Unroofed porticoes, gaping holes for windows, the ghosts of country balls and shooting parties seem to tread the stone steps of this once great country house.
Witley Court, in Worcestershire, was once one of the foremost country houses of England, set amidst sumptuous formal parterres and terraces and gigantic fountains.
It was the scene of great parties in its heyday in the 19th century, under the Earls of Dudley, and was frequented by Queen Victoria’s son, a notorious womaniser, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.
The gardens were laid out in the formal Italianate style in the 19th century by William Nesfield, who referred to Witley Court as his “monster work”.
The giant Perseus and Andromeda fountain, at the centre of his formal garden,with its parterres and pavilions,was certainly a “monster” in scale – 120 separate jets, nymphs, dolphins and a dragon, with the main jet reaching 90 feet high, rivalling anything at Versailles. It is rumoured that Bing Crosby sought to buy it, when the estate fell into disrepair.
In the 1930s, a fire damaged part of the building, the house was abandoned and fell into ruins, only being rescued from total decay in recent decades by English Heritage.
It was impossible to restore the buildings, they remain hauntingly beautiful …at times, eerie. One’s imagination is given full reign wandering through the glassless Orangery or peering into echoing servant hallways. In winter, the ruins and gardens take on a poignant air.
These slides, above, contrast with the old photos of Witley Court at the height of its power and influence, when Society gathered for indulgent weekends and for shooting parties, waited on by dozens of servants, not unlike a scene from Downton Abbey.
The great Fountain of Perseus and Andromeda has been restored in the last decade and it is a spectacular sight when fired. Even without the jets of water, one admires the complex structure.
Nesfield’s south and east parterres de broderie are being brought back to life, a nineteenth century favourite with complex patterns outlined with coloured stones or bedding. It was not unusual for guests to wake up and see an entirely different coloured scheme, gardeners transplanting thousands of plants whilst the gentry slept. Of course,these parterres were best seen from above … looking out from the dozens of bedrooms in Witley Court, something that will never happen again.
The poignancy is all the more real, in that Witley Court could have been saved. The 1937 fire damaged one wing only, but the house was abandoned and bought in the 1950s by an antiques dealer who stripped it of anything saleable. Recently the estate was sold for a mere £0.9 million, although English Heritage will still be the custodian.
Some years ago, we were fortunate enough to help restore the privately owned garden in what had been part of the 2 acre walled kitchen garden.
Today, striding out towards one of the pavilions,
… with enough distance from the great Nash porticoed edifice, the gaping windows… one can almost imagine the house is inhabited once again…