Felons Oak, Minehead
Somerset TA24 6QT
01984 642 200
Situated in the timeless beauty of the Exmoor National Park and built over a century ago by an eccentric German count, the house has a colourful history and has seen many changes over the years.
In 1198 the Croydon Estate was home to a community of Cistercian monks, part of Cleeve Abbey. Since the departure of the monks, the site of Croydon Hall has seen a variety of uses from a feudal farm to a residential school for girls. An even wider variety of residents have passed through the grounds, including a magistrate who possibly used the property as a courtroom, to war time evacuees and, of course, the eccentric German Count. It was the latter who was responsible for many of the beautiful garden features which include the Italian garden and the various water features that can be found within the grounds.
Through the centuries, events and people have shaped the story – and the appearance – of Croydon Hall, giving it a unique warmth and soul that is immediately felt as you enter this truly beautiful building.
The earliest written record referring to Croydon Hall is from 1221; however, it is reported to have been a farmstead as far back as pre-Norman conquest times. When Cleeve Abbey was founded by the Cistercian monks in 1198, the Croydon Estate was taken over as an addition to the Abbey lands. As one of five granges surrounding the Abbey, these large farms were supervised by monks but farmed by lay brothers.
Lay brothers were not ordained so, unlike the monks, they had no priestly duties. However, they did take the monks' vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
During the summer months, the lay brothers lived at the Grange and worked in the fields and gardens, growing the produce that was consumed at the Abbey or sold to fill the Abbey's coffers. The walls surrounding the property, and the ancient archway leading from the front garden to the upper car park, could date from this period and would have been built to connect the living quarters with the farmyard. The walled vegetable and fruit gardens on the other side of the driveway could have been created by the monks to take advantage of the sunny south-facing aspect.
Leading up to the well area from the stream are some much worn stone steps that were most probably trodden daily by the lay brothers as they fetched their water.
After the dissolution of Cleeve Abbey by Henry VIII in 1536, Croydon Grange, along with the other Abbey lands and buildings, became crown property. There followed a period in which the Croydon Estate was a feudal farm.
The very old wall buttressing the steep side of the hill behind the present kitchen, the high archway now covered with Virginia creeper and a similar archway leading into the walled gardens, could all date from this time. The arches would have been built high enough for carts laden with hay and other produce to pass beneath.
In 1600 the leasehold was converted to a freehold by the owners, the Prowses, who seem to have prospered and their social status rose with this acquisition of the freehold. Their style was that of landed gentry and on 17th century maps their home was marked as Croydon Hall. Their farmhouse, which stood on the site of the present house, may have been constructed of the large square blocks of grey stone that have been found around the gardens.
The ancient trees on the rear boundary of the grounds may have been planted in the 18th and 19th centuries when landscaping the countryside became fashionable.
In the wall on the front of the house is a plaque with an emblematic representation of Justitia. This could imply that the house was once used by a magistrate.
The presence of this plaque suggests that a magistrate's court was held in the house, and the oak tree, known as Felon's Oak, at the end of the drive also supports this theory. The original ancient oak, on which felons were hung, blew down in a storm some years ago but a new tree has been planted in its place.
Another theory, however, suggests that Felon's Oak is derived from an older place name, "Fellowe's Oak", so the idea that this was once a place of execution might be unfounded.
Three parish borders meet around the area of Felon's Oak and one runs along the road to the Dragon House Inn on the A39. It is quite possible that it received the name "Fellowe's Oak" because it is a place where people from different parishes would meet at the crossroads.
The exact date that the present house was built, and who built it, is not known. It may be that in the second part of the 19th century, the original farmhouse was found to be too primitive so the owners decided to replace it with a classic Victorian house.
A photo, believed to have been taken in the 1880's or 90's, when the house was put on the market, shows the new Victorian house with an outbuilding to the south side, possibly part of the original medieval building. The gardens had yet to be shaped and there are few trees behind the house, so the hills and a cottage in the lane can be seen.
An ordinance survey map from 1891 shows the house with an extension to the south (the outbuilding). It is without the bays at the back and the porch in the front. The barn is clearly shown and also the farm buildings which were later demolished.
