Fiona Mackenzie shares the ten centuries of history that have shaped Coombe Country Park.
- View of the lake and dam © Coombe Country Park
- View of Coombe Pool through restored sight lines © Coombe Country Park
- Coombe Abbey Menagerie © Maria Johnson watercolour collection, The Herbert, Coventry
- Coombe Abbey Hotel and Country Park © Coombe Country Park
In 1771 the 6th Baron Craven commissioned Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to modernise the landscape around the former Cistercian monastery at Coombe Abbey.
Capability Brown swept away the elaborate Elizabethan gardens and landscaped the park to create a serpentine lake, sweeping views and extensive new planting. Working with architect Henry Holland Junior, his son-in-law, Brown also designed several buildings, including a boathouse, menagerie and lodge gates.
In a letter, probably around August 1770, Lord Craven wrote to Brown about Coombe (also spelt Combe): “I desire you to exert yr. utmost abilities to improve the place and shall leave everything else to you. I hope you will not leave Combe till you have made a plan and estimate and that you will get the man you mentioned to me, and begin directly.”
Work had begun at Coombe by September 1771. Brown recorded payments of £7,150 (more than £11.3 million in 2015) between then and May 1774. He was also working for Lord Craven at Benham Valence during the mid 1770s, and a payment in January 1776 included landscaping work done at both estates.
Brown was an expert at making serpentine lakes that looked like natural rivers. At Coombe Abbey the Smite Brook flows from the north east to the south west through a shallow valley, north and west of the house. Brown dammed the brook to create the main lake, Coombe Pool, and the smaller Top Pool. This impressive sheet of water is 1.5 miles long, covers 90 acres and forms an L shape or ‘dog-leg’ that makes it appears endless – an effect Brown often achieved with his sinuous water features.
Brown’s extensive planting, including many deciduous trees, created a belt of woodland stretching from Little Wrautam along the north and west sides of Coombe Pool and along the trees in the park, but also kept some of the trees from the existing formal avenues as part of his new scheme.
In the pleasure grounds Brown laid lawns and planted single trees around the house, replacing the walled garden, parterre (flower beds) and other formal features shown in early 18th-century illustrations of Coombe.
Boathouse and menagerie
Brown is thought to have designed up to seven buildings at Coombe Abbey, working with Henry Holland Junior. The boathouse at Coombe lies on the south side of the lake (left © Coombe Country Park). Built of red brick, this single-storey building is shown on a plan of 1778. The side facing the water is open ended, with an entrance door opposite.
In contrast to his Gothic-style menagerie at Blenheim, the one Brown designed for Coombe is plain and classical (see illustration at top of page). The hexagonal tower with domed roof was inspired by King Louis XIV’s Royal Menagerie at the Palace of Versailles. Located on a high point at the west end of the park, the menagerie was part of a group of farm buildings and acted as an eye-catcher in long views across the lake.
Brown also designed kennels in the Gothic style, west of the south drive to the house. These were pulled down in the late 19th century. He may also have carried out minor works to the interior of the house, including the insertion of new chimney pieces in several rooms.
Lodges and drives
As part of his scheme Brown created a circuit of drives through the park, so that visitors could enjoy the views he had designed around the lake and buildings. He remodelled the approach to the house, with a new drive from the south across the lawns that ended at a carriage circle – a circular area of grass within the courtyard.
It is thought that Henry Holland Junior designed the West Lodge, which lies half a mile south-west of the house. Built of stone, with classical ornaments, it has an arched entrance with single-storey wings on either side. Either Brown or Holland designed the Gothic-style East Lodge south-east of the house. Brown also built the west drive, partly following the route of the public road from Brinklow to Coventry, which had been diverted to the south in around 1775.
Biodiversity at Coombe
At Coombe the parkland features support a variety of habitats including wood pasture and parkland, ancient woodland, deciduous woodland, good quality semi-improved grazing marsh and habitats associated with the lake.
Within the site is Combe Pool Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The 36 hectare pool created by Brown, has supported a heronry for 200 years on a small island, and is one of the most important ornithological sites in Warwickshire due its herons, overwintering fowl and other breeding birds including tufted duck, shoveler (a county rarity), water rail and kingfisher. For further information about this see Combe Pool SSSI.
Coombe Country Park and Abbey today
During the 19th century the 2nd Earl Craven enlarged the house and commissioned landscape architect William Andrews Nesfield to design formal gardens. The 5th Earl Craven sold Coombe Abbey and 50 hectares (120 acres) of land in 1923. In 1964 Coventry City Council bought the estate.
In the early 1990s Coombe Abbey Park Ltd was set up to renovate the Abbey buildings and turn them into a luxury hotel. The Council was able to acquire and restore the old deer park, which had been privately owned for most of the 20th century, as a country park. Recent work has focused on restoring the boathouse and returning the landscape to Brown’s vision. This has involved renewing his planting in the park and opening up sightlines that showcase the lake and views across the estate as he intended.
Coombe Country Park www.coventry.gov.uk/coombe, with particular thanks to Ann Akerman, Coombe Country Park Manager at Coventry City Council
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000408
Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, Faber & Faber, 1975, pages 169-171