Sunday, August 3, 2008

Toward London - Pangbourne and Coombe Park

This is a little lengthy, for reasons you'll soon discover. I hope you enjoy the story.

Thursday was a day devoted to an obscure part of the experience of my father during his service with Eighth Air Force in England during WWII. For background, I have done extensive research to learn about his war experience, and have a rather substantial book in draft form that I hope to ultimately provide to members of my family.

The story of this day began in February, 1945. Dad and the other enlisted men on his bomber crew were sent to an English manor house for a week of “Rest & Relaxation” from their bombing missions over Germany. He had several photographs of this occasion in his war memorabilia.

My father on back right

My father on the right

Dad, third from the left

Dad’s memorabilia did not reveal the name or location of the manor house. Through some research and detective work, I discovered that this manor house was located in Pangbourne, just outside of Reading, England, 40 miles west of London. I could write a fairly fascinating book as to how I tracked down the location of this house, but I’ll spare you those details for now. My hope was to visit it someday.

On Thursday, we drove from Looe, Cornwall to Reading to spend the night. Reading? – not my favorite place, and our B & B was dreadful. Oh well, that’s how it goes on a self-guided tour of a different country.

Early Friday morning we drove 10 miles outside of Reading to the village of Pangbourne – a quaint and breathtaking old English village on the Thames River. Why did we stay in Reading???????

I knew the history of the manor house, but not its address. We were going to have to find it and it could have been anywhere in the Pangbourne area. During WWII, it was known as Pangbourne House, but my research revealed that it had subsequently been renamed Coombe Park. We found a small bakery in the middle of the village for a bite of breakfast.

I asked the bakery staff about Coombe Park and showed them pictures of it on my computer. I got some puzzling nods, until one older lady began to say, “Yes….yes….I think it’s over the bridge in Whitchurch-On-Thames.” Another gentlemen confirmed and gave us specific directions. We were within walking distance.

We walked down a lovely lane, across a small bridge over the Thames and into the adjacent village of Whitchurch. It would be hard to describe my feelings as we walked along. I was about to see the manor I had envisioned in my mind for some years.

The small toll booth leading from Pangbourne to Whitchurch. This was there even in 1945.

The bridge over the Thames leading into Whitchurch


We ultimately arrived at the large private gate for Coombe Park. We were locked out with no house in sight. Suddenly, a car appeared inside the gate, and the equestrian director appeared. I explained my story. She made a brief telephone call and then invited us to enter. “Walk up the lane for about a mile. You’ll find the house. Mrs. Deaner will see you.”

The lane leading to the house was simply beautiful. We soon rounded a corner, and there it sat. I was awestruck.

I rang the doorbell, and the housekeeper appeared. No, Mrs. Deaner was not there, and she “couldn’t give us permission to walk around and take pictures.” I managed to keep the conversation going until she finally acquiesced.

The manor house has been extensively renovated since WWII. At first glance, it is recognizable, but when you study it closely, you begin to wonder if you’re at the right place. But, gradually I began to match scenes from my Dad’s pictures, and from other research I had done, to what I was seeing.

Sadly, it is in a desperate state of disrepair. It reminded me of the final images of Tara in Gone with the Wind.

For the next little while, we snooped around and took many, many pictures. It was quite a moment for me personally to stand on the very same grounds that my father had been on in WWII, and to see this property that has been the subject of my fascination for several years now.

The front of the house

The back of the house

The back of the house. The bay window is the exact spot where one of the above photos of my father and his crew was made.

A greenhouse on the property. Lovely potential, but in complete shambles.


WH said...

Hi My family and I inherited Coombe park from our great aunt. It was our family home!!!I had 5 kids there and we all lived an amazing life there with Rolls Royces, gardners and staff. We are now great grandparents!!! We sold Coombe Park in 1982 to a friend who lived in Rotterdam. He sadly lost his fortune and now the house is a wreck and makes us so very very sad. The ancestors would weep in heaven if they knew.
Our great aunt Lil Howard lived with Charlie her husband in a few rooms at Coombe throughout the war....she died aged 87. Her father had given her the house in the early 1900s as a wedding prresent with many acres both sides of the river Thames and many staff cottages. Lil and Charlie her husband lived at Coombe with 50 servants......and demolished the house leaving one wing at the end of the war.
My grandson wills found your websight and also details of your Coombe Park visit. we loved the pics....Have a great day Sheila Howard!!!!! granson is Wills. bye.

rationalrecipes said...

Hi there - just thought i'd throw this into the mix - Coombe Park used to belong to my great grandfather on my mothers side (family name of Fall). Was stunned to see pictures of it - the only one i have is a very faded sepia photograph (more than happy to send a digital copy if you'd like!).

Chris Manson said...

Fascinating story, - should explain that Richard Howard ( Sheila Howard's husband ) was my mother's first cousin and Richard now lives close to Coombe Park - he was responsible for the Beal Trust Bird Sanctuary which is situated by the Thames close by.
Coombe Park was a beautiful place - more so inside - so such a shame to see it now, in your photos.
Must have been a pleasure to follow your Dad's footsteps.
Chris Manson - now living in France.

