Witley Court, which lies at the foot of Woodbury Hill, between the villages of Little and Great Witley, was once one of the most magnificent of country mansions. A rival to the likes of Blenheim and Chatsworth, yet arguably even more grand. Real jewels hung from the tree at Christmas and an army of gardeners worked during banquets to completely replant whole sections of flowerbeds so the lords and ladies had a different vista to enjoy after their meal. But it had a horrible fall from grace.
After more than 250 years of money being lavished on it by first the Foley and then the Dudley families, the estate was sold in 1920 following Lady Dudley’s drowning in Ireland and the death of two of her sons in the First World War. The several thousand acre estate around the court – the Dudleys owned more than 14,000 acres in Worcestershire altogether – was split up and sold off in hundreds of lots, while the main house and surrounding parkland were bought by Sir Herbert Smith, a Kidderminster carpet magnate.
While Sir Herbert was undoubtedly rich, he wasn’t rich enough for Witley Court and he struggled to maintain the mighty building in the manner to which it had been accustomed. When what might have been a relatively innocuous fire broke out in the servants’ quarters on September 7, 1937, the fire hoses failed through lack of maintenance and there were not enough staff left to tackle the blaze. Even so, only one wing of the mansion was affected and the beautiful adjoining church not at all. But Sir Herbert had been unable to insure Witley and the cost of repair was way beyond his pocket. So just a year later, on September 26, 1938, he sold up.
The court, its many embellishments such as gates, statues, marble lions and ballustrades, and 1,000 acres of surrounding parkland and farm couldn’t have come on the market at a worse time. The clouds of war were gathering and buyers were cautious. Prices achieved were a fraction of what they should have been. Demolition contractors began picking over the once great house. Ironically, their scavenging was brought to a halt by the Second World War because then there was no market at all, and the Court was left to the elements and thieves, who over the next two decades carted off anything they could reasonably shift.
However, in 1972 the Department of the Environment stepped in and later English Heritage took over guardianship of the house and gardens and began the long, long process of recovery. The roofless, windowless mansion may never be lived in again, but the gardens have undergone a remarkable transformation and now visitors to Witley Court can wander and wonder and have a glimpse of what life was like only 100 years ago. Visit the English heritage website for more info.