The beautiful gardens of Coughton Court
PUBLISHED: 13:42 20 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:13 20 February 2013
The beautiful gardens of Coughton Court have been designed to complement the house and there's no whiff of heritage 'pastiche' reports Marigold Webb.
Early in the morning on 6th November 1605, Mary, the wife of Sir Everard Digby, was looking out of the first floor window of the tower at Coughton Court, near Alcester. Her children and two Catholic priests were with her. Her husband had left to organise a hunting expedition with neighbouring Catholic gentry at nearby Dunsmoor on 4th November, and he had not returned. Hunting accidents were common, and she was worried. She could see quite a distance across the flat plain that surrounds Coughton, and what she saw was a lone horseman urging a tired mount covered in mud and sweat along the track that led to the gatehouse. As he got nearer she recognised the figure of Robert Catesbys servant Bates. He galloped across the drawbridge, and moments later she heard his footsteps on the stairs.
The news that he brought to her was not of a hunting accident. The hunting expedition had been a ruse to gather the Catholic neighbours, so that Digby could announce to them that King James and his ministers had been blown up in the House of Lords, and that they must now unite in a Catholic revolution and gain possession of James's daughter, the new Queen Elizabeth, she then being at Coombe Abbey not far distant. Late on the night of 5th November, the hunting party had received the news that the Gunpowder Plot had failed, that Guy Fawkes had been caught red-handed, and that the conspirators were fleeing from London; Bates had been dispatched instantly to Coughton to say that Sir Everard was trying to raise the Catholics and assist the fleeing plotters. Mary, who had known nothing of the plot was never to see her husband again. He was to be hung drawn and quartered in Westminster Yard, close to the scene of the intended coup.
Sir Everard had rented Coughton from the Throckmorton family to provide him with the Midlands base for the coming uprising. Of the 13 Gunpowder Plotters, six were kinsmen of the Throckmortons who had a long history of Catholic conspiracy. They arrived at Coughton at the beginning of the 15th century, when John Throckmorton became Chamberlain of the Exchequer. The family espoused the Tudor cause and were prominent during the reign of Henry VII and in the Catholic years of Henry VIII. Sir George Throckmorton who died in 1553 sired 19 surviving children and 112 grandchildren, a fine base for a family Catholic Alliance. From that great number, there was bound to be one who would be a problem; Francis Throckmorton was executed in 1584 for acting as a go-between Mary Queen of Scots and the Spanish ambassador in a plot to invade England and place Mary on the throne. Coughton became one of the many centres of recusancy in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The tower room at the top of the house witnessed the clandestine celebration of Mass, and included an ingenious double hiding place for priests, constructed by Nicholas Owen, the acknowledged master builder of priest holes.
Despite their Catholic allegiance, the Throckmortons were successful at hanging onto their house and land. Parliamentarians set fire to it during the Civil War, but it was rebuilt and family fortunes restored, only to suffer again at the hands of a Protestant mob in 1688. Throughout the 18th and 19th century they maintained their faith, and continued to marry in to other local Catholic families. However, as Catholics, they were denied access to public office, and the wealth that it could bring. Their outlook was innately conservative and this, coupled with a lack of funds, meant that they were proud to see Coughton remain unchanged, while such neighbouring estates as Ragley saw new classical mansions take the place of old manor houses. The recusancy laws were repealed in 1792 and the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 allowed Catholics to national office for the first time in 300 years. Sir Robert George Throckmorton, the eighth baronet, became one of the first Catholic MPs in 1831. However, no real renaissance of Throckmorton power was to take place. As in so many families the First World War took away an heir.
In 1946 Lady Lillian Throckmorton, mother of the 11th baronet Sir Robert, decided to secure the future of Coughton Court by transferring it to the National Trust. Subsequently the house was leased back to Sir Robert and his heirs for a 300-year term. On his death in 1989, the lease of Coughton Court passed to his cousin Sir Anthony Throckmorton, the last male heir, who lived in America. Sir Anthony died in 1994 and with him the title. All was not lost, as Roberts niece, Clare bought Sir Anthony's life interest in the lease and together with her family now controls and manages the estate and garden through the Throckmorton Trust.
Clares daughter, Christina Williams, has designed and created a series of gardens, which fit happily together and into their setting, are a pleasure for the visitor, and are not constrained by the stultifying hand of the conservator.
Early in 2000 Sam Tippens arrived at Coughton and is now head gardener in charge of a team of five gardeners and additional volunteers. I am indebted to him for giving my husband, two grandchildren and I such an excellent tour. All four with diverse ages and interests found it fascinating
Sam explained that the first priority was the re-design of the courtyard in front of the gatehouse and the lawns beyond. The Courtyard itself is asymmetrical, though this has been skilfully concealed by an additional flowerbed on the right-hand side facing towards the main door. In keeping with the period of the building, it has been laid out in the style of an Elizabethan knot garden. The original dwarf box surrounds have unfortunately succumbed to box blight and are now replaced with Sarcocca humilis. After two years, this looks to have wintered well with very little die-back. The beds are planted with tulips in spring, followed by Alchemilla mollis and the rose Little White Pet which virtually takes over the whole area. During our visit, the fountain in the quatrefoil pool was temporarily out of action due to frost damage in the extreme winter of 2009-10.
