Hidden in the folds of the delightful Herefordshire countryside, not far from the village of Yarpole (what a lovely name – look out for that as a character’s surname in a future novel!) lies the gem that is Croft Castle. The Croft family have lived here for nearly 1000 years, although the outer walls of the present house date from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. The lovely Susana Ellis came to visit while on her annual pilgrimage to our fair English shores and, along with my boisterous pooch, we enjoyed a wonderful day out.
There are no ropes at Croft Castle. You can wander from room to room as your fancy takes you and even sit on many of the chairs. Beware the green armchair in the little room adjoining the hall, however… you might not want to get up out of it! As you may imagine, this is an historical author’s dream, especially when she correctly identifies a portrait as being of her chosen era. When said portrait turns out to be of a scion of the house and handsome enough to give her favourite actors a run for their money, then, dear reader, you know you are on a winner.
|Thomas Elmsley Croft, 7th Baronet|
The village of Yarpole sits beneath the shadowed protection of Croft Ambrey, a settlement and hill fort dating from 390 BC. The Romans constructed Watling Street to the north and then the Normans, having dethroned Edwin, the Saxon Earl, built Croft Castle in the Middle Ages. It was originally a Marcher castle; John, a member of the family – for four hundred years known as ‘de Croft’ – married a daughter of Owen Glyndwr, prince of the Welsh. The family were therefore persons of considerable consequence until their fortunes waned in the eighteenth century. The castle was sold just prior to 1750 but the family made a romantic return in 1923. Although the castle is now owned by the National Trust, the Croft link with the estate lives on.
The castle is in the shape of a squared-off horseshoe, with a tower at each corner and an enclosed courtyard. Until the eighteenth century, it is probable there was a carriage entrance into the courtyard where the main entrance of the house is now. This gateway disappeared when renovations were being carried out to transform the castle into a country mansion.
It was during this time that the sash windows were added and no doubt some of the interior decorations, such as the rococo ceilings, the painted panels in the Blue Room, the painted bookcases in the library and the wonderful Gothic staircase with its’ stunning plasterwork.
The Oak Room contains seventeenth century panelling and mantelpiece, while the Drawing Room has early eighteenth century panelling. There are dozens of paintings, from family portraits to landscapes and that most flamboyant of kings, George IV. There is a feast of beautiful furniture, much of it Georgian or Regency (or, at least, that is what caught this author’s eye!), as well as porcelain plates, dishes and figurines.
If your interest lies in twentieth century history, then in 2017 the castle has displays reflecting the story of Croft during the First World War.
The grounds are a delight, with a walled garden and a Gothic arch straddling the approach to the castle. Dogs are welcome almost everywhere on a lead. The car park is surrounded by trees, so after a good tramp through the woods or across the park, pooch can sleep safely in the car while his/her humans enjoy the house and the tea-room. Dogs are allowed in one part of the tea-room, which is brilliant on a wet day.
Unlike nearby Berrington Hall, landscaped in the classic eighteenth century style of open vistas to focal points such as follies or sculptured woodland, at Croft there are great avenues of trees which were thriving one hundred years before Capability Brown was born. There are some of the finest oaks in the country here, with trunks of forty feet or more in circumference, as well as an avenue of sweet chestnuts reaching for perhaps half a mile and estimated to be over three centuries old. Susana and I took my dog for a walk through Fish Pool Valley, designed in the ‘picturesque’ style which was to come. It was a delightful walk through the woods, with a gothic pump house set between two of the line of irregular-shaped pools. In days of yore, this would have pumped spring water up to the house.
Of course, no visit to a country estate is complete for this historical author without a tour of the stables. It was doubly pleasing to discover that, while the gift shop and second hand book shop occupy one part of the stables, there is still one block open and it is the original eighteenth century stable, unlike at Berrington, where the horses were moved to occupy part of the steward’s house in the late nineteenth century. Sadly, the original stables at Berrington have long since been lost in the pages of history. While the original building has survived at Croft, Victorian improvements, in the manner of the box fronts, are strongly suspected!
