Abandoned houses: Britain’s lost property

The South Front of Witley Court. Credit: © Jason Ingram/English Heritage Trust

The sight of abandoned houses – whether a palatial mansion or once-idyllic village – cannot fail to stir the imagination. And each has its own human story to tell…

Abandoned houses: Witley Court

Procol Harum’s 1967 hit A Whiter Shade of Pale is one of the most haunting, enigmatic, elegiac songs in the history of pop music. Haunting, too, and enigmatic was the accompanying video, which shows band members roaming the ruins of a glorious Italianate mansion. Freestanding walls that once enclosed French Renaissance-style interiors shelter emptiness, open to the sky. No water plays in the magnificent Perseus and Andromeda Fountain.

abandoned houses
The Perseus and Andromeda Fountain at Witley Court. Credit: English Heritage Trust/Ian Tustin

This is Witley Court, a spectacular monument to human grandiosity and excess. Built for politician and ironmaster Thomas Foley, who bought the estate in 1665, it remained in the Foley family for 180 years, growing over the generations into one of Europe’s foremost private palaces. Soaring porticoes were added by the Prince Regent’s architect, John Nash, a friend of another Thomas Foley, 2nd Baron, a plump, profligate gambler nicknamed ‘Lord Balloon’.

The debt-burdened Foleys were succeeded by William Ward, later Earl of Dudley, and in turn by Sir Herbert Smith, a carpet manufacturer. When fire gutted a wing in 1937 and the insurers refused to pay, Sir Herbert sold the mansion, with scrappers demolishing it piecemeal.

It must have presented a woeful spectacle when it was first cannibalised, but time works its magic on ruins. The religious houses despoiled in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, once abominable eyesores, have grown over centuries into ivy-clad beauties. Contemplation of wrecked buildings invite ‘the romantic and conscious swimming down the river of time’, as Rose Macaulay wrote in Pleasure of Ruins (1954); they speak to us of vanished lives.

Abandoned houses: Appuldurcombe House

Appuldurcombe House

Few lives are more colourful than that of Seymour Fleming, promiscuous wife of Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baronet, the heir to Appuldurcombe House in Wroxhall on the Isle of Wight, a Baroque 18th-century masterpiece in grounds landscaped by Capability Brown. Begun in 1702, it was much extended in the 1770s by Sir Richard, an avid collector of priceless antiquities, whose lawsuit against one of Seymour’s numerous lovers brought him only public ridicule and a shilling in damages, and who left the estate mired in debt.

Inside Appuldurcombe. Credit: NorthScape / Alamy

By 1855 the house was vacant, stripped and up for sale. Between 1901 and 1907 it was home to Benedictine monks, and in the Second World War it served as barracks, before, in February 1943, a German bomber dropped a mine that blew the roof off. From a distance, it appears intact and perfect, but Appuldurcombe is a ghost house, an empty shell, haunted, some say, by a phantom carriage and a brown-clad monk.

Abandoned houses: Imber

abandoned houses
An abandoned house in Imber. Credit: SteveMcCarthy/Shutterstock

Nine months after Appuldurcombe became a casualty of war, a bombshell no less shattering blew apart the lives of the residents of Imber, a thriving village on Salisbury Plain, with a pub, a school, a rectory and two churches. It arrived in the form of a letter from the Ministry of Defence, instructing that the area was to be “evacuated and made available for training” by no later than 17 December. “It is appreciated that apart from the distress the move will cause you, it must inevitably occasion direct expense for which you have no legal redress against the Department.” Legend has it that the blacksmith, Albert Nash, was found by his wife, slumped over his anvil, weeping like a baby. He would die, broken-hearted, within weeks.

As for expense, the cost of “removal of furniture to your new home” would be met, or storage charges covered, “until the Imber area is again open for occupation”.

Promises, promises. Never more was Imber ‘open for occupation’. However, on certain dates it is open to sightseers, who find the grave of Albert Nash beside the medieval St Giles’ Church, where the villagers were once baptised and married and sang of all things bright and beautiful.

Every August a convoy of London Route Master buses trundles across Salisbury Plain with passengers fascinated to see the vestiges of Imber. You wait a year for the 53A, then 25 come at once.

The annual convoy of buses travelling to Imber

Abandoned houses: Tyneham

As the residents of Imber were under notice to evacuate, the 220 residents of Tyneham in Dorset received a letter from one Major General C.H. Miller, advising them that the army needed the surrounding land for “the training of the use in modern weapons of war”, so it must be cleared of civilians. “The government appreciate that this is no small sacrifice… but they are sure that you will give this further help towards winning the war with a good heart.”

Ordered to quit by 19 December, the villagers left a note on the church door: “Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war and keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating our village kindly.” Again, it was not to be. The houses were never returned to the villagers, and today they are crumbling, empty shells. Reminders of the past can be found in the church and school, which hold exhibitions on one-time village life, while a reinforced concrete K1 telephone kiosk, number Kimmeridge 221, is a replica of the original installed in 1929 – a dead ringer.

This is an extract. Read the full article in the November/December issue of BRITAIN out on 7 October.

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