‘Georgian grandeur on a human scale’

This is how the National Trust describes Berrington Hall, a late 18th century sandstone Neo-classical mansion overlooking the rolling Herefordshire landscape a few miles north of Leominster (see map). Designed by London architect Henry Holland, Berrington Hall was built between 1778 and 1781 for Thomas Harley.

Thomas Harley, by John Hall, after Henry Edridge, stipple engraving, late 18th century.

The estate also has a particular claim to fame. The park was the last to be created by landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who was also Henry Holland’s father-in-law).

Last Tuesday, Steph and I made our second visit to Berrington; we were first there in September 2011, the year we joined the National Trust. It was a beautiful day then, as it was this week. The weather forecast had promised a better day if we travelled westwards. Berrington Hall is 37 miles almost due west, and a little over an hour by road, from Bromsgrove in north Worcestershire.

We arrived not long after 10:30, and already the car park was quite full. After heading off to the tea room for a refreshing cup of coffee, we enjoyed a long walk around the park before heading back to the car for a quick picnic lunch, and then into the house itself.

We followed the route due south of the house towards and around the bottom of the lake, past the Boat House, around George’s Plantation, and back to the house.

Berrington Hall is not large compared to some 18th century mansions we have visited. Indeed it is quite modest, somewhat austere in appearance. But it sits so comfortably in its landscape, facing southwest, that it was always meant to be there. Eighteenth century landowners and their architects certainly knew just where to begin construction to the best effect.

A grand Triumphal Arch now hosts the National Trust entrance office, and a driveway approaches the house from the rear, before circling around the front of the house to reveal a majestic portico supported on four large pillars, strategically spaced never to block any of the windows.

As was Capability’s intention, the house is best seen from different advantage points in the park, as is the park from the steps of the house.

Brown knew how to exploit the view of the parkland from the house to best effect. It was no laughing matter. He placed a ha-ha just in front. A ha-ha is ‘a recessed landscape design element that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond. The design includes a turfed incline which slopes downward to a sharply vertical face, typically a masonry retaining wall. Ha-has are used in landscape design to prevent access to a garden, for example by grazing livestock, without obstructing views‘.

The ha-ha at Berrington is one of the finest. The landscape just floats away, uninterrupted, from the house, the only evidence of its presence being a change in colour between the short grass of the terrace and the fields beyond, that is clearly seen in the video clip below.

On the rear of the house is a courtyard, a stables block (with clock), a dairy, and laundry. Most of the buildings now accommodate facilities for visitors: the tearoom, toilets, a shop, and the like, as well as offices.

Inside the house, the atmosphere is one of restrained elegance. None of the rooms is particularly large, unlike many other houses we have visited. Nevertheless, there are flashes of flamboyance: in the mouldings around the doors, on the architraves, and particularly the ceilings which are most elaborately sculpted and painted.

The staircase, and the first floor landing surrounding the staircase on three sides, is rather stunning, all marble pillars reflecting the natural light from the cupola.

We encountered our biggest surprise, however, when we entered the dining room on the ground floor. In September 2011 the dining table was laid out as though dinner was about to be served. On the walls are paintings reflecting the battles of Admiral Lord Rodney, whose son, George, married Anne, the daughter of the man who built Berrington Hall, Thomas Harley. On his death, Berrington passed to the Rodney family.

On this visit, the room was almost in darkness, with just spotlights focused on a sculpture, War & Pieces, that extended the length of the table. Created by Dutch artist, Bouke de Vries, this is how the sculpture is described in the National Trust brochure:

War & Pieces is a striking piece, nearly six metres in length, inspired by the grand seventeenth century sugar sculptures found on the dining tables of the wealthy. By the early eighteenth century, sugar had been replaced by exquisitely crafted porcelain depicting allegorical, classical or architectural scenes that displayed the host’s wealth and taste at their banquets.

Between the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it became popular for banquets to be held for generals and their officers on the eve of great battles.

War & Pieces is an envisioning of one of these war banquets showing deconstructed porcelain figures engaged in a deadly struggle with a giant central mushroom cloud composed of skulls, ‘frozen Charlottes’ (a nineteenth century mass produced child’s toy) and presided over by figures of the crucified Christ and Guanyins, the Chinese goddess of compassion.

The piece is composed of broken antique porcelain and glassware, as well as parts of plastic children’s toys and sugar, bringing together the notions of modern warfare and art with those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and making us reconsider our perceptions of beauty and the usefulness of broken objects.

War & Pieces

The scene of war on the table is echoed by the maritime battles depicted on the walls by Thomas Luny (1759-1837). Admiral Lord George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792), the naval hero of The Seven Years War and the American Wars of Independence, is celebrated in these paintings. Rodney was the youngest captain in the British navy and is, arguably, the tactician who first attempted the manoeuvre called ‘breaking the line’ which was used to such great success in later British naval victories. At Berrington, his grim engagements with the French and the Spanish upon his ninety gun ship of the line, The Formidable, in the 1780s are highlighted by Luny’s paintings. The Formidable is the ship depicted on the plates on the dining table that surround War & Pieces.

The handles of the knives are shaped like AK-47 rifles! Comments in a visitors’ book reflected the wide expression of opinions about this sculpture. I thought it was an inspiring commentary on the futility of conflict.

Berrington also has a large walled garden, planted with heritage apple trees that I have commented on and illustrated elsewhere in this blog.