The house was put up for auction in 1886 but withdrawn when it failed to reach the reserve price. In 1892 it was again placed on the market for sale. Finally, it was bought by a Mr Cyril Tubbs who set about improving it.
In 1907 the estate was sold to Count Conrad von Hochberg, a cousin of the Kaiser and a member of the Royal House of Pless. He created a good impression with his good nature and generosity. The German aristocrat made many improvements to the house and garden; a sewage system was put in and the house was lit throughout with electricity powered by a private generator.
An enthusiastic gardener, the Count made the formal Italian garden, creating an ancient feel by using stones left over from the demolished part of the old house. He also laid herbaceous borders along the paved path on the lower lawn, which can be seen in photos from the 1920's and 1930's.
The lion's head fountain in the wall beyond the kitchen, and the sunken garden with the box hedges at the front of the house were probably also created by the Count.
The blue mosaic in the water courses and the small pond at the side of the house certainly date from the beginning of the 20th century, the time of his occupation. There used to be a statue of a boy water-carrier on the pedestal in the lily pond. The grassy terrace with the sundial in front of the bay windows may have already been there but the Count could have levelled the lower lawns.
The clubhouse remained a popular social centre in his time for the workers on the estate. Regular dances were held which it is understood the Count rarely missed. He did, however, have plans to turn it into a chapel but was prevented from carrying this out by the events of 1914.
This elegant period in the life of Croydon Hall came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the First World War. The Count was forced to leave the house in which he had invested so much and which he must have loved dearly. He is said to have given a last farewell party to his friends on the 24th of July, 1914. He may not have said goodbye to all his friends but he did to his flowers. It is reported that he went around gently touching his English roses, here and there stopping to inhale their scent or to snip off a dead bud.
He made one personal farewell. That was to the Rector of Old Cleeve, who he told that he was volunteering for service in Germany in the Red Cross. It is reported that he had tears in his eyes as he departed for the last time down the lane.
On the 3rd of August he left England forever. Rumours, lies and vilifications began: he was a spy, he left to join the armed forces in Germany, he hoarded thousands of rifles and tons of explosives, he was a recluse with only German servants. These were the mildest of the insults, and even when one considers the frenzied atmosphere of those days, one can only feel shame for the dishonour heaped upon the name of this good man. After the war ended and things settled, no evidence was found that the Count was ever a spy for the Kaiser.
The universal paroxysm of the next four years made it impossible for him to return to England. In Germany he had attempted to work with the Red Cross for British prisoners of war but even that was denied him. All he owned in England was lost. He lingered on, broken in health, until he died in 1934. Buried in a Berlin cemetery, his funeral service was that of the Church of England, only English hymns were sung and a sermon in English was preached. This showed his true love for the country that he had made his home for seven years.
Once Croydon Hall was released after the war it was bought by Captain Bridges who was related to the Luttrells of Dunster and who had made his fortune sheep farming in Australia. He made Croydon Hall his home for some twenty years.
The land on the other side of the drive still belonged to Croydon Hall at this time and in what was then the orchard, Captain Bridges built a fine tennis court. It is said that he had connections to Wimbledon tennis players and his tennis friends would come at weekends for tennis parties. The gate-house was built at this time as the entrance to the tennis court and may have been used as a pavilion to serve refreshments.
When the Second World War broke out the house was taken over by the Council and used to house evacuees. Girls from a school in Kent, known affectionately in the neighbourhood as the "maidens", were boarded here.
After the War the estate was sold again, and probably split up at this point. The house section was taken over from the Nuffield Trust by Bristol City Council and in 1947 was opened as a residential school for girls with special needs. The headmistress who lived and worked here during the fifties and sixties has written a book about her experiences at Croydon Hall called The House of Joy, which can be read in Taunton Library. She enthuses in this book over the beauty of the house and garden, mentioning the great size of the magnolia tree over the front porch, which is still there today.
In July 1996 the school was disbanded and Croydon Hall was put up for sale. It was purchased by a property developer with a view to converting it to flats. This was fortunately not to be as a change of usage was not permitted and, after standing empty for over two years, in a state of great disrepair, it was bought by a retreat organiser who restored much of its former glory. In 2009 they sold to the present owners who continue to invest in and improve the property.