I am delighted to share Chateau Impney as the house on the cover for Lady Montfort and Edith Jackson’s fourth adventure: Death of an Unsung Hero, and the story of how I came to choose it as a stand in for the fictitious Haversham Hall.
I had absolutely no interest in the history of Chateau Impney when I first discovered it many years ago. Rural Britain is rich in ancient and beautiful country houses, and the chatow as we called it was considered to be just another ugly Victorian that had fallen on hard times to become a rather scruffy hotel.
But it still had extensive grounds in the late 1960s and even though they were a little on the bedraggled side they were beautiful –and to our delight because Worcestershire is far from London and most evenings out consisted of a shandy at the pub, or steak and chips at a local Bernie Inn, one of England’s first open-air rock festivals was held in Chateau Impney’s grounds, featuring Fleetwood Mac and Joe Cocker!
I might add that I was not a particular fan of either of the top names that drew huge crowds, but a rock festival was a rock festival and it was local. Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band were playing and if you haven’t heard Chris Farlowe singing “Baby You’re Out of Time,’ then evidently you are not an English child-of-the-late-sixties.
The ‘Bluesology’ as the festival was called went on all night. Just before day-break I found myself sitting on the lawn under a large cedar tree with my friends wondering what excuse I could possibly cook up for a very belated arrival home. It was a rare and gorgeous late summer morning and as the light started to break in front of the house and the sun lifted up over the horizon the decorative, white plasterwork around the house’s windows and turrets turned a deep rosy pink and the brick was saturated to a blood red. It was a mesmerizing and completely unforgettable sight.
Which brings me to the cover of Death of An Unsung Hero. I wanted a complete departure from the gracious country houses of the aristocracy that had decorated the jackets of the first three books of the series: a real Victorian monstrosity built by a man who had made his money. As Edith Jackson rather snobbishly puts it: “She had never liked Haversham Hall; it was as overbearing as the Victorian age it had been built in and was to her mind an ugly building after the gracious Elizabethan elegance of Iyntwood.” I also wanted the cover of this fourth book to be an ominous red that echoed the horrors of WW1.
Et voila! as French chateau owners like to say, there flashed into my mind the image of Chateau Impney! One quick Google search and there it was: spruced up, restored and looking quite remarkable as a prosperous convention center (remind me one day to tell you how all those massive country houses survived the inheritance-tax era of the ’50s and ’60s). Now I was fascinated to discover the chateau’s history!
It was built by a rich salt-magnate, John Corbett, in 1875 for his beautiful new wife Anna Eliza O’Meara who John had met and fallen in love with in Paris. John and Anna admired the French chateaux of the Loire region where they toured on their honeymoon and so John built a castle for his lovely Anna in the town where his fortune had been made.
The building cost almost £250,000, the equivalent of $30million in today’s money. Three thousand men were involved in its two year construction. It was surrounded by one hundred and fifty-five acres of parkland, including lakes, waterfalls, tropical gardens and over three thousand varieties of trees. The Salt King’s mansion was the talk of rural Worcestershire –no one had ever seen anything quite like it! But, sadly, John’s grand gesture did not herald a happy marriage. Even though he and Anna had six children (one was rumored not to have been his) and were married for nearly thirty years, after only twelve of them Anna moved to another of John’s houses –in Wales.
I rather like the sound of John in spite of his lamentable architectural taste –so often the way with the preposterously rich. Even worse he had made his money from the laboring classes –salt mines don’t usually equate with philanthropy. But when I found his portrait I liked him even more. Unlike his wife who has rather a steady and uncompromising stare to her undeniably attractive features, John has the uncertain gaze of a man who had learned not to gratify the vanities of his youth (fifty bedrooms must have seemed awfully empty after Anna and the children left for Wales).
John’s salt mine was the largest and most profitable in Europe but he paid his workers well above the standard wage, and he made sure their working conditions and the company houses they lived in were comfortable and well maintained –unusual in the Victorian age. In the 1874 general election he was elected as Liberal Member of Parliament for Droitwich, and his hard work for his constituents had him re-elected three times before he retired from government. In 1888, he sold his salt business and spent much of the proceeds in philanthropic work in and around Droitwich Spa. He died on 22 April 1901 and was buried in the churchyard of St Michaels, Stoke Prior, Worcestershire.