Witley Court Revisited 2007 – some reflections

Early in December 2007 I paid what was probably my fifth visit to Witley Court, a ruined house in rural Worcestershire, which is now under the guardianship of English Heritage. This piece records my impressions and reflections, some 35 years after my first visit.

Whilst I was still at school, and visiting my sister, then an undergraduate at the University of Birmingham, I took what seemed at the time a magical trip to an area of England that I had never visited before. To my sister and her then boyfriend, it was a mundane enough day out in his car, to an area that he knew (he lived near Malvern, further south in Worcestershire). Personally, the journey enlarged my perceptions, and made me more resolved that what had survived until then should continue to survive. This precocious view came partly from having lived through an era, the 1960s, when much had disappeared in the Wirral – notably, the railway line through mid-Wirral to Wrexham and Chester had been under threat of closure, although in the event only the service to Chester Northgate was withdrawn; while the Tower at New Brighton, once the tallest building in Britain, had burnt down in 1969 and the ferry pier had been demolished in 1971. For several years I had been intensely interested in British inland waterways, and journeys to and on these had demonstrated that much in the urban and rural landscape was changing, and that indeed the existence of these historic waterways was tenuous.

For a time, I fell in with the idea, popular in some of the early “conservationist” literature, that industrialisation and urbanisation represented a mistaken path in human development. Some sort of revival of rurality, based on I know not what, seemed appropriate. Industrialised agriculture, the destruction of rural landscapes and communities, and the steady urbanisation of the countryside, epitomised by the New Town and Town Development programmes that were giving us Kirkby, Runcorn and Skelmersdale, seemed to be the enemy, although its inhibition seemed a romantic and indeed romanticised ideal. I have spent much of the last 35 years, during the latter part of which I have taught rural environmental planning and management, dealing with this pernicious romance, and indeed exorcising as much of it as possible.

The day trip to Witley helped to reinforce that ideal. We began in south-east Birmingham, on the Bristol Road, and headed down towards Hagley and under the M6. It was not long before we were out into countryside, heading past Droitwich on a by-pass built to accommodate the planned expansion of that salt town. From that point, we seemed to have passed into a past era, perhaps the 1950s, in which the journey was no longer a simply day out, but one in which the car seemed like a pioneer going into an unspoilt countryside. These words read today as an embarrassing reflection of a teenager’s naivety but, it has to be recorded, that is how it felt to me at the time.

My sister’s boyfriend, himself an enthusiast for some notion of an older, gentler England, had chosen his route wisely, if his intention was to demonstrate this. After a brief brush with the modern in the underpass under the A442 dual carriageway at Ombersley, we crossed the Severn at Holt Fleet, and ran towards the hill at Abberley, which is topped by an odd folly known locally as “Joe’s Tower”. I can hear him now, pointing this out, and explaining that it was a clock tower that the local landowner had erected. It is indeed a clock tower; in 2005 I would holiday in a cottage within sight of this, and found that it was inaccessible, in the grounds of Abberley School, a private boarding school. My host drew up outside the Hundred House, a large pub/hotel in Georgian style, where the car was parked next to what had been extensive stables. We had a large lunch, based on a cold table arrangement, in which you could eat as much as you liked. As this was then unfamiliar to me, but very welcome, this added to the sense of the unusual. More, however, was to follow.

On the road back towards the Severn and Birmingham, there was a large belt of trees on the right, and a badly-made lane led off through this belt. My host turned off along this lane, and we drove between overgrown hedges, until there was a gap. What the gap revealed was the ruins of a house, which he called Great Witley (it was not so called, that being the name of the nearby village). We stopped in the lane, and wandered in to the grounds. These were overgrown, with lank grass and bushes. The external walls of the house stood, but the roofs had gone, and trees and other vegetation were growing inside the shell. As we walked round towards the back, it became apparent that this was a huge house – indeed, it was one of the largest private houses in England. The grounds featured remains of extensive gardens and the battered remains of two large fountains. The windows were boarded over, with much vegetation climbing the walls and spilling out next to them, so that it was impossible to see inside the shell. The whole appeared eerie without being sinister, a surviving relic from a distant era. It was mysterious, standing alone and void in the English countryside, and my host voiced only the vaguest idea that it had been empty for a long time. There was no explanation on site of its history or for its possible future, but some of this was to be revealed.