A sweep of lawn extends eastwards from the house and formal courtyard planting with impressive yew hedges (buttressed on one side) framing the view towards the River Arrow and beyond. There are two parallel and red-twigged lime (Tilia platyphyllos rubra) walks, one of which leads to the walled garden. You will be asked to pay an additional charge to enter this section, an arrangement which helps to make a contribution to the Throckmorton Trust towards the maintenance of the gardens. It is well worth it, although to the visitor who has already paid for entry, it may seem a rather clumsy form of administration. The walled garden, designed by Christina Williams, opened in 1996. A plaque at the entrance proclaims that Coughton won the 2006 International Rose Societies Award of Garden Excellence. Part of the second stage of major garden development at Coughton, it has been imaginatively planted with roses and perennials. The highlight of this garden with its lovely old walls and excellent plant labelling is the Rose Labyrinth. I especially noticed a standard Rosa William Lobb from which a fountain of flowering stems cascaded downwards. This must look wonderful in summer.
Leading on from the walled garden, the visitor reaches a series of garden rooms.
On one side, the Red Garden is planted with hot colours to flower in June and July. Opposite, in contrast the White Garden is an oasis of calm with grey/blue painted obelisks planted with Clematis viticella Alba luxurians marking the entrance. A gravel path intersecting these two gardens is bordered on either side by high beech and hornbeam hedges. This leads southwards to a large pond which was likely to have been a fish pond. It is known as the Westminster Pond and is said to be the same size as Westminster Hall.
Retracing our steps eastwards, we arrived at the Early Summer Garden. This beautifully sheltered garden with its mellow brick walls and the parish church in the background featured a quartet of standard Wisteria sinensis trained over umbrella shaped frames and underplanted with peonies. Next a Pool Garden divided into quarters surrounded by box with standard bays in terracotta pots in each quarter. Sited against the wall in this garden is a poignant memorial Tsunami Noni created by the sculptor Rosie Musgrave. It is carved out of a single piece of ancient limestone and is dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the Tsunami on the 26th December 2004.
Other interesting and diverse gardens include herbaceous borders, an orchard which is mainly made up of local commercially grown fruit, a vegetable garden and a large bog garden. Towards the river, the Throckmorton daffodil garden is of particular botanic interest. This is planted with approximately 40 varieties developed by Dr Tom Throckmorton in America. The area is surrounded by newly planted mixed natural hedging with a fine stainless steel centrally placed armillary sphere, which sparkles in the sunlight. Nearby a riverside walk adds another dimension.
The house with its portraits, priest holes and Throckmorton family memorabilia is managed by the National Trust. The house itself has a timeless feel, and Stephen Spinks, the National Trust Visitor Services Manager at Coughton told me that over the next three years (of which 2010 is the first) the Trust plans to breathe life back into the house by concentrating on telling the story of the people who lived there and of significant events that have taken place over the last 600 years.
The last major event was an extremely recent one. On entering and leaving Coughton, dependent on when you come, you will notice that major earthworks are either in progress or have been recently completed. This is to ensure that there is no repetition of the disastrous flooding that occurred in July 2007. The Court lies beween Cain Brook and the River Arrow and neither could cope with the torrential rainwater on that occasion. Both brook and river burst their banks, and flood water flowed into the house. Valuables had to be rescued and a huge cleanup took place. In order to stop the house flooding again, a large grassy ditch called a swale is being created in front of the house, alongside the driveway and out past the churches. This ditch which follows the line of the old moat on the western side of the house, will divert water away from it and towards the Arrow to the south. Stephen Spinks told me that originally the moat would have surrounded the house. Sadly
today there is no drawbridge over which the ghost of Bates can gallop in the early light of a November morning.
Marigold Webb trained at Pershore Horticultural College and the Architectural Association. She has designed three Gold Medal Chelsea gardens (1990, 1992 and 1996) and combines her training in garden design with a detailed knowledge of plants, including their place and association in gardens, both modern and historic. She was a director of Webbs for more than 30 years. Webbs at Wychbold; Tel: 01527 860000
Webbs at West Hagley; Tel: 01562 700511 www.webbsdirect.co.uk
Coughton Court and grounds are already well visited. Currently there are 90,000 visitors per annum between March and November (of which 82 per cent are NT members). The souvenir shop and a delicious ice-cream unit have been conveniently re-located close to the restaurant. There is an excellent plant sales stall run by the Throckmorton Trust. Children and families are well catered for with a really good adventure playground, interesting quizzes and packs in a rucksack designed for garden activities.
For opening times visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/coughtoncourt