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The wind and rain blow arrogantly through the empty shell of Witley Court. There are puddles in the earth-floored entrance hall, where the Prince of Wales had been among many rich and powerful Victorian house guests. The hand-woven Persian silk carpet and exquisite statuary have long gone; there is no trace of the brass-railed balcony that once ran round the hall at first floor level, giving access to the sumptuous bedrooms beyond. The walls are bare brick now, stripped of artwork and ornate plasterwork. Once upon a time, the ballroom in the east wing had been lit by eight great chandeliers, whose sparkled light reflected back from plate-glass mirrors in between rich wall-paintings in arched recesses. At Christmas, jewellery was hung from Christmas trees for lady guests. No, there’s nothing left, no hint of the one hundred staff that used to work here, or the family they served. Outside, the once fabulous orangery, which had been a marvel of tropical plants under a curved glass roof, stands forlorn and skeletal, its marble paving replaced with concrete. Yet the formal gardens to the east and south, dominated by two enormous fountains, look as though they’ve been frozen in time. The gardeners have been here all along? Shaking your head, the vision of an aristocratic picnic party gathered by the astonishing Perseus and Andromeda fountain, men wearing straw boaters and firm expressions, prim, elegant, ladies clutching parasols, fades. A little sadly, you realise it was just your imagination; they were all laid to rest long before you were born.
The ruined splendour of Witley Court lies in the countryside between Worcester and Kidderminster, close by the village of Great Witley. Its early history is a little vague. There is an Iron Age fort to the south-west, at Woodbury Hill, and the original village was simply Witley, a Saxon name, now Little Witley, to the south east. Great Witley did not exist until much later. Sometime after the Norman Conquest, the land was granted to an Urso d’Abetot, who may or may not have been related to William the Conqueror, but was certainly an 11th century Sheriff of Worcestershire. The manor of Witley passed through various hands until being acquired, through marriage, by the Russells of Strensham in 1499. The original manor house may have been at what is now Home Farm, which is listed as a moated manor house dating from the medieval period, a mile or so to the west of the present Witley Court. The Russells had a house on the site of Witley Court, with a village to the south now buried under the formal gardens, where the fountain is now. The house was rebuilt in brick early in the 17th century, before being sold to Thomas Foley in 1655. The Foleys were new money, ironmasters who had apparently made a fortune from nails during the Civil War. Thomas enlarged the brick Jacobean house, adding towers. All of his heirs were called Thomas. Thomas No 3 built (or rebuilt) the east and west wings and demolished the medieval church, wanting to build a new one closer to the house. This project was completed by his son, Thomas No 4, who also fitted the parish church with glass and elaborate decoration, including the ceiling, bought and relocated from the chapel of Cannons, a stately home near Edgware; its baroque magnificence is still there. It was around this time that the villagers were prevailed upon to vacate their homes, so that the Foleys could have a nice back garden, thus creating the present village of Great Witley to the west. Thomas No 6 was a friend of John Nash, creator of Regent Street and Buckingham Palace; Nash added classical porticoes to the north and south of the house. T6 was an obese gambler, nicknamed Lord Balloon, who squandered much of the Foley wealth. His grandson, T8, was forced to sell the estate in 1833 in order to pay his grandfather’s debts.
The purchaser of Witley Court and its estate were the trustees of William Humble, Lord Ward, of Himley Hall, heir to a massive fortune gained through coal and iron mines. He later became 1st Earl Dudley but, before he came into his inheritance in 1846, the estate was lent to Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV. Lord Ward, once he had control, set about transforming Witley Court, refurbishing all of the one hundred rooms, laying out gardens and fountains, and creating a palace. This included adding the orangery, enlarging the servants’ quarters, erecting a decorative stone balustrade around the formal gardens to keep animals from the thousand-acre deer park out, and facing the entire court, and church, with cut stone. Considering his other properties included an estate in Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders, the medieval and largely ruined Dudley Castle, as well as a grand house in London – which was of course de rigueur for a man of his class – you get an idea how seriously wealthy these people were.
The hey-day for Witley Court, though, was once the 2nd Earl, also called William Humble, had inherited in 1885. In 1891, Dudley married Rachel Anne Gurney, a noted beauty, and they had seven children. Dudley went on to become a Conservative Politian, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Governor-General of Australia. He also served in the 2nd Boer War and the First World War, raising a regiment at his own expense which fought at Gallipoli. He was a personal friend of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and known for his extravagance. It strikes me that Witley Court might have been created by his predecessors just for for the 2nd Earl Dudley and his guests to enjoy. It was during this time that it became known for its lavish hospitality, with hunting parties (the Earl employed 25 full-time keepers), cricket and golf, as well as grand balls. The Earl was a keen sportsman and created both a cricket ground and golf course in the park. The running expenses must have been enormous; staff aside, Witley Court’s heating system, for example, allegedly used 30 tons of coal each day and, in addition, there were coal fires in every room. Nor were the Dudley businesses coping well in the face of German and American competition; the writing was actually on the wall as early as the 1880s. By 1920, the Earl knew he had to sell. Then tragedy struck, when the Countess drowned in a bathing accident in Ireland.
The Witley estate was sold in lots. Witley Court itself and 800 acres went to Sir Herbert Smith, a carpet manufacturer from Kidderminster. Smith made economies, including reducing staff dramatically, and had electricity installed. But the glory days of Witley Court were gone. In 1937, a fire broke out in the east wing. Though the west wing was untouched, in 1938 Herbert Smith decided to cut his losses and sell up. The house was stripped and, over the years, fell into decay.
It was rescued from total destruction by the Government in 1972 and, now in the care of English Heritage, the ruin of Witley Court is an extraordinary place to visit. Access is through wooded gardens, where there are forest walks and a kiddies’ play area, to a lake in front of the house. The ghosts start drifting in as you stroll up to where the grand front door would have been and see the butler coming down to greet you. Though the ruins have been stabilised, very little of the enormous house is open to visitors and none of the outbuildings. There must be cellars somewhere, too. Photographs and audio guides give an idea of what it must have been like little more than a century ago. But the gardens, as suggested earlier, have been lovingly and beautifully restored. Walking through the shell of the house onto the south terrace produced a sharp intake of breath and a gentle, “Wow”. The Perseus and Andromeda fountain, in particular, needs to be seen – it is ‘fired up’ at particular times and the jet is said to reach 100 feet.
So, Witley Court joins the ranks of the great houses of Britain that are no more, but which can be enjoyed by a greater number of people than they were intended for. Its emptiness is sad and it is an evocative place. Thank heaven it didn’t happen to Downton Abbey. But my often latent sense of egalitarianism surfaced as I pondered this lost world of privilege: it is not morally right, I thought, for someone to enjoy such a disproportionately greater amount of wealth than his employees; it’s a matter of degree. Please don’t remind me of these subversive feelings when I sell A Bit About Britain for a multi-million sum.
Incidentally, do not miss Great Witley parish church, built by the 2nd Lord Foley. Dedicated to St Michael and All Angels, it is one of the most breathtaking parish churches in Britain and deserves its own feature. Here’s a taster.
I can also highly recommend the adjacent Witley garden tea room – it is uniquely charming. And, finally, music fans might note that there is a bench in the grounds dedicated to local singer-songwriter Clifford T Ward (1944-2001).