Attached to the house, and in architecturally similar style, was a church. Witley Church had always been in separate ownership (although Witley Court’s owner had contributed to its development and upkeep, and it was of similar design). Climbing a steep path to its entrance, I was surprised to find that it had not succumbed to the same dereliction as the house, and was open and still in use. It was in rather shabby order at the time, although its decoration was being restored, a process, I later learnt, that had begun in 1965 and still continues. The answers to some of our queries about the house were to found on illustrated boards, with photographs and text, inside the church. It had, it appeared, been vacated after a disastrous fire in 1937; although much was not damaged, Sir Herbert Smith, the carpet manufacturer who then owned it, decided to sell. Other photographs and text showed the huge fountains in the grounds, fired by an extensive underground hydraulic system. In the Victorian era, it had been extensively visited, with photographs of the then Prince of Wales on the steps to its east, steps that had now disappeared. It was apparent that the church owners hoped to retain and restore the church, but unclear what would happen to the attached house, and how this might affect the church.

We drove back to Birmingham marvelling at the ruins of this huge house, but wondering what its fate would be. Only much later did I learn that its fate was already, in some way, secured. After the fire 70 years ago, Smith decided to sell, apparently because the insurance claim would only cover a quarter of the restoration costs. There was a huge sale of much of the contents, held in the grounds in the summer of 1938, and the damaged house was sold in 1939 to a Mr Banks. What Mr Banks’ precise motives were is not revealed, but the onset of war must have left the partly roofless house to descend onto decay, a decay positively accelerated after an antiques dealer from Stratford-upon-Avon bought the remains in 1954.

Our image of the antique dealer may lie somewhere between the precious upper-class souls in tweed jackets and bow-tie exulting over some treasure in the Antiques Roadshow, and the lovable honest rogue depicted by Ian McShane in the 1980s series Lovejoy. However, the antique dealer who owned Witley was more like a housebreaker. Roof coverings (in lead) were removed, ornamental balustrading ripped out in places and the slabs that made up the steps to the entrance and exits taken for use elsewhere. In one sense this was appropriate re-use of historic resources, indeed putting architectural antiques (not an expression then in use) to re-use, but in another sense it was a desecration. What remained was an unstable shell, and there were plans to demolish this and built a motor racing circuit (like that at Oulton Park in Cheshire, where the Hall burnt down in 1926 and the race track was built in the early 1950s), or a housing estate on the site. What prevented this was the planning system, in refusing planning approval for these proposed developments (demolition itself did not, then, require permission) and then, in 1964, a Building Preservation Order. In 1970 the buildings and the grounds had been scheduled as an Ancient Monument, with compulsory guardianship secured by the Department of the Environment in 1972, after which a slow and steady process of restoration, from 1983 under English Heritage, began. I probably saw it in 1972, when, in fact, its future – or some sort of future – was secured.

By 2007, much of that restoration had been achieved. The rough lane from 1972 had been superseded by a new approach, with a new entrance building constructed by a new access close to the main road. I had earlier thought that this was a rather crass English Heritage approach to problems of car parking, but this did, in fact, reflect a restoration of part of the estate. The new building stood on grounds that had been sold off (and masked by conifers) by Smith after 1937, while the pedestrian access crossed a dam to a restored pool, which had carried an earlier approach road to Witley Court. The gardens had, of course, been cleared and many parts planted, while the fountains had been restored. The grand approach to the front of the house itself was now cleared and stoned, with the steps restored.

Much of the ground floor is now accessible, with English Heritage’s careful commentary on its audio guide bringing to life what is an otherwise inexplicable interior. For what has been restored is a ruin, roofless, windowless, with concrete and steel reinforcement holding together the shell. Photographs demonstrate the opulence of the past interiors in contrast to the devastated present. The former ballroom, where the fire raged initially, still features charred timbers. There are the remains of fireplace openings and even a single shutter, with, on an unexpectedly sunny winter day, the light streaming in through the window openings and even the roof. A newly accessible area demonstrated a set of ruined bedrooms, hard to interpret, but for which surviving plasterwork to an anteroom demonstrates where the grand staircase was. Curiously, this provided shallow stairs so that women in large ballgowns and dresses could walk up and down stairs without disturbing their garments.

English Heritage’s literature stresses that a full restoration, which would be massively costly, would involve the loss of much critical interpretation. Much of the house was rebuilt and re-modelled in the 1850s, but the fire and subsequent destruction exposed elements of earlier versions of the house. The original mediaeval house had been replaced by a Jacobean house, parts of whose windows can now be seen in the central portion of the house. Extensive rebuilding by Nash was itself later replaced, and only the destruction of almost all the finishes, bar some plasterwork, has enabled some of this construction to be discerned.