All in all, a very pleasant second visit to Berrington. And it would be remiss of me to finish this particular account without mentioning the extremely friendly staff and volunteers who contributed to our overall enjoyment. The two ladies in the ‘dressing-up room’ on the first floor kept us entertained with their descriptions and demonstrations of the intricacies of 1770s and 1805 fashions!

Here is a short video I made of our visit.

‘Capability’ by name, ‘Capability’ by nature . . . (updated 27 July 2017)

Everyone has to start somewhere.

And, it seems, that Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in one of his earliest commissions helped to realize the vision of the 6th Earl of Coventry to create Croome Court and Park, a neo-Palladian mansion in deepest Worcestershire, less than 10 miles southeast of Worcester, and 20 miles from our home in Bromsgrove in the north of the county.

Work started on Croome in 1751 and over more than a decade work continued to replace an earlier building on the site. But even as late as the 1790s changes were being made to the park.

While Brown was involved in the design of the hall itself, and of course his signature landscape design, many of the interiors of the hall were designed by equally famous neoclassical architect and interior designer Robert Adam who, with his rival James Wyatt, also designed many of the features – temples and the like – that are dotted about the park, and even follies some distance from the park itself, such as Dunstall Castle to the south and Pirton Tower to the north. The 1¾ mile lake, the Croome River, took 12 years alone to dig out by hand.

From the park there are good views of the Malvern Hills due west, and Bredon Hill, an outlier of the Cotswolds, further southeast. These aristocrats certainly knew just where to build a fancy residence!

From the Visitor Centre (1 on the map, and once the sick quarters of  nearby WWII airfield, RAF Defford), the footpath through a bluebell wood to Croome Park brings you out onto a hillside beside the Church of St Mary Magdalene (5), and impressive views out over the park and house.

And from that vantage point, there are long walks available in all directions throughout the park and beyond and lots of features to explore as shown in the map below and the subsequent photos.

5. Church of St Mary Magdalene
An earlier church once stood here, but it was replaced by Capability Brown with this rather plain one, but with some impressive tombs inside.

7. Ice House
Many country houses have an ice house – the National Trust has carefully restored this one.

29. Evergreen Shrubbery

27. Temple Greenhouse
Designed by Robert Adam, there are fine views across the park to the main house itself. Glass windows have now been added.

26. Druid
This statue was designed by James Wyatt, and after very careful scrutiny, we did discover the hidden date stamp – 1793!

25. Dry Arch Bridge
The carriage drive built by Brown passes over the top, and here is also a detail of one of the facing stones.

22. The Grotto and Sabrina
You can see the statue of Sabrina reclining on the left hand side of the Grotto, which is itself constructed from tufa.

23. Worcester Gates

28. Statue of Pan

21. Island Pavilion
This is an elegant pavilion, which has undergone extensive restoration particularly to remove decades if not centuries of graffiti from the inside walls. The plaque on the rear wall shows a wedding scene.

15. Croome Court
This building is both plain and elegant. From the rear, north side, it does appear very attractive at. But the South Portico, with reclining sphinxes either side of the elegant steps up to the door, is something else instead. Although the exterior design is attributed to Capability Brown, Robert Adam was responsible for some of the interiors, particularly the long gallery. The plaster work throughout has been extensively restored as part of the National Trust’s more than £5 million scheme. Only the ground floor and part of the cellars is currently open to visitors. We first visited Croome in March 2011. Three years later one of the rather dilapidated side wings has now had its roof and windows replaced and is on track for a complete restoration. Some other buildings at Croome were converted years ago into private apartments.

When we visited Croome in 2015, the house was encased in scaffolding and swathed in polythene, now removed. We have toured the house just once, in 2011. Work continues with the refurbishment inside, but because Croome was rather busy two days ago, we just enjoyed our walk around the park. I think a visit nearer Christmas might be appropriate to see how the house has changed over the past six years or so.

13. Rotunda
This building lies about 150 m to the east of the south portico where the land rises away from the main park and Croome River. It has an impressive ceiling and other moldings.

16. Chinese Bridge (and Croome River)
It’s hard to imagine the number of laborers it took to dig this ‘river’ if it took 12 years. There are footpaths all round the lake, where you can mix with the local livestock, and various water birds: coots, mallard, great-crested grebe, and Canada and grey lag geese (on the most recent visit).

17. Park Seat
This sited on a high point looking north over the park towards the house. You can imagine what it must have been like in its heyday – a stroll or ride through the park, perhaps a picnic at the Park Seat. Elegance!

18. Carriage Splash
This is the view along the Croome River from the Carriage Splash.

9. London Arch
This is an impressive entrance to Croome on the east of the property, but now provides access, via a private road, to apartments that have been developed in some of the outbuildings of the house.

Croome Court has seen some changes during its history. George III visited, as did Queen Victoria and George V. It’s reported to have housed the Dutch royal family in exile during WWII. The Coventry family sold the house in 1948. It subsequently became a Catholic school, and even owned by the Hare Krishna sect. Today, while the garden and park are owned by the National Trust, the house itself is owned by the Croome Heritage Trust and leased to the National Trust.

So if you want to enjoy some culture and the opportunity for a brisk and bracing walk, Croome Court and Park is the place to visit. The photos in this post were all taken along the Park Seat Walk (in yellow on the map below, around 3½ miles).

Beyond the park, and towards the west and the Malvern Hills, stands the Panorama Tower (B on the map).

Celebrate Croome for its inherent, natural beauty.

Celebrate Capability Brown, who could realise the vision of his patron, and made an impact on English landscapes like no other before or since.

And celebrate the 6th Earl of Coventry, who had a vision, and the financial resources to do something about it.