From Capability Brown to Hare Krishna

Croome Court is such a unique place. Not because of the artefacts in it, but because of the way it has evolved without them. The story of Croome is mainly the story of the Coventry family: this family was elevated to the peerage in 1628, becoming the barons of Worcestershire. Five generations later in 1699, they were upgraded to the title of earls. If you are looking for a reason to dislike this family, you should probably know that they were ( partly) responsible for the establishment of the inland revenue!

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Although the Croome estate belonged to the Coventry family from the 17th century, the building of the existing house started in the days of George Coventry, the sixth Earl in 1751. He decided to build a house that would showcase his power and wealth of which he had plenty! In building his house and estate, he spent a sum of £23 million in today’s money. George Coventry probably knew that two of the most famous houses of his generation were built by an inexperienced architect: Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, designed by John Vanbrugh, originally a playwright. This probably influenced his own choice to choose as his architect a young gardener named Lancelot Brown and ask him to design the entire estate with the house at its centre. It was a bold decision and one that would change the entire look and landscapes of the stately homes around the country. But it paid off, as this young man evolved to become the most important landscape artist of his time and he retains a unique nickname, “Capability Brown”. Lancelot had grand plans for the estate and as part of achieving them, he actually removed an entire village that “was in the way”. He created a man-made river, a lake and built grounds that today many consider being the quintessential typically English countryside landscape. You can read more about Capability in my Croome Stories.

It is hard to imagine today how the house looked during the days of the 6th Earl. This man was so rich and powerful ( he worked very closely with both George II and George III) that the house would have been packed with expensive artefacts and works of art. When the house was finished, he brought his wife, Maria Gunning, to it. Maria was considered the most beautiful girl in Ireland and when she reached London with her sister Elizabeth, they probably became the first two “It” girls in history.

Elizabeth was snapped up by a Duke, whilst George Coventry managed to marry Maria. Unfortunately, their marriages were not happy and they were also short-lived. Maria poisoned herself using make-up and she died at the age of 27 ( but not before she had had the chance to have an affair with the Prime Minister). Read more about the story of the Gunning sisters here

The reason why we have to imagine the wealth and beauty of the artefacts Croome used to hold, is because of the next Earl, who inherited the estate in 1808. We must try not to blame him, however, as what was the point in having all these wonderful paintings when he could not enjoy them? After all, he was almost blind, so instead of paintings, he wanted to have as many chandeliers as possible. And so he sold the paintings to spend more money on light: it makes sense, no?

The Coventry family left Croome in the middle of the 20th century. During World War 2, it was requisitioned by the army. It was supposed to become a refuge house to the Dutch royal family who fled the Nazis. After the war, the Coventry family sold the house to the Archbishop of Birmingham who turned it into a school for boys until 1979. The next owner of the house was none other than the musician George Harrison from the band the Beatles. He did not need the house for himself, so instead, gave it to the Hare Krishna movement who turned it to their headquarters and even ran a few of their famous festivals in its halls. During that period, they repainted the dining room and you can still see the results today. Eventually, the estate was sold to a series of property developers who had a negative impact upon it. In 2007, the National Trust stepped in and purchased Croome: it’s status as the first “Capability” estate was the main reason the National Trust was interested in saving Croome. They started by renovating the gardens and the estate of Croome which was bought in 1996 and they only started to work on the house in 2007.

When the National Trust obtained Croome, the place had almost nothing left from its original features. So they came up with a very interesting idea. Since there was no point in trying to restore Croome to its glory days of the 18th century, their strategy was to continue in the spirit of innovation that led the 6th Earl to choose “Capability” Brown and they offered local artists the chance to exhibit in the rooms of Croome: the fantastic result can be seen today.

For more information: Croome Court official website

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Croome Court is one of the closest estates to where we live and so we have visited it several times, with and without our children. As I mentioned before, this house has not been restored to its original glory, and so a visit to Croome is a visit with a twist.  Some of the rooms in the house are empty, some host temporary or permanent exhibitions.

A visit to Croome is therefore in some ways more like visiting a modern art museum. But it doesn’t mean you should ignore its interesting history. When we visited the house, the Trust volunteers offered two types of tours: one for the house itself and the other for what was once the servants’ quarters. Unlike similar tours, the main object of the first tour was to try and imagine the way Croome used to be in the past. To be honest, if you read below the stories I have collected about Croome, you could argue that they could easily focus on the crazy stories about the Coventry family, leading to more entertaining results. But as you have probably read, what makes Croome unique is not necessarily the house, but the landscape around it. So when you plan on visiting Croome, give yourself enough time to explore the grounds and try to appreciate the fact that nothing was actually there before Lancelot Brown began his work and all of it was built by people without modern machines.

If you visit with children, you will probably enjoy the climbing frame near the RAF museum at the entrance to the property. But you should also explore the adventure playground. Inside the house, you can find a room dedicated to children with interesting exhibits and books – and luckily it is located near the coffee shop.

To sum things up, Croome is a great place to explore, but probably after you have explored a few more traditional houses beforehand. A visit to Croome can easily fill a day, with both the house, the museum and the grounds. If we adopt the Michelin guide system to rate homes, Croome Court is definitely worth one star.

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