The floors are lopsided, the plasterwork is crumbling, but now South Yorkshire’s answer to Chatsworth may just live to fight another day. Sarah Freeman reports.
It was one of the more curious elements of the Autumn Statement. Amid talk of tough economic times ahead and the throwing out of those ambitious plans to balance the books by 2020, Philip Hammond threw an unlikely lifeline to what he called a “key piece of Northern heritage”.
Few of the MPs on either side of the House had heard of Wentworth Woodhouse. And while the cheque was somewhat smaller than £200m earmarked for grammar schools, fewer still knew why the sprawling pile near Rotherham needed the £7.6m which was chucked at it by the Chancellor on Wednesday.
What they didn’t know was that this gargantuan 365 room mansion has a number of claims to fame. It is not only the largest privately owned stately homes in Europe, but half Baroque and half Palladium in design some say it provided the inspiration for Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
However, thanks to a particularly malevolent decision taken by an MP more than half a century ago, the whole place is also lopsided, the Roman style arches are opening up, friezes are facturing and every week brings new cracks and a fresh avalanche of plaster.
The seeds of its current state can be traced back to 1946. The then Minister of Fuel and Labour trade unionist Manny Shinwell didn’t have much time for Britain’s aristocracy and made good on a threat to Wentworth’s then owner Earl Fitzwilliam to bring seven deep cast mines “right up to the front door”.
The following year when the coal supply collapsed during a particularly harsh winter, Shinwell refused to assume responsibility, blaming the climate, the railway system, or capitalism generally. He became a political embarrasment, but by then the rot had already set in at Wentworth.
Subsidence made the place uninhabitable and by the time a knight in shining armour arrived in the shape Clifford Newbold, the indomitable architect who helped design London’s Millbank Tower, many thought the only option was to raze it to the ground.
It was 1999 when Newbold saw the dilapidated Grade I listed property was up for sale for £2m. By then, having already saved a number of London’s Georgian and Victorian buildings from the bulldozers, he knew that where there was determination there was hope.
Wentworth became a labour of love not only for Newbold, but also his two sons Marcus and Giles and his wife Dorothy, who upped sticks from London to drive the project forward. By 2013 the family had already spent a fortune turning the baroque part of the property into comfortable living quarters, but despite their best efforts the house became an impossible drain on resources.
The situation had been compounded by an eight year legal battle with the Coal Authority which had cost them much time, money and energy, but having come so far they refused to walk away without knowing Wentworth, which they were sure could become South Yorkshire’s answer to Chatsworth, was in safe hands.
With the future looking bleak SAVE, which since being founded in 1974 has played a key role in rescuing the likes of Calke Abbey in Derbyshire and Somerset’s Tyntesfield House from almost certain destruction, stepped into the breach.
The organisation formed the Wentworth House Preservation Trust, raised £7m to buy the property from the Newbolds, but that was just a start. With the roof leaking, the plasterwork crumbling and eye-watering long list of structural repairs, the trust knew that over the next 12 to 15 years it would need to invest a further £42m into Wentworth’s bricks and mortar.
Various grants were secured, but dependent on match funding, the team knew that without Government help they could soon find themselves back at square one.
“This is the most time consuming and complex rescue operation we have ever mounted,” says SAVE executive president Marcus Binney. “The Chancellor was absolutely correct when he said that there were seven days to save the house, as three of our key grants towards the purchase were due to expire on November 30 having been generously extended several times.
“Now we hope we can honour the work of the Newbold family in opening the mansion to visitors who we know will leave entranced by the beauty of the place.”
Wentworth stands in 83 acres of grounds and the Government money will open the way for the most ambitious stately home makovers in decades. If it all goes to plan, the stables will become a hub for small businesses, the service wing will be turned over to events and weddings and the 18th century house and outbuildings will be converted into a dozen apartments and cottages.
With a little help from the National Trust, which has agreed to support the first three years of opening, including seconding staff to the property, the trust also wants to open the extensive gardens, which includes lakes and a deer park, to the public.
“The scheme has been developed with the help of a large professional team, many providing their advice and help on a pro-bono basis,” says local businesswoman Julie Kenny, who is also chair of the WWPT. “It relies on not one, but a combination of four tried and tested solutions - ticket sales and revenue, catering and events, holiday lets and business lets - each of which can provide a regular income stream to cover running and maintenance costs on a longer term basis.
“It will provide jobs, stimulate the local economy and open up one of England’s most important and grandest homes to the public.”
Last week’s announcement was the culmination of more than a year of discussions and lobbying by the trust. The plight of Wentworth has also been championed by Newark MP Robert Jenrick and Wentworth and Dearne MP John Healey. Their collective efforts should mean that emergency repairs can get underway imminently. Once the building is secured, it will pave the way for the more detailed schedule of work.
If there are any regrets, it’s that once complete there will be one person who will never get to see Wentworth restored to its former glory. Clifford Newbold died last year, but he would no doubt have approved of the statement on the house’s website, quoting the old Greek proverb - ‘a society grows when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.’
“We are very happy that the Government has at last pledged its support for the restoration of Wentworth Woodhouse,” adds his son Marcus. “This is a cause close to our hearts, for which we have been battling since we purchased the house. There has always been tremendous local support and it is heartening to know that the project on which we have all been working for so long is finally to receive Government backing.”