Wentworth Woodhouse’s big break
Eleanor Doughty reveals the masterplan to restore Britain’s biggest stately home – and how much it’ll cost
When the Government pledged £7.6million two years ago towards the restoration of Wentworth Woodhouse, the country’s biggest stately home, heritage watchers cheered. At last, the great Palladian-baroque house, the former home of the Earls Fitzwilliam with its 606ft façade, would be saved.
As much as that sum sounded for an ordinary doer-upper, it would barely touch the sides. This week, the extent of the work required on Wentworth Woodhouse was revealed. On Monday, chief executive Sarah McLeod and Julie Kenny CBE, chairman of the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust (WWPT), went to Downing Street to present the masterplan to the Chancellor. In this was the revelation that the project will cost in the region of £130million, although it could end up being far higher.
Individually costed projects – the restoration of the house, which has more than 300 rooms, the stables, and a conservatory – will require £79million, £39million, and £1.5million respectively. In the past, McLeod has suggested the final total could nudge up to £200million. She admits that she is going to have to be imaginative about raising the money to pay for it all. For starters, she is opening up the state bedrooms as a b&b, so you, too, can spend the night among royalty.
Wentworth Woodhouse isn’t any ordinary house. In fact, it’s two – one baroque, which faces west, and one Palladian, looking east. The baroque house near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, was built in 1725 by Thomas Watson-Wentworth (later 1st Marquess of Rockingham). Within a decade, the baroque style had gone out of fashion, so in 1734, a trendier Palladian house, facing the other way, was commissioned as an “extension”. The two make up Wentworth, with a chapel snuggled in the middle. Traditionally, the family lived in the back half of the house, with the front designed for showing off to visitors, which, with its 60ft Marble Hall, is not hard to imagine. In 1782, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam inherited the house, and for the next 200 years Wentworth was home to his family, landowners who ran local mines. Life at Wentworth was lavish (on New Year’s Eve 1931, a party was hosted for 40,000 people). But in April 1946 it came to an end when heavy plant machinery arrived on site. This, on the orders of Labour minister Manny Shinwell, would carve up Wentworth’s lawn into the largest open-cast mine in Britain. Mining, said Shinwell, was to take place up to the “bloody front door”. The Fitzwilliams were powerless to do anything.
After the 8th Earl died in a plane crash in 1948, two further earls continued the family line, neither producing an heir. As such, in 1989, the house was sold for the first time, in 1998 for a second, and then in 2017 to WWPT.
Each part of the site will have a new lease of life when the project is complete in around 2043. As well as the mansion, stables and the conservatory, Camellia House, which are the current priorities, there are 19 other individually listed objects on site, including an Ionic temple, a pair of cast-iron urns and the riding school.
The stables will be converted into 15 self-contained holiday apartments, an events space for weddings, and retail units. The Camellia House will comprise a further events space for smaller gatherings, and the main house will become a hive of activity, with offices, visitor libraries, commercial business units and visitor hospitality. Parts will be made open to the public, both upstairs and downstairs. “It’s never going to be 100 per cent grant-funded; it’s going to rely on people with deep pockets,” says McLeod. The money from the Treasury, she adds, “was given to do the most urgent works to stop the decline, but the scope of the works changes constantly”.
The first work that needs doing is on the roof, which, in parts, has almost entirely disintegrated. The worst of this is over the state rooms, where deterioration has been swift over the past few years, with water ingress to blame. “What starts as a trickle does so much damage if you don’t deal with it,” says McLeod, who is facing the task of laying 14,000 new roof slates. Along with the roof over the central block, the chapel roof also needs urgent help, as does the one over the former bachelor’s wing. This was mooted as a place for residential units, says McLeod, but now it will be turned into offices.
The project is mammoth, but WWPT caught the house in the nick of time, says Kenny. “I used to go there for charity dinners and watch what was happening there. I’d take photographs of the deterioration.” The intentions of past owners were good, says McLeod, but their actions weren’t enough. “They did sporadic repairs across the site – there has been some very fine wallpaper hung in the house, yet the roof is leaking. The Camellia House has seen some great stone repair work been done, but the rest is derelict.”
The pair have no plans to turn Wentworth into “Chatsworth 2” – the great stately home 30 miles away, which in 2017, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, saw more than 636,000 visitors. The key to Wentworth is originality, says Kenny. “We haven’t got any furniture, we haven’t got any money to buy any, so why try to compete and do a bad job? Let’s do something different, and be bold.”
The project will cost in the region of £130m but could end up being far higher
IMPOSING Wentworth Woodhouse has a huge façade; Sarah McLeod, head of the trust, below
ROOM TO IMPROVE Inside Wentworth Woodhouse, which is in dire need of building work