Saturday 28 December 2019


We decided to take a day off from maintenance and use our National Trust membership card to visit Coombe, a few miles to the south of Worcester, about 25 minutes drive away.

There are three main facets to this property: the house - Croome Court, the large parkland estate surrounding the house, and the remains of RAF Defford.

The estate goes back many centuries but came to prominence in the mid 18th century when the 6th Earl of Coventry inherited the estate and set about turning the an existing house (it was at least the third on this site, previous ones being lost to devastating fires) into something much grander, along with an extensive  landscaped estate, featuring numerous 'eye catcher' structures, placed so that visitors or the family could sit and enjoy fine views of the county.

Two very inexperienced but creative people oversaw the work: Lancelot 'Capability' Brown and Robert Adam. G Vassalli was engaged by Brown to add large amounts of decorative plasterwork to most of the rooms. However, the Earl seemed to tire of he somewhat inept work of both of them and turned to Adam to finish off the remainder of the rooms.

The untimely death of a later Earl left the estate to a very young boy and the family found that the house was too large and expensive for them so the moved to a smaller property not far away just in 1948. In any event,. the house and  a large chunk of land had been requisitioned during the war, the land being used to create RAF Defford which was principally used to develop radar, especially airborne systems.

After the war the air base was gradually decommissioned and the house had a succession owners that did it few favours. The last private owner ran out of money and it was sold to a heritage trust who, in turn, leased it to the National Trust who, since 2009, having been managing it, together with much of the lands caped park which they acquired a few years earlier. The deal gives the NT the opportunity progressively to restore and enhance the property - it has already cost several million pounds!

When we reached the entrance to the estate we had to queue to enter the car park there were so many visitors. However, several very determined and helpful car park volunteers were packing cars into every nook and cranny so it did not take us too long. at least we did not have to prowl.

The few remaining buildings of RAF Defford are now used as the entrance and visitor centre, together with a small but well presented museum that records the radar development work. At one time over 3000 lived and worked on the site.

It is amazing to realise just how much development was done in such short periods of time - major new versions of the systems were introduced into service at least at yearly intervals. However, it seems that many were only just better than experimental prototypes and the task of RAF Defford was turn the scientific and engineering ideas into practical reality.

The airfield was also used for training new pilots - the high casualty rates in the early years meant that there was always a race to prepare new recruits ready to fly missions as soon as possible. Sadly, this meant that a very high proportion of those lost in flying accidents did so whilst still training, rather than in combat.

From the museum we walked down the long drive to the main house. By the time we arrived it was definitely lunch time and we went straight to the tea room in the basement former service area.

As we entered, we were given plastic protectors to put over our shoes - the wet and muddy conditions meant that most visitors arrived with a threat to the cleanliness of the interior! We also spotted that there was a house tour at 2 o'clock.

After lunch we returned to the entrance hall with its roaring log fire in time to join the tour. We had an excellent and very well informed enthusiastic guide who spent the next hour non-stop recounting the history of the estate and its owners as we toured the rooms of the ground floor.

Our guide was keen to point out how Brown and Vassilli used a rather indiscriminate use of many different styles, each set of columns came from a  different Greek period and the rococo plasterwork was at times quite ornate.

Before starting the main redevelopment, the Sixth Earl commissioned a painter Richard Wilson to produce an image of how he hoped the work would end up - the picture was entirely imaginative and it would be another 100 years before the view was as well developed and mature as shown.

A modern painter, Antony Bridge, has an exhibition in the house of his brightly coloured work and he was invited to replicate Wilson's picture but as it is now but in Bridge's own distinctive style.

The Long Gallery was designed by Adam and uses various tricks of perspective in the wooden floor and the plaster ceiling to create the impression of an even large space.

The Gallery has a large fireplace that was carved from some very fine marble - at £300  it was more expensive than the whole ceiling!

One of the 20C owners, the Hare Krishna Movement, made one of Vassilli's rooms even gaudier but, fortunately, the National Trust has now returned it to a slightly more subdued state.

After an hour and a quarter the tour came to an end and by now it was close to closing time so we allowed ourselves to leave the rest of the house for a future further visit! We did, however, walk around to the other facade of the house - perhaps even grander than the first approach.

One of the Sixth Earl's changes was to demolish a small hamlet that was too close to the house for his parkland plans and he also shifted the church from a similar position to a prominent site on a small hill near the entrance.

The church is no longer used for regular worship but is maintained by the Churches Preservation Trust. The walls inside are dominated by tablets to commemorate various generations of the Coventry family.

Evening gloom was fast approaching as we left the car park and it was almost completely dark when we returned to the boat.

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