Decline and Rise

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Witley Court 1

A stop at Witley Court near Worcester on the way to North Wales. Partly destroyed by fire, gutted for salvage in the 1950s, and perfect for the recent meander at WhistlesintheWind about what we keep and throw away… pondering the popular view of Britain before the 1960s, what modernised us, and the things salvaged from the 20th century’s garbage skip.

Witley Court 9

Witley Court is well-managed by English Heritage, a grand shell with a centrepiece fountain that fires on the hour.

Witley Court 2

There’s a very particular atmosphere, and the link here is actress Deborah Kerr, who appeared in two films that came to mind while wandering around. One was Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents, based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Somehow that film made the bright sun of a summer’s day coldly haunting, with images across the water of the house in cadaverous silence. In complete opposition, I also remember Deborah Kerr in a technicolor comedy with Cary Grant, about the inhabitants of a stately home ‘forced’ to take in guided tours to maintain their lifestyle. Witley Court is both – families, dressed in shades of Italian ice cream, sit happily on the manicured lawns, while the brooding, slightly resentful shell of the mansion stands over them.

Witley Court 6

Solid, stoic – it will not be moved.

Witley Court 7

Above: the last echoes of the rustle of a dress up the staircase, sweeping away with the speed of a darting peacock’s tail feathers…

Witley Court 8

Perhaps this is all we need? Nothing could be more honest than Witley Court. The architecture seems to speak more powerfully as a shell – part of the story of the 20th century told with unsentimental beauty.

I remembered last year’s visit to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. I had wanted to go there for years, but what waited there was fairly hideous… a house, like Witley Court, once partly destroyed by fire (in the 1940s), yet risen again. In the 21st century some aspects can only recall garish images of stately grandeur: garden centre statues or statement wallpaper in out-of-town superstores up and down the land.

Castle Howard

2012 in Ambrosia: The whine of WhistlesintheWind leads to the fall of the British aristocracy; Castle Howard is closed and becomes a home for retired spaniels.

Elsewhere, it seemed the very essence of the British heritage industry at its worst: the empty, shored-up and once fire-damaged rooms are barely filled with bored displays flogging the dead horse of the 2009 remake of Brideshead Revisited. 

Castle Howard is itself unconnected with any of Waugh’s inspiration but remains in the Arcadian imagination as the stage set for the iconic 1981 TV drama.

And yes, something from an earlier age remains – in the occasionally fawning and obseqiuous manner of attendants drooling over the family portraits. Brideshead ended the war as the ghost of its former self. If heritage supermarkets with their cafés complete with suspiciously-stained sofas are what we need to feed a dream, then perhaps we should have let Charles Ryder ride away down the drive in his jeep, never to return.

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One thought on “Decline and Rise

  1. What a great follow-through thread from your earlier reflections. I love your recent explorations of what we keep and throw away, and am relishing how you are widening it all out to include the reach of the great skip of the 20th century itself. You are provoking much thought here at the Bookish Nature compost heap!

    Witley Court looks and sounds wonderful. I love your photos. So atmospheric, with a 1950s postcard patina feel to them. I’ve never been to Castle Howard. I know what you mean though about that sometimes verging on the ‘obsequious manner’ found in the occasional room attendant from time to time. Sometimes, the atmosphere as I’ve entered a room has left me feeling I should be bowing reverentially towards the silver candlesticks and marble fireplaces, and should whisper any comments in case the resident ghosts find my inevitable faux pas far too much to bear. Happily, I’ve had great experiences too – and some room attendants have explained so much – and illuminated what I’ve been looking at.

    However, I do harbour a real dread of being met by historical re-enactment guides! I’m probably totally over-reacting, but every time we’ve been to Stratford-upon-Avon, I’ve recoiled at the last minute from entering Shakespeare’s birth place, even though I would dearly love to go in there. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I imagine – but I do try to avoid the prospect of being trapped in a crowded, tiny room, with all the interpretation drowning out the ability to listen to the place and its ghosts. One of the best “heritage visits” I made was to Charles Dickens’s holiday home in Broadstairs back in the 1980s. It was pouring with rain outside and my dad and I were the only visitors. I got to stand in Dickens’s study all by myself for a long, long time, soaking up the atmosphere as the sea raged below.

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