Boarstall Tower: a frank and Ernest history

You don’t tend to come across the phrase ‘licence to crenellate’ too much these days. I found it in the Buckinghamshire volume of Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England (1960). Pevsner uses the phrase in his description of Boarstall Tower – now a property affiliated to the National Trust, but once the gatehouse for a manor built on land which Edward the Confessor had given one of his men in return for slaying a troublesome local wild boar.

The gatehouse and the licence to crenellate – which came from the King, in this case Edward II – dates from 1312. According to Samuel Lysons in Magna Britannia (1806), John Hampden’s forces used the manor as a base from which to attack Royalist Oxford, and it changed hands more than once before the end of the Civil War. The manor was demolished in 1778, but the gatehouse survived (having had some changes made in the 17th century). Almost two centuries later, the National Trust received the Tower and its gardens from Ernest Cook, a philanthropist who, along with his brother Frank, was a grandson of the travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook.

Today, the Tower is free to Trust members, and currently open on the last Sunday of each month between May and September for tours. You can’t go on the roof for health and safety reasons, but you can view the old banqueting and entertaining hall on the first floor (example of windows below). The Trust website states (at the time of writing) that only the beautiful gardens are open, but this is incorrect. You can join a tour and find out more about this splendid remnant – including the surprising fact that Laurence Olivier and Vivienne Leigh were considering buying it at one point.  In the end, concern about their small children having to negotiate the spiral staircases prevented them taking their interest further. As it turned out, the Oliviers lived at Notley Abbey in nearby Long Crendon instead.

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While you’re here: just up the road is Boarstall Duck Decoy, another National Trust property and a rare surviving example of a 16th-century invention for catching waterfowl, surrounded by lovely woodland. And if you’re looking for somewhere local for lunch, the Angel restaurant six miles away in Long Crendon is recommended; this 16th-century coaching inn serves excellent ham hock, poached haddock and other delicacies – as well as offering accommodation if you need a local base for exploring Boarstall and elsewhere.