To return to the owners of Croft: in 1746, following financial reverses after he invested in the South Sea Bubble, Sir Archer Croft, 3rd Baronet, declared bankruptcy and the castle was sold to Richard Knight, son of a wealthy Shropshire ironmaster. He was responsible for ‘gothicizing’ both house and grounds between 1750 and 1760. His nephew, writer Richard Payne Knight, built Downton Castle in Bringewood, Herefordshire, acquired by the Knight family to provide fuel for the smelting furnaces, and was instrumental in the rise of the ‘picturesque’. Richard Knight Jnr. married and had one daughter, Elizabeth, who married Thomas Johnes, MP for Radnorshire from 1777-80. Johnes planted thousands of trees and was responsible for much of the Rococo-Gothic decoration inside the castle. He bought another estate at Hafod, some sixty-five miles away, and filled it with expensive works of art. He eventually bankrupted himself and in the 1780s was forced to sell to Somerset Davies, the MP for Ludlow in 1783. Johnes lived on at Hafod, but the house was all but destroyed by fire in 1807.
Although the title continued, sometimes passed to brothers, younger sons or cousins, the castle passed through various different hands. Three titles were created for the Croft family, the original title for Sir Herbert Croft, the 1st Baronet, who died in 1720. A second, at Cowling Hall in the county of York, was a baronetcy created for John Croft in December 1818, in honour of his services in the Peninsula War. He was descended from a different branch of the Croft Castle dynasty. Finally, a third baronetcy was created at Bournemouth in the county of Southampton for Henry Croft, grandson of the Reverend Richard Croft, of whom more later. One hundred and seventy years on, in 1923, the castle was at last reclaimed by Lady Katherine Croft, wife of the 11th Baronet, James Herbert.
Apart from John named above, other members of the family distinguished themselves. One Sir Richard Croft occupies, with his wife, an early sixteenth century altar tomb in St. Michael’s Church, which sits in golden-roofed splendour a matter of feet from the front entrance of the castle. No excuses for being late to church on Sunday for the Croft family! This Sir Richard captured the youthful Prince of Wales at the Battle of Tewkesbury and also became Treasurer of the King’s Household.
Sir Archer Croft, the 2nd Baronet, was MP for Leominster, Winchelsea and Bere Alston. Rev. Sir Herbert Croft, the 5th Baronet, was an author, best known for Love and Madness, a series of letters relating the desire of one-time soldier Rev. James Hackman for the Earl of Sandwich’s mistress, Martha Ray, who was shot by her paramour in 1779 as she left Covent Garden. Sir Herbert died in Paris in April 1818. The 9th Baronet, Sir Herbert George Denman Croft, represented Herefordshire in the House of Commons.
A second Sir Richard Croft, the 6th Baronet, is perhaps more familiar to the Regency reader, especially devotees of Georgette Heyer. Doctor Richard Croft attended the Princess Charlotte, heir to George IV’s throne, during her pregnancy in 1817. As the history books tell us, although the babe was in a transverse position forceps were not used, being out of favour at that time. After two days of exhausting labour, her body weakened from restricted diet and bleeding (common treatment of the day), Princess Charlotte delivered a stillborn child and then died a few hours later. Many blamed Doctor Croft for his treatment, though not the King or Prince Leopold, the Princess’ husband, who both sent messages of appreciation for Croft’s care. It is likely the good doctor was not at fault, as far as medical science had advanced at that time, and that there was internal haemorrhaging he could not have known about. Nevertheless, the story has become known as the ‘triple obstetric tragedy’, for Doctor Croft never recovered from his grief and remorse. In February 1818, he shot himself.
The handsome Thomas, pictured at the start of this article, was Doctor Croft’s second eldest son. The eldest son, Herbert, died at school (Eton) in 1803. He was ten years old. Born 2nd September1798, Thomas joined the 1st Foot Guards, attaining the rank of Lieutenant, and lost his leg at the Battle of Quatre Bras, still a boy at seventeen. He became a well-known and respected antiquarian and authority on literature, in spite of suffering mental and physical pain. An epileptic, he endured a long illness with fortitude, dying from a convulsion in Hastings when only thirty-seven. He was succeeded by his brother, Archer Denman Croft.
The four eldest children of Dr. Sir Richard Croft by John James Hall
The National Trust, Croft Collection, Croft Castle
L to R Archer Denman Croft, Frances Elizabeth, Herbert (with book) and Thomas Elmsley
Reverend Richard Croft was Thomas and Archer’s younger brother. His grandson, Henry Page Croft, was created Baron Croft in 1940. He was a politician and decorated soldier. Through him the family of Dr. Croft lives on and long may their castle – even if they didn’t actually live there.
The current holder of the title is Sir Owen Glendower Croft, the 14th Baronet, his only son, Thomas Jasper, being the heir-apparent. It is nice to know the name of a Waterloo veteran continues two hundred years after the battle.
All pictures © Heather King unless otherwise stated and may not be reproduced without the express permission of the author.
© Heather King