About Caroline Romaine Colthurst (Combe)
Caroline Colthurst, who died on December 29 aged 75, was successively a nonconformist deb, reed-thin model, energetic fashion journalist and highly original “Swinging London” boutique owner.
She was subsequently chatelaine for 20 years of Pitchford Hall in Shropshire, until forced by Lloyd’s losses to sell up. The Conservative government scuppered a rescue plan, and now — 20 years later — Pitchford looks disquietingly neglected.
Caroline Romaine Combe was born on January 29 1935 in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare in Zimbabwe), younger daughter of Cdr Anthony Combe, RN, who lived till 1991 despite having lost his lower left leg to a lion in 1933.
As an infant, Caroline lived on her father’s ranch, Chimwara, named after the employee who shot the offending lion. Her parents split up when she was two, and her mother remarried in 1946. Her second husband was Robin Grant, eldest son of Sir Charles Grant and Lady Sybil Primrose, daughter of the 5th Earl of Rosebery (Liberal Prime Minister in 1894–95).
Meanwhile, Caroline attended 14 schools. She then did “the Season”, enlivening it by releasing two white mice at Queen Charlotte’s Ball (where debutantes curtsied to a large white cake). Her accomplice was Frances Burke Roche, later the mother of Diana, Princess of Wales. But Frances’s mother, Lady Fermoy, suppressed newspaper mention of her daughter’s involvement, and Caroline shouldered the blame.
In her late teens she became a model. She had already worked for Pierre Cardin and had just landed her first big engagement, for Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, when after sunbathing she tripped and fell through a plate-glass window, gashing her throat. It needed 27 stitches.
Her modelling career finished, she took up fashion journalism, writing for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and two national newspapers. She was also photographed by Norman Parkinson.
She was a founder-member of Annabel’s, named after her cousin Lady Annabel Birley, and mixed with Claus von Bülow (“Clausikins” to Caroline), Lord Lucan (who occasionally took her gambling) and Mickey Suffolk (the Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire). Suffolk fell in love with her, but she turned him down; she also fended off approaches from Sean Connery and Marlon Brando.
In 1968, when most boutiques catered to sylphs, Caroline and another cousin, the Countess of Lindsey and Abingdon, opened Buy and Large, off Sloane Square. Aimed at “generously built” women, it carried exclusive creations by top designers such as John Bates, of Jean Varon, as well as more affordable stuff.
Maeve Binchy, then a Dublin newspaper journalist, wrote it up. Judi Dench and the Marchioness of Tavistock (the former Henrietta Tiarks) modelled its clothes in photographs. Also in 1968 Caroline Combe married Oliver Colthurst, of the family that owns Blarney Castle, Co Cork, and its famous Stone.
In 1972 her stepfather Robin Grant left her Pitchford. (The name derives from a well there containing natural pitch deposits). A Grade I-listed house, it contains 40 rooms, a priest’s hole and at least four ghosts — or so regular guests and visiting psychics insisted. Prince Rupert hid from Roundheads there during the Civil War. The grounds boast what is often called the world’s finest tree house; at 310 years, it is surely the oldest, and it is listed, as is the tree.
Most of Pitchford was built in the mid–16th century around a 15th-century hall house. Thomas Ottley, founder of the original line of owners, first acquired the estate in 1473. When the Ottley males died out in 1807, Pitchford passed to the 3rd Earl of Liverpool, son of the Prime Minister and great-great-grandfather of Robin Grant. The future Queen Victoria stayed for a week in 1832, calling Pitchford “curious-looking but very comfortable”.
Grant had been a successful inventor; among other things, he came up with an improved lavatory ballcock. He had left Caroline his company, Barnet Instruments. But it now lacked his guiding hand, and maintaining Pitchford proved ruinously expensive.
Caroline opened it to the public in 1990. Ralph Tolley, the head gardener, achieved prodigies in the grounds. Caroline overcame her shyness at public speaking and performed valiantly as a tour guide indoors, occasionally beautifying the decor with an objet trouvé such as a dead mouse.
Her love of live animals extended to wallabies; a semi-tame fox, Toddy, who was partial to treacle tart and whose dung she arranged to be spread around the estate coverts to mislead the local foxhounds; and a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, Gussie, who liked digestive biscuits and on whose back Toddy would ride.
In 1992, faced with a demand for £800,000 from the notorious Gooda Walker syndicate, which they had only just joined, Caroline and her husband were forced to sell Pitchford.
Jocelyn Stevens of English Heritage and Lord Rothschild of the National Heritage Memorial Fund prepared a rescue plan to keep the house and contents together.
These contents, collected over 450 years, included a Lawrence portrait of the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool; porcelain allegedly given to Liverpool by Louis XVIII of France; the bed Queen Victoria had slept in; and a table round which Gladstone had allegedly convened cabinet meetings.
The Prince of Wales wrote a letter supporting Stevens. But the then Heritage Secretary, David Mellor, rejected the plan without even visiting Pitchford. His boss, John Major, declared the house of insufficient national importance.
Tam Dalyell claimed Mellor’s mind was “completely elsewhere”, absorbed by the personal problems that soon culminated in his resignation.
Mellor’s veto none the less stood, and Pitchford went to a foreign buyer. Mick Jagger, then abroad, was said to have been prepared to buy house and contents had he known they were for sale.
Caroline Colthurst and her husband moved to France. He died in 2008. She had been talking of a return to London and was visiting her family there when she succumbed to a heart attack. She leaves two daughters and a stepdaughter.