

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