Geoffrey Knott visits what may be the county’s oldest inhabited building
Published in October ’14
Of all the arts, architecture is perhaps the one we most associate with the beauty of order. In Dorset this can be seen in a succession of houses from the perfect Elizabethan ‘E’ of Kingston Maurward Old Manor, through the Georgian symmetry of its neighbour, Kingston Maurward House, and the more flamboyant but still ordered Queen Anne façade of Chettle House, to the best 20th-century example of regularity, Lulworth Castle House. Before about 1500, though, houses were not so much about following a style as about the basics of shelter and protection, so each was highly individual, reflecting its particular purpose and location. This is seen very clearly at Woodsford Castle, which lays claim to be the oldest inhabited building in Dorset. It is a rather confusing hotch-potch of rooms, and to the modern eye its beauty comes from its antiquity rather than any obvious visual appeal, but an understanding of its history helps to make sense of what remains.
At the time of Domesday the manor of West Woodsford belonged to the Belet family, who almost certainly had a house on the present site. By the early 14th century it had passed to William de Whitefield, who is on record as having asked permission to ‘crenellate the dwelling place of his manor’, in other words to add defences, possibly against raids by the French. Despite this, Woodsford has never been a castle in the true sense of the word, at best a fortified manor house.
Most of the present building is the work of Sir Guy de Bryan, who bought the manor in 1367. He was a favourite of Edward III, a monarch who bestowed his favours only on those whose deeds had earned them. Sir Guy distinguished himself in the early stages of the Hundred Years War, acquired estates throughout the West Country and was one of the first Knights of the Garter. One of his titles was Keeper of the Forest of Bere, a hunting-ground at what is now Bere Regis, and Woodsford was conveniently close, although he did not spend much time there. Apart from his tomb in Tewkesbury Abbey, Woodsford is his only memorial and even then, we cannot be sure how much he built from scratch and how far he adapted what he found. What is almost certain is that the present Woodsford Castle was only one side of a turreted and towered quadrangular building that extended to the west. It was probably the most substantial range, since it included the family’s living quarters, the other three sides comprising store rooms, accommodation for servants and soldiers, a gatehouse and in places possibly only a curtain wall.
The manor passed through various descendants of de Bryan, often down the female line, and in the early 1500s was inherited by the Strangways family, later Earls of Ilchester. It was lived in by the Symonds family – Thomas Symonds was believed to be the illegitimate son of Giles Strangways, the builder of Melbury House – but by 1630 was reported to be ‘almost ruinated’.
In about 1660 it was renovated and the famous thatched roof added: at 330 square yards, it is the largest such roof on an inhabited building in the country. This was probably the time when the surrounding buildings were taken down and the main range converted to a farmhouse, since for the next two centuries Woodsford was let to a series of gentlemen farmers.
By 1850 the house was again in a ruinous state and the Strangways brought in Dorchester architect John Hicks to restore it. He used a local builder, Thomas Hardy, and it is said that his son, also Thomas, helped with some of the planning. It was this Thomas who later entered Hicks’s architectural practice before becoming a novelist and poet, but since he was only ten in 1850, the notion that he impressed Hicks by his contribution to the work at Woodsford may be fanciful. Woodsford does appear in Hardy’s writings, though, as ‘Shadwater’.
Clearly the unfortunate tradition of neglect by tenants continued, since Sir Frederick Treves in 1906 referred to Woodsford as ‘an unkempt farmhouse’. Otherwise, his description largely holds good today: ‘a place of three storeys and many doors, with few of its mullioned windows in a line, with here a Gothic light to recall a chapel and there a mighty buttress hiding a turret stair to give it claim to be a castle’. One of the last tenants was Ralph Bond, who inherited Tyneham House and village in 1935 and moved there from Woodsford two years later.
After 600 years in the same family, Woodsford Castle was sold in 1977 to the Landmark Trust, the splendid charity that rescues historic buildings at risk and lets them for holidays; the other properties they let in Dorset are the Clavell Tower at Kimmeridge and the gatehouse of Wolfeton House. Apart from making the building safe and watertight, which involved replacing the thatch and much of the supporting timber, the Trust had to wait almost ten years for the sitting tenants to move out before it could start on a full renovation.
The main accommodation had always been on the first floor, with store rooms and other services below, and on the ground floor the Trust did little beyond essential repairs; however, it did open up the huge fireplace in the old kitchen and today one can look up the chimney, with its centuries of soot staining, and see the sky. Above, a new kitchen was created, along with six bedrooms (the house sleeps eight) which incorporated such imaginative features as a dumb waiter converted into a bedroom cupboard.
One of the bedrooms was made from the old chapel, whose great window had previously been concealed and divided by a new ceiling to create a floor above. The floor above is still there, but the ceiling in the chapel bedroom has been cut back so that the full majesty of the window can be appreciated. There is a squint through to the Queen’s Room, which is first recorded in 1774, but whose name was almost certainly wishful thinking.
The same applies to the King’s Room, which Landmark have made the property’s main sitting room. A corbel above the fireplace shows that, like the chapel bedroom, this had another storey added above, possibly in 1660, possibly by John Hicks in the 1850s. The Landmark restoration removed this floor to reveal the room’s impressive original proportions, and installed an oak ceiling that follows the marks left in the walls by the medieval roof. The windows in this room were repaired and new Purbeck stone arches installed on their inner faces. This is Woodsford’s showpiece and the effect is most striking.
Order in architecture may have been the ideal for the last 500 years, but older buildings can often provide more interest and more atmosphere. Woodsford is one such: from a courtier’s house to a holiday home, its history is written in its stones. That history has been a chequered one, but it looks as though its future is at last secure. Although one of Dorset’s more obscure treasures, it deserves no less. ◗
❱ To enquire about booking the accommodation at Woodsford Castle, contact the Landmark Trust: 01628 825925 or www.landmarktrust.org.uk