Sara said, after our latest visit, that the place was interesting but left her curiously unmoved, with no feelings about the people who lived there. I tend to agree, in contrast to my somewhat wistful response of 1972. English Heritage’s publication reveals two features, the first of which was the fecklessness of successive owners that both the rebuilding and rundown of the house reflected. One member of the Foley family which owned the second house after 1655, dissipated the family fortune to the extent that his son only rescued the financial position by marrying a Duke’s daughter. It seems that Nash’s work followed this improved fortune, but then Lord Foley mortgaged much of his property and his son sold the estate in 1833. Lord Ward, who acquired the estate, lived elsewhere and let the house, before moving there in 1846 and then rebuilding it to its final form. The Ward family was one of the richest in Britain, owning properties in London, Cheshire and overseas. The next Lord Ward, from 1885, made the house the centre of much conspicuous consumption, with many house parties including visits by royalty in the 1890s. This entertaining caused was a rift between him and his wife, herself heir to a banking fortune; from 1908 they separated and Lady Ward lived alone at Witley. To meet his extravagant lifestyle, he had mortgaged the estate up to 1913, and sold paintings and other antiques. Many landed estates got into financial difficulties during and after the 1914 war, but this was not quite the case with Witley. Lord Ward sold the estate shortly after Lady Ward’s death in an accident in Ireland in 1920. For both families, the house represented excess, and was the source of debt and the subject of inpecuniousness. Whether this represented any pursuit of happiness for these remarkably privileged people is unclear.

The second feature challenges the romantic view of this estate as a retreat from industrialism. The Foleys were pioneers in nailmaking, owning forges on the Severn, and it was the profitability of this trade that enabled them to acquire Witley. Lord Ward’s wealth was founded in mining rents and industrial property, which he had inherited from a distant relative; he owned over 200 mines, including one served by Lord Ward’s Canal, which can still be seen inside the Black Country Living Museum. At one point, an average of 1,500 tons of coal were stored at Witley, which consumed 30 tons per day, bought by canal, river and cart from Ward’s pits. Smith had, it seems, profited from government control of the carpet trade in the 1914 war, and the proceeds enable him to retire at 49. In all cases, although the Foleys and Wards ran an agricultural estate which made much of the house self-sufficient, the source of wealth was from industry. So much for the pursuit of the rural idyll.

Many of my earlier perceptions have changed, both about the essential viability of industrial production and about Witley itself. However, although it is of much architectural interest and this has been made much more accessible, something of that earlier view has gone. After 1937 the house was left open to the elements and local children recalled playing there, climbing up the surviving tower to view the surrounding countryside. However, it steadily became ruined, causing a Country Life writer in 1945 to evoke it thus:

“Here in peaceful Worcestershire is a classic ruin to be enjoyed dry-eyed for its beauty alone, in which we can recapture something of the pleasing awe with which our forefathers discovered vestiges of the ancient world.”

Dry-eyed, indeed, for Witley did not represent some tragic fall from grace. It represented the profligate use and display of wealth, gained from the exploitation of areas far from its hinterland, and perhaps finally succumbed to a mean-spirited ostentation. Apt too, was the evocation of awe, of the unknown, something which has been diminished by the uncovering and deepening of knowledge, for me and for others. I now look back on my first visit as one characterised by awe and innocence, something which future experience seems unable to recapture. The rural idyll, the essential goodness of the countryside, is a very English image, but I know that behind the beauty lies the ugliness of exploitation, and indeed spend much time exploding the romantic myths. There is a further myth, which I have never shared with other middle class people, but which infests some of the National Trust’s presentation of country houses and estates. This is the view that the rightful owners of country houses are wealthy families, that there were the great days when week-long house parties for other upper-class people were frequent, and when servants were plentiful, supportive, well-looked after – and knew their place. Witley certainly conformed to some of this myth, although wealth was mostly inherited and from industrial and urban rents, and idle profligacy brought down both major ownerships, not the agricultural depression and later interwar labour shortages.

If the present ruins are not romantic ruins, that is appropriate, and it is also appropriate that my own romantic image lies in ruins, although one that still evokes a memory of one special day. In many ways, that day began a journey that led me to a chillier view of historic and nature conservation, but the recollection of its warmth remains.

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