Monday, 2 April 2012

Witley Court, Worcestershire

My husband and I (how regal!) met in July 1981, when he was working as an archeologist for the Department of the Environment - shortly to become English Heritage, under Mrs Thatcher's reorganisations.  That summer he started work at Witley Court, a grand mansion in Worcestershire fallen into desperate disintegration.  When he first visited it was crumbling, having had a bad fire shortly before the War, then being stripped of its contents and choice architectural features, before suffering the final indignity of being used as a jam factory! It had stood lonely and unloved for many years by the time English Heritage took it under its wing, and the gardens had returned to wilderness, the grand fountains were full of saplings and debris, and the fabric of the building itself was in danger of collapse, only the magnificent Baroque Church had survived in any kind of reasonable condition, as it had become the parish church.
The first picture of the Perseus & Andromeda fountain, at the top of this essay, was taken yesterday, the second was how my husband found it in 1981.  It has taken many years, and a frightening amount of money, but English Heritage have returned as much as possible of this staggering house & grounds to at least a hint of its former glory.
 This was the house itself when Jeffery first visited, still showing its grand scale, and the bare bones of its glory, but all the fine stone steps, and portable architectural flourishes had been removed and sold - its gates ending up in the US, I understand!
This was the same view yesterday, the masonery much restored and stabilised, many of the 'flourishes' restored and the parterres of the garden replanted. The grand steps have been replaced, and the statue plinths repaired, though the enormous lions that once gazed out across the parterres & fountain have gone forever.
The fire started in this wing, in the ballroom/music room, which overlooked the smaller fountain.  Much was rescued (there are pictures of the gardens heaped with furniture and treasures!) but in the 1930s, there was little money around even for the wealthy, and the family decided to cut their losses, salvage what they could and sell the house.
Today the steps and balustrade are restored, but within, the fire blackened timbers are still visible in the walls.
Jeffery spent 3 years at Witley, 'dissecting' the building, and doing much research in Record Offices and dusty files, to uncover the history of the house and its people.  He did a series of drawings, to show how the house developed from the Stuart mansion built by Thomas Foley, through various incarnations, including work by Nash, to the final splendiferous statement mansion of the Dudley family.  These drawings are still used by English Heritage to illustrate the story for visitors!
The Ballroom looked out on a less grand fountain than the Perseus & Andromeda, which was its misfortune, as the salvagers felt it was worth trying to sell bits of it! In 1981 it was shattered and derelict, the basin full of vegetation and rubbish, a pathetic sight.
Today, it is still sadly truncated, but many details have been restored, and its basin once more holds water. It is surrounded by reinstated parterres and lawns, a pleasant place for adults to stroll, and children to play, as it was 100 years ago.
This quirky face would once have spouted water!
Witley's true glory, though, remains its staggering Perseus and Andromeda fountain, once more gushing water high into the sky, on the hour, every hour, when the house is open!  Witley has been a current through our entire lives together, it has brought us highs and lows, been a source of disputes and mutual delight, but always there.  After 30 years, it is a delight still, and a precious thread in the tapestry of our lives.