Monday, 3 February 2014

"BURN, YOU BASTARD, BURN!"

[an extract from my 2011 book, The Wild Rover]

A newspaper image of the 1937 fire
Growing up in 1970s Worcestershire, by far my favourite outing was to Witley Court, less than ten miles from home.  Originally a medieval manor, it had been added to by successive owners, eventually becoming one of England’s most extravagant stately homes in the late Victorian age, when it was owned by the Ward family, the Earls of Dudley.  Witley was famous for lavish living, for parties where royalty, aristocracy, politicians and celebrities mixed in the orangery, the parterre gardens or draped themselves over the sides of the massive ornamental fountains.  Two hundred staff oiled its wheels, and it took fifty tons of coal a day to keep the monster warm.

Even more than most stately homes, Witley’s progress mirrors that of the country at large.  The Wards’ fortune was eaten by its opulence, and after the Great War, the much battered family put the estate up for sale.  It was bought by the epitome of new money, Kidderminster carpet baron Sir Herbert Smith.  From humble beginnings, he’d risen to become the most powerful man in my home town, where he was known as “Piggy”, thanks to his portly stature and shaved head.  Though he loved life as lord of the manor, he was ill-prepared for the costs, and ran the house and estate into the ground, skimping on maintenance and keeping only a skeleton staff.  Like an earlier Nicholas van Hoogstraten, he caused fury by blockading all the footpaths that ran across the estate.

On 7th September 1937, a fire broke out in the basement of the court, quickly spreading to the ballroom above.  Thanks to Sir Herbert’s economies, the fountains lay unused, and the reservoir that fed them was almost empty.  Not that it would have helped had they been full, for the water pumping equipment had rusted up.  The staff battled valiantly to save furniture and pictures, but it was too late.  In 1939, with the country on the brink of war, Smith sold the house to a demolition contractor, who stripped it of all its finery, leaving it as a roofless shell.

It was in that state that I first encountered Witley Court, with a few further decades of plundering and weather-beaten decay etched into its gaunt frame.  It excited me like nowhere else, from the moment you passed one of the lodge houses on the main road and bumped your way up the rutted track, the skeletal ruin growing ever larger on the skyline.  Back then, you just nipped over the fence and had free run of the place, up crumbling staircases into the bedrooms, down into the dark, mouldy cellars, galloping along the broken balustrade of the grand terrace steps, even jumping into the vast, wrecked fountains.  And there always seemed to be crows.

One day, at the age of about twelve, I had persuaded my dad to take me there, ostensibly to walk the dog.  Standing in the ruins was an elderly lady, muffled up against the cold.  We got chatting, and it transpired that she had grown up in Great Witley, the nearby village once transplanted out of view by the lords of Witley Court and where most of the house’s army of staff had lived.  On the night of the fire, she said, villagers – few of whom would still have been employed at the Court, thanks to Sir Herbert Smith’s swingeing economies – came out into the street to watch the flames dancing in the sky.  They cracked open bottles of beer, and chanted “burn, you bastard, burn!”.

An 1880 engraving of the Court in its lavish heyday
She said it in such a deadpan way, a look of resigned indifference on her face, but the shock electrified me.  It was partly hearing a little old lady swear, but there was more to it than that.  To the twelve year old me, history was dates and kings and battles and the invention of the spinning jenny.  It was cause and effect, question and answer, a smooth, smug progress through the ages to the zenith of civilisation that was, we were regularly assured, late 1970s Britain.  For the first time, I got a glimpse of the real story behind the textbook, and it both confused and thrilled me.

[To see the gothic dereliction of Witley in the 60s and 70s, look at the original promo video shot there for Procul Harum's monster 1967 hit, A Whiter Shade of Pale: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PmisbzxwoQ.  It was never used at the time, because it interspersed footage of Witley with that of the Vietnam war.  The BBC refused to show it, and so the group had to shoot a new video in London.]

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