Spirited civic stunner

The grounds of Temple Newsam House, Leeds.
The grounds of Temple Newsam House, Leeds.
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In the penultimate feature in our series looking at how to run a stately home, Sheena Hastings explores the delights and mysteries of Temple Newsam, a council-owned gem.

It has been called “the biggest council house in Leeds” – but not many council houses, or any other kind of house for that matter, can boast a brace of ghosts.

Companies charging £80 a pop so that those interested in investigating paranormal activity may indulge their hobby book Temple Newsam House for a night four times a year.

They bring along various devices to help track down the spectres of Phoebe Gray and the so-called “Blue Lady”, Mary Ingram. Many go away convinced that they have encountered one or both of these tragic women.

Phoebe was a young maid who was working at the great house in 1704, the night of a party to celebrate the victory of the Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim. Phoebe returned from taking a drink upstairs via the back staircase, and was stopped by estate worker William Collinson, who was determined to steal a kiss.

He squeezed the girl so hard that he suffocated her then threw her body down a well. The law caught up with him and he was tried and hanged. Both ghost hunters and some ordinary visitors to the house say they have heard Phoebe’s screams.

Mary Ingram, 14-year-old daughter of the Tudor-Jacobean house four miles from the centre of Leeds, is said to have died in tragic circumstances later in the 18th century.

She and her family had been travelling home from York by carriage when they were robbed by a highwayman who grabbed a pearl necklace Mary had just been given by her grandfather. The story goes that the girl was so traumatised that she took to her bed and died from “hysteria”.

Successive generations have since reported sightings of a bereft and sobbing Mary roaming Temple Newsam House and parkland searching for her pearls.

If you’re a tourist attraction then having this spooky niche aspect to your offerings is a bonus. But Temple Newsam, sometimes likened to Hampton Court in the breadth of its decorative treasures, has so much else of interest.

One of the most admired historic houses in the north of England and the birthplace of Lord Darnley, infamous husband of Mary Queen of Scots, it is a stunning three-sided stately home with an open aspect looking out majestically on rolling lawns and woodland towards a far-off Greek temple.

It is designated as a museum with outstanding collections showcasing the decorative arts, with nationally
important paintings, furniture, silver, Leeds pottery, ceramics, textiles and wallpapers.

They can be viewed across 43 public rooms in the Tudor-Jacobean mansion. Events include weekly special tours, Hidden Temple Newsam – cellars, underground passages and servant quarters – and a range of both fun and educational children’s activities.

The house is set within 1,500 acres of parkland designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown in the 18th century. Home Farm, Europe’s largest rare breed farm, has more than 400 pigs, cattle, sheep, goats and poultry, some of which have been saved from extinction by experts here.

The parkland is free to visit, and on my weekday afternoon arrival, a group of mums and tots picknicked under a shady spreading tree, smaller family groups lolled on rugs while little ones ran about and dog walkers criss-crossed the expansive green acreage.

Four times a year specially-constructed stages are the focal point of huge public events that include Party In The Park and Opera In the Park, which pull in up to 70,000 and 40,000 respectively. Fun runs and other small charity events are hosted here for free. The annual Race for Life attracts around 4,500.

In between, it is an oasis of weekday calm just a short distance from the M1, surrounded by a mix of leafy suburbia, council estates and Colton Village. This land has had a substantial residence on it for nearly 1,000 years.

In the early Middle Ages it was the property of the Knights Templar (hence “Temple”), but it was Thomas Lord Darcy who built a four-sided courtyard house completed around 1520. After his execution for treason it was given by Henry VIII to Lord and Lady Lennox, whose son Lord Darnley went on to marry Mary Queen of Scots – although she never visited the house.

It later fell into disrepair until it was bought by self-made financier Sir Arthur Ingram in 1622, and he remodelled it as the three-sided property seen today.

Ingram’s family lived at Temple Newsam for the next 300 years. In 1922 the mansion and 917 acres of garden, lakes and parkland were sold for a nominal sum to Leeds Corporation by the Hon Edward Wood, later Earl of Halifax.

The elected representatives of the city were anxious to preserve and protect the historic house, outstanding gardens (including prized azaleas and rhododendrons) and parkland for the people of Leeds.

