With no expense spared Croome Court is in perfect harmony with its surroundings, writes Chris Upton.
So you start with a scone and a cup of tea in the cafe, followed by a short stroll through the trees, past the church and there it is in all its splendour, a perfect marriage of house and landscape.
Of all those stately homes that cunningly conceal themselves on winding paths and circular drives until the perfect, self-appointed, moment of revelation, Croome Court does it better than any.
I’ve been making that journey for the past year, and always had to keep telling myself I was at work.
The Croome revealed on the stage of the rolling hills and valleys of Worcestershire was chiefly the brainchild of three men.
There was the owner, the 6th Earl of Coventry – Coventry by name and Coventry by title – whose money and vision created it in the middle years of the 18th century.
The sum expended – around £400,00 – was unprecedented. Then there were the two artists, one who painted in landscapes and one in architecture, who turned that vision into the embodiment of Georgian design. Together, Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Robert Adam married their talents in a way to create a house and a setting that walked hand in hand.
Brown, Adam and the 6th Earl will always be the headline acts at Croome, and the reason why most visitors will head that way. I recognised that when I was commissioned to research what happened to the house in the late 1970s, when it was bought and occupied by the Hare Krishna community.
But great houses inevitably have an “after history”, when the original vision fades and the bills rise, and the problems of maintaining the fabric take over from the challenge of creating it.
Like most stately homes, Croome Court has a story to tell on this score, of successive owners, financial challenges and threatened demolition.
In addition to that, there is always a “before history” too. What came before the grand Georgian vision?
What was on the map, and in the family tree, before the 6th Earl?
How, to twist the geography a touch, did Coventry end up being in Worcestershire?
Let us head down that road.
It’s blindingly obvious that, at some point in their history, the Coventry family must have come to the city that gave them their name.
Unfortunately, no records survive to trace them back this far. By the time the Coventrys lift their heads above the parapet of history, they were in London. John Coventry was a wealthy mercer there in the early 15th century and a friend to the capital’s most famous lord mayor, Dick Whittington. Like the latter John too rose to become mayor in 1425, four years or so before his death.
At that point the trail goes cold for the next 100 years. Only with the arrival of Sir Thomas Coventry (1547-1606) do we have something to go on. This was the man whose purchase of Croome D’Abitot set in train all that followed.
Thomas took his degree from Oxford and embarked on a career in the law. It was no meteoric rise to stardom, but a combination of judicious marriage and shrewd investment brought him what any wealthy Elizabethan aspired to: an estate in the country.
First Thomas Coventry married the daughter of William Jeffrey, lord of the manor of Earls Croome, and then proceeded to buy the adjoining manor of Croome D’Abitot. In due course, though not in Thomas’s lifetime, the two estates would become one. Thomas was, as it were, preparing the canvas upon which his great, great, great, great (if I’ve counted correctly) grandson would paint his grand vision.
Croome was not, on first impression, a particularly fine canvas. The 6th earl called it “as hopeless a spot as any on this island”, a boggy piece of ground in the Avon and Severn valleys.
Not that the place was uninhabited. There were 21 families living in a village to the north-east and an old parish church too. Neither of these would stand in the way of progress. Enclosure would get rid of the village and the church too would be demolished in the 18th century, to be replaced by another on the hill, one which became, to all intents and purposes, the Coventrys’ private chapel.
And thus the stage was set for Thomas Coventry’s descendants to play the role of estate owners in Worcestershire.
Not that the family abandoned the life of the court (both legal and royal) for a quiet life in the Midlands. Thomas Coventry’s son, also called Thomas, cemented his father’s position and surpassed it.
Rising through the ranks of lawyers, and accumulating so many public responsibilities that it makes one wonder how well he could have performed any of them, he became Recorder of London and later of Coventry, Attorney-General, Justice of the Peace, Member of Parliament and High Steward of all and sundry.
In 1625 Thomas was created Lord Keeper, effectively acting as the middle-man between King and Parliament. Had this not been in the 1620s, when the ties that bind were beginning to unravel, it might have been a cushy number.
As it was, the Lord Keeper rewarded himself for his diligence with more and more purchases of land, from Staffordshire and Lincolnshire in the north to Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire in the south.
Even the Lord Keeper’s death was well-timed. He made his exit in January 1640, just before the storm of civil conflict broke. His magnificent monument in Croome church shows him confidently reclining, flanked by the figures of Justice and Virtue, and safe in the knowledge that he had done himself and his family proud.
Having built up the family fortune, time would soon be ripe for later members to begin spending it.