Unknown said...

In the 1920s and 1930s my father was brought up at his nearby family home, Purley Park (now Purley Magna), and knew the Howards of Coombe Park well. Subsequently I attended Bradfield College in the 1960s, and Lil Howard became a very dear friend. I would often have Sunday lunch with Gilbert Beale and Aunt Lil at Home Farm followed by tea at Coombe Park, and I then had to cycle back to the school where I was boarding. Richard and Sheila Howard were kind enough to lend my father a flat in the main house at a time when he was working nearby. I have many happy memories such as fresh peaches for breakfast grown in the greenhouse, beautiful surroundings, and Aunt Lil lending me her Rolls Royce Silver Wraith on a number of occasions even though I was only 18 years old. A very special place and time.
Jonathan Farmiloe. Now living in Dorset UK.

Anthony McIntosh said...

I am trying to trace the history of the statue of a reading female seen in the background of one of the black and white photographs in the original post. Does anyone have any information about it?
Thank you

Unknown said...

Some more background information on Coombe Park.

The September 8th 1910 edition of The Model Engineer and Electrician has a description of a visit to the house by the Reading Society of Model Engineers to see the models made by the President of the group, a Mr E.H. Foster. They arrived by boat and were conducted to the Model House to see his model boats. They also saw a half full size model of a naval gun boat. Mr Foster and his brothers used to fire shells from the boat across the Thames until prevented from doing so by the Thames Conservancy. There was also an extensive model railway and a steam canoe in the boat house.

I wonder what happened to all these models?

Amanda R said...

I too was born and raised in both Pangbourne and Whitchurch (before it was renamed Whitchurch on Thames).
Sorry to correct you, but that toll booth has only been there since 1992.
There is a white cottage on the left as you cross over the river Thames from Pangbourne onto the Whitchurch side of the bridge.
This cottage had a small type porch on the front, where the toll collector would shelter, sit in and store the money.
Picture one is how I remember it as a youngster (post WW11). Picture two is pretty much how I remembered it up until the 90's.
The toll collector used to cross the road to collect the money from the vehicles coming over from Pangbourne.
I know of the person who has just purchased Coombe Park. It will be interesting to see what they do with it.
The house is incredibly deteriorated and I realise that it would cost a small fortune to restore it, but would love to see it done.
The drive up to the house is absolutely stunning and the land is also stunning. It is so very peaceful up there.

Amanda R said...

Sorry for some reason the photographs will not upload.

Chris Peters said...

Hi Amanda, would it be possible to put me in touch with the new owners? I recently drove past and noticed that the gate has been fenced off and so the house must be empty. I know of a local family who would love to restore the house and live there and wanted to speak to the current owners to find out their plans. Any help would be much appreciated.Thanks

Sam said...

Hi Amanda/Chris

The property you are talking about is where i used to live until a year ago, my father in law owned it. My Auntie and Uncle in law are still living there and there are no new owners no one has brought it. A local resident put it a quote and it was refused and now he does not want it. The plans for this place is that the grounds will be done up but the house wont be and then the asking price is 10 million, so i doubt very much that they will allow volunteers in!!!

Unknown said...


Richard Howard was my godfather and I used to visit the house with my two brothers back in the mid seventies before it was refurbished. Sad to see it in this state. My younger brother always wanted to go on the go karts that the children used to drive around the estate but he was never allowed to and I think that has affected him deeply. I think he prefers quad bikes now anyway but it has been a battle.

Unknown said...

Richard Howard was my father's first cousin. I too remember the go-karts. They were in a large shed. Richard and Sheila's children would show us the karts and then tell us how brilliant they were and how we would never get to have a go.

I am now almost over it. Therapy has been invaluable. As has gliding and yoga.

Louisa said...

For sale for £10 million pounds via Strutt & Parker or Frank Knight.

Sam said...

Hi louisa

Everyone knows! It was in the daily Mail over two months ago, in fact the whole of pangbourne and Whitchurch know its not new news!!!

Louisa said...

Never heard of it before but after watching a lot of you tube videos of different people 'exploring' this so called abandoned house I wanted to find out more about it. It has a fascinating history and wanted to know more about the model tank in the basement!

Sam said...

The people that explored the house were not very nice people, they threatened my Auntie and Uncle in law who still live there, they had to call the police in the end to get rid of them. The tank was being built by my husband, purely for paint ball but yet these idiots made it look more sinister than that. I think people should be respectful of peoples past, these people are just idiots, and make assumptions that are just not true..

Unknown said...

hi the registered owner is Richard Percival Howard..

Sam said...

Not any more it has been sold and mr Howard passed a couple of years ago

Sam said...

That was built by my husband just a ho by

Elifurf said...

Do you have another grandson, Andy? Williams younger brother? If so, I met the two of them when they were touring the States in 1979 or 1980. They stayed at my parents house for a short time and William taught us how to make Toad in a Hole. I was only 18 and the boys were around the same age so, even though we corresponded by letters for awhile after they returned to the UK, we lost touch. I would love to reconnect with them, if possible!