A tribute to Caroline Colthurst of Pitchford hall
PUBLISHED: 09:25 18 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:54 20 February 2013
Howard Franklin pays a personal tribute
OnA bitterly cold winters day, at the tiny church of St Michael and All Angels on the Pitchford Estate near Acton Burnell, members of the British aristocracy huddled together with local gentry, farmers and tenants at the memorial service for Caroline Colthurst. Close by, the 40-room mansion of Pitchford Hall, which the family was forced to quit in 1993, severing a 500-year family link to the estate.
Caroline and Oliver Colthurst were among the biggest losers in the Lloyds Names scandal, and had also been hit by escalating costs of maintaining historically-important Pitchford Hall, which was purchased in 1473 by Thomas Ottley, an ancestor of Caroline Colthurst.
It was at Pitchford Hall that the 13- year-old Princess Victoria slept in a room with her mother, HRH The Duchess of Kent, in 1832, and wrote in her diary: It is a very comfortable yet curious looking house, striped black and white in the shape of a cottage.
To avoid the sell-off after the Lloyds losses, the Colthursts offered the house and 76 acres of the park to the nation in return for 1.75million. Lord Rothschild of the National Heritage Fund and Jocelyn Stevens of English Heritage put together a rescue plan to keep the house and contents together. HRH The Prince of Wales wrote a letter supporting the proposal, but the then Heritage Secretary, David Mellor, rejected the plan, without even visiting magnificent hall. At the time, John Major declared the house as having insufficient national importance. Strange thinking for Tories, especially as Winston Churchill had secretly set aside Pitchford Hall for King George Vl and Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses, as a rural retreat if Britain should be occupied by Germany in the Second World War.
Caroline Romaine Combe was born in 1935 in Southern Rhodesia, her father was Cdr. Anthony Combe, her mother later remarrying, to Robin Grant, eldest son of Sir Charles Grant and Lady Sybil Primrose, a daughter of the 5th Earl of Rosebery. Sybils maternal family were the Rothschilds and there was unbelievable wealth, with not only Pitchford, but also Bearnock in Scotland and The Durdans at Epsom. In 1968 Caroline married George Silver Oliver Annesley Colthurst, younger son of Sir Richard Colthurst, 8th Baronet, and brother of another Sir Richard Colthurst, the 9th Baronet of Blarney Castle in County Cork.
After doing the London Season, where she famously released two white mice at Queen Charlottes Ball, much to the horror of the other debutantes, she became a model, working for Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent. Her career in modelling ended when she fell through a plate glass window injuring her throat. Undeterred, she became a fashion journalist, writing for Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, and several national newspapers. Although reed-thin herself she fully understood there was an opening in the retail fashion market for larger ladies, so she opened an exclusive salon off Sloane Square in London with her cousin. the Countess of Lindsey and Abingdon.
Caroline Colthurst had a whimsical yet energetic personality. I remember in 1972 when her stepfather Robin Grant died, Caroline telephoning me when I was running an exclusive flower decorating company to order the flowers for his coffin, and to instruct me to undertake a grave-lining. This concept is rarely seen, and dates from the elaborate funerals of the Victorian period, but evidently had been traditional for members of the Grant family.
I worked with a staff of five florists for two days, covering the walls and base of the opened family grave with thousands of flower heads.It was an incredible task to hide all the soil so at the funeral the coffin was lowered into a bower of flowers, rather than the bleakness of a normal grave.
Caroline Colthurst was devoted to her stepfather, and he to her. Robin left Pitchford Hall, a Grade I listed building and the estate to Caroline. As chatelaine for 21 years, she did everything in her power to retain the house, opening it to the public in 1990 and personally conducting tours. Visitors were captivated by her stories of the spirits that inhabit Pitchford Hall, and especially when she would slide open the wooden panelling to reveal a secret door and staircase which led down to the priests hole dating from the reign of Henry Vlll.
One day while visiting Pitchford, I remarked on the pervading aroma of cigars, Caroline knew exactly what it was, as I wasnt by any means the first person to have smelt the pungent cigarillos, which had been smoked by Robin Grant. She told me many had experienced the same smell, as well as seeing the figure of Robin Grant wearing a familiar tweed jacket.
Caroline was quite unfazed by the Pitchford ghosts and recalled her grandmother, Lady Evelyn Malcolm, and her stepmother Lady Mary Combe, both seeing ghosts of Cavaliers.
I shall remember Caroline Colthurst for her unconventional style (she was rarely seen without carpet slippers) and her love of animals including a tame fox called Toddy, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig called Gussie, wallabies in the Park, and cats galore. She was brave in the face of adversity and carried on regardless. She and her husband, who died in 1998, moved to France. She was visiting her family in London when she died in December.
Her daughters Romaine and Rowena survive her. Shropshire has lost the last chatelaine of Pitchford Hall, but perhaps she will return to join the spirits that walk the corridors of her beloved family home.