Although many hundreds of English stately homes have been demolished over the last few centuries, for a variety of reasons, it is relatively rare for one to remain empty in a ruined state, but such is the case for Witley Court in Worcestershire, once an elegant, imposing residence but abandoned following a destructive fire in 1937. The place was subsequently acquired by the government, the ruins stabilised but not reconstructed, and today it presents an stark, dramatic spectacle, with the extensive, Italian-style buildings surrounded by well presented gardens, as unlike the house, these are maintained in their original, pristine condition.
The court is set in hilly, partly wooded country 10 miles northwest of Worcester, alongside a stream (Shrawley Brook) which is dammed to form several small lakes, one overlooked by the house. The mansion is built on a slight hill so has commanding views in most directions. Today, the main access is from the north side, just off the A443, though the original entry was from the west, along a side road that is still used today to reach Great Witley Church, a separate part of the estate which was not damaged by the fire, and still stages regular services.
A small manor house existed for many centuries on the site of Witley Court; construction of the current building began in 1655, under ownership of Thomas Foley (1617-1677), a politician and iron manufacturer. The first structure was relatively modest and was entirely made of red bricks, as were various extensions over the next hundred years, including the east and west wings in front of the original entrance. The adjacent church was added in 1735, complete with a particularly decorative interior incorporating several renowned paintings. The red bricks are still much in evidence in the interior of the court, but all the outside is clad in yellowish-grey sandstone, and embellished with ionic columns supporting ornate porticos, this after a major refurbishment at the start of the 19th century.
The landscaped gardens were largely added at the end of the 18th century, a process that required removal of the whole of the adjacent village of Great Witley, relocating it a few miles west. The house stayed in the possession of the Foley family until 1837, when financial difficulties forced a sale to the Ward family, Earls of Dudley, and it was during their ownership that the house gained a reputation for grandeur and opulence, being used to stage many fine banquets and parties. The final sale was in 1922 to local businessman Sir Herbert Smith, who stayed here only occasionally; the fire broke out during one of his lengyhy absences. Only part was damaged but it was decided not to rebuild this and instead the remainder was emptied much of the interior was stripped to provide materials for other building projects.
From the parking area just off the A443, visitors enter through the English Heritage gift shop and walk through a strip of wooded land, round the end of the lake (Front Pool) then approach the mansion from its main courtyard, flanked by the east and west wings. Downstream of the lake are more paths through the trees and rhododendrons, and also a children's adventure playground. The west wing adjoins Great Witley Church (also known as the parish church of St Michael and All Angels); a separately managed attraction, and free to enter, though donations are suggested if taking photographs. The church is considered to have the finest Baroque interior of any in the country, lavishly decorated in red, yellow and cream, and adorned with carvings, sculptures and paintings. Underneath the church is a crypt, containing various coffins and memorials, and a large clock. The opposite wing of the house overlooks the eastern parterre garden, with the flora fountain at the far end, while the south side faces the more extensive southern parterre, centred on the larger Perseus and Andromeda fountain, which is unlike flora is still fully functional. Other features in the garden include a pair of small but elegant temples. Also on the west side of the complex are the servant quarters, a roofless conservatory, and various other buildings. Some of the interiors of the buildings can be entered, including the main hall and the ballroom, but the majority is off limits, and as there are no staircases or intermediate floors, only the lower level may be inspected in detail.