“ Location: Worcestershire, WR6 6JT „
Back in the Summer I had the great pleasure of visiting Witley Court, near to Worcester for the very first time. If I tell you that Witley is the burned out ruin of a Country House that suffered a catastrophic fire in 1937, you might wonder why on earth I enjoyed visiting this English Heritage site. All I can say is that, apart from having what was officially the nicest picnic site of the Summer, Witley was an interesting and inspiring place that really touched my soul; if you are interested in history or gardens or both you will probably enjoy visiting here on a sunny day.
As Witley Court is on the A443 10 miles out of Worcester, you will need to visit by car. Parking is ample and free, and if you arrive when the site opens at 10am, you will practically have the place to yourself, ready for the fountain show at 11am, more of which later.
A quick visit to www.visittheheart.co.uk will secure you a 2 for 1 voucher, at time of writing, Adults pay £5.90, Children 5 and up £2.90, and Concessions £4.90. There is also a family ticket for £14, and English Heritage members enjoy free entrance to the gardens and house.
There is a small shop at the entrance, along with toilet facilities, where refreshments are also available at the tearoom.
On arrival you are given directions to the House itself, which is some distance from the entrance through the grounds. The path is quite steep but accessible to buggies and wheelchairs in my opinion, you can choose a short or more leisurely route which will take you through the gardens and past a lake.
The gadens were once landscaped by William Nesfield in the 18th Century. In its heyday the Earl of Dudley owned the house and lavished huge amounts of money on it. You can read more about the history on the link below, and part of the interest in the visit is discovering glimpses of the past as you walk around the grounds and ruin.
When, after about a 5-10 minute stroll, you arrive at the gates to the house, where you will need to show your ticket again, you realise quite how huge and magnificient Witley must have been in the past. The structure, on first glance seems quite intact, and is grandiose, owing its architecture to John Nash apparently. You can almost imagine carriages still driving up to the front door and important guests getting out.
A closer look at the house reveals empty windows, the frames of some of them still bear the marks of the fire that was the house's downfall. You can wander around the shell of the house (some parts accessible to wheelchairs), and there are a few photos of how the rooms would have looked before the fire, and bits of plaster and wooden panelling can still be seen high above you. It is eery and tragic as you look at what remains and imagine how it may have been. The house, in fact, suffered a double tragedy according to the helpful Guide who was around to provide extra information. After the fire the house, then half intact, was then bought by a developer who then stripped the house and gardens of anything that could be sold, with no sentiment or desire to preserve what was left.
Luckily English Heritage acquired the house and have started to at least put some things right, they recently restored the fountain, which now is turned on a few times during the day (check website for times). You can see the fountain in the picture, and when in operation it is a magnificient sight, especially from the vista of the back of the house. The guide told us that it would the water would originally been pumped by steam engine for the amusement of house guests - this house was decadence on a huge scale. It wasn't a primary residence, but apparently the planted gardens would have their flowers changed overnight for the delectation of guests, and this was indeed a country house to end all country houses in its time, complete with a conservatory growing all kinds of exotic fruit. In the stripped out ruin of this area there is a black and white picture of the children of the house in their Sunday best inside the conservatory, which is very poignant.
As I have said though it is a country house whose magnificent story did come to a sticky end. You can still enjoy wandering around what is left, which we did. There was an activity sheet provided for children, but in general the visitors on the day I went were mainly more mature, perhaps it isn't really somewhere that would appeal to families.
After you have visited the Court you can go into the church next door, which is attached to the grounds, but free to visit. Again this is worth seeing, the church boasts a stupendous baroque style decoration and another friendly volunteer guide awaited to tell you all about the history of the church.
We really enjoyed our visit to Witley, having seen the fountain in all its glory we had a lovely picnic near the entrance in a grove on a beautifully situated table, actually this is my abiding best memory of the Summer of 2009.
When the house burned in 1937 you must have been able to see the flames for miles around, and the impact on the local community can only be imagined, the family themselves were not there apparently. I grew up near this house, yet had never visited, sometimes you don't visit the places that you live near I suppose. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit here and found it very interesting, though I imagine it would not be very entertaining on a rainy day as the site is open, and the gardens best enjoyed in clement weather. There could be a bit more to see at the visitor centre, and it would be nice if there was an exhibition with more photos or artefacts - I have no idea if this is something that is in the pipeline, but the work on the gardens is ongoing and the Court does seem in good hands in English Heritage who have managed it since about 1984.
If you are in the area I thoroughly recommend a visit, to walk in Witley is to reflect on the past, the what might have been and you really feel that you are walking in the midst of history. That for me is fascinating.