Today the enlarged estate also features two public golf courses.

The council funds the opening of the house and all of its many educational activities, says John Roles, head of Leeds Museums and Galleries.

This costs £500,000 but is offset by £150,000 earned from admission fees (£3.80 adult/ £2.80 child), the shop, room hire and functions.

The 500 Friends of Temple Newsam fundraise to add to the facilities, including the acquisition of battery-driven scooters for use by the disabled.

“The house itself is a treasure of international importance,” says Roles. “After the Second World War (during which it temporarily became the city’s main art gallery), it had white walls and its collections had been dispersed when the family left. We had to build up collections again, and over the years original items have been brought back.

“Careful restoration of the décor has taken decades and purchases have been made with money provided by various funds including the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and help from English Heritage and others. The last three period bedrooms to be restored, in 2009, cost £72K, paid for by the Wolfson Fund.”

Every penny of public funds spent has to be justified, says Maria Akers, estate manager of both Temple Newsam and nearby Lotherton Hall. The House and parkland/gardens of Temple Newsam are managed by different council departments, one under Museums and Galleries and the other under Parks and Countryside.

Akers, who worked her way up over 20 years from being a temporary assistant park ranger to overseeing a permanent staff of 32 and a squad of seasonal casuals, says the way the estate is managed is “a matter of public consensus”, but tips are learned from privately-owned stately homes meetings of the Yorkshire’s Great Houses, Castles and Gardens group.

As with privately owned houses, volunteers are crucial – and 6,000 hours are donated each year.

She says: “The council doesn’t need to own a farm, but the rare breeds farm is not only a visitor attraction but an important educational facility.” One school group visits the house and estate every weekday in term-time.

A decision was made some years ago to reduce the farming activities and focus back on the visitors. “We got a bit carried away with being farmers,” says Akers.

The farm still carries out important breed conservation work, though, and the less perfect examples make their contribution by appearing on the menu at the estate’s café. Two fires on the farm in recent years have been a setback, with the loss of some livestock, a valuable historic barn and agricultural machinery, but it’s hoped rebuilding will start this autumn. Overall the farm offsets its own costs, with 90,000 farm visits annually among the 1.9m who flock to the house and estate.

Last year’s deluges were bad for everyone, and visitors fell to 76,000 at the farm. Three months of increasing like-for-like numbers have just been recorded.

Temple Newsam doesn’t have its own dedicated marketing team or budget, so when it was decided to launch into the wedding venue business four years ago one banner was the only advertisement, displayed on the railings of the estate. There are on average 30 weddings a year now – although initially even the champagne flutes had to be hired.

Principal keeper at Temple Newsam House is Bobbie Robertson, whose previous work experience includes acting and a marketing job at Nostell Priory.

“Yes, it’s a museum and it’s full of ‘stuff’, but this house is about bringing to life the stories of those who lived here. So we do a lot around visual art and dance in our storytelling. I particularly love the Picture Gallery (the house has 400 paintings in all). It just takes my breath away every time, and I love hearing other people’s response the first time they see it.”

The staff work hard to involve the local community and particularly hard-to-reach families in activities at the house, but Robertson wishes more of the rest of the city’s population would come across and join the 30,000 – 35,000 who already enjoy it.

She oversees an indoor team of 25 and Temple Newsam is the base for conservators who work across all nine of Leeds’s museums and galleries. The house’s own curator post is currently empty due to retirement.

A buffer against swingeing local authority cuts has been Arts Council funding of £5m over three years. For Temple Newsam this will fund a full-time curator and part-time assistant. Large conservation projects are paid for by fund-raising, and current work includes the overhaul of the magnificent 1765 George Pyke pedestal organ clock, that’s about to go off for specialist attention costing £35, 000 at West Dene College, a hefty bill covered by a benefactor and a grant from the Pilgrim Trust.

Like Bobbie Robertson, John Roles believes Temple Newsam is not quite cherished enough by Leeds as a whole – even though surveys show that 80 per 
cent of visitors to the estate are repeat visitors, and of these 81 per cent go at 
least once a week.

“It deserves to be better known. It’s 
not realised enough within Leeds just 
how good it is, but people from outside the city do come, many travelling a long way.”

Next week: Camp Hill