When you visit a stately home in Britain the likelihood is that they are still intact, with their grand, historical decor and lavish interiors. They are frozen in time, a time which allows you to be transported back to the eras, in which they were once functioning homes to the aristocrats that pioneered them. The interiors untouched and set out in a way that your imagination can easily lead you into thinking that the Lord or Lady has just left the house for the annual hunt, soon to return.
Witley Court however, is far from offering you this same experience, opening its doors to a grand entrance with high ceilings and ornate fixtures that was once a reflection of its former self. Instead it offers you something unique.
At first glance the building stands as grand as any stately home and you would be mistaken into believing it was in full working order. The outside, front looking perfectly formed (be it minus its windows) and the gardens kept as if no one had left. It is steeped in awe and mystery with a less than apathetic story to tell but without seeing this grand skeleton of a house first hand, you could almost feel sorry for it. However what it has lost in elegance it gains in standing. You become more intrigued at its grandeur and the ability to hold its own, ticking along with only half a heart.
The remains offer you more questions than answers but this is the beauty of it. Its the not knowing, what it once was, that makes this place all the more special.
Described by some as somber and menacing, Witley Court is a 17th Century stately home and was once the jewel in the crown of Worcestershire. It started life in 1086 as a medieval manor house and over the centuries was added to and built around until it reached its peak during the Victorian era. It was the setting and backdrop for many extravagant parties with non other than the Prince of Wales on the guest list.
Bought in 1655 by Thomas Foley, Witley Court was then a Jacobean Manor (during the reign of James VI of Scotland (1567 – 1625). Foley extended the house adding wings on either side of the house. During the Foley ownership and in the mid 18th century the lake known as Front Pool was created by damming the brook that feeds it. This was followed by the woodland, planted around the lake and included paths created for those morning and afternoon walks. By the 19th century the family fortunes had all but dried up, until Thomas Foley VII married into wealth and was able to commission John Nash to design and alter parts of the house. This included adding two grand porticos, (Italian porch leading to the entrance of a building) to the north and south fronts of the house.
In 1833 the Foleys sold the estate to William Ward, one of the richest men in England, owning over 200 Black Country coal mines. Ward became Earl of Dudley and in 1850 commissioned Samuel Daukes to remodel the house which was completed ten years later. The plain exterior was recast in Bath stone in ornate Italian fashion. A new curved wing was added leading onto a grand, glass roofed conservatory and finally the Georgian interior was replaced and updated to reflect the Louis XV style. During this time an ornate formal garden was designed by William Andrews Nesfield and this included the Perseus and Andromeda fountain which can be seen in full working order today.
With such a large house came 55 servants who’s numbers increased when a party was being held and 25 game keepers who tended to the deer and pheasants. They had their own quarters, kitchen and even a school was fashioned in one of the great rooms.
In 1920 the house was sold to Sir Herbert Smith he ran the house on smaller numbers of staff and much of the property was poorly maintained. It was on the night of 7th September 1937 that the house would finally see its imminent demise. It was the head house keeper that spotted flames from the roof above the servants quarters situated above the bakery where the fire started. Aided by strong winds and the formation of the east tower which acted like a flume the fire quickly spread. Engulfing everything in its path the fire reached the reception rooms on the main floor leaving the house a smouldering shell. Reports from locals suggest that the fire could be seen miles away in the surrounding village of Great Witley. Staff were ill-equipped and inexperienced and the fire engine parked over the top of the unmaintained, broken hydrant stacking the odds against the house ever surviving.
The following year, Sir Herbert Smith sold all of the contents that had been saved from the fire in an eight day auction, held 26th September 1938. However the fountain failed to attract a buyer and remained unworkable at the property. During the following 20 years the rest of the remaining contents including marble and lead were all auctioned off and the house was left in disrepair. Then in the 1950’s and 60’s the house faced another pitfall this time to developers who wanted the land for a grand prix circuit, housing estate and even a caravan park.
But that half a heart continued to beat and in 1970 caught the attention of English Heritage who purchased the house and declared it an ancient monument. It was too expensive for English Heritage to carry out a full restoration of the house to its former glory, so they concentrated on everything the house has to offer and made the area safe for visitors.
What does the house have to offer?, it offers you a fairy tale story, it offers you charm and mystery and it offers you a mind blowing beautiful backdrop to sit and gather your thoughts and soak up atmosphere that is far from dead. This is a house that has stood the test of time since 1086, seeing owners come and go, all of which have left behind their mark. This house refuses to lay down and die and now it doesn’t have to.