Meet the new chief operating officer who wants to use skills she learned at Bettys to turn Wentworth Woodhouse into the 'Tate Modern of the north'

Paula Kaye happily admits she had never even heard of Wentworth Woodhouse before she saw a job advert from the trust that owns the historic house in the Yorkshire Post.

Paula Kaye in the Long Gallery at Wentworth Woodhouse
Paula Kaye in the Long Gallery at Wentworth Woodhouse

She had actually missed the deadline to apply for the head of hospitality role at the Grade I-listed stately home near Rotherham, but called chief executive Sarah McLeod anyway and ended up with the more senior position of chief operating officer.

Mrs Kaye, from York, will now oversee the development of the house, gardens, events and food and drink offer at Wentworth, the estate once owned by the Earls of Fitzwilliam, one of England's richest families in the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras until their fortunes waned.

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She believes she is well placed to do so thanks to the training she received at Bettys, having joined Yorkshire's most famous brand as a part-time waitress at the age of 16 while studying hotel management at college in Scarborough.

The Long Gallery is the setting for Wentworth's new afternoon tea offer

She first worked at the now-closed cafe on Stonegate, but later ended up managing the York flagship on Parliament Square, where she was in charge of 200 staff by her 20s. She spent over 30 years at Bettys and Taylors and left as catering and retail director.

The Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust hopes her particular expertise in the field of afternoon teas - a Bettys classic - will prove invaluable for Wentworth's own plans, and Ms Kaye has already pronounced herself impressed with the mansion's Long Gallery, where tea will be served.

"Hospitality had always interested me - I think I had that spirit of service within me. Bettys was such a fantastic business to work for as they have such a reputation for training and investing in staff. I got great opportunities there and was a shift supervisor by the age of 17, before joining as a management trainee when I finished college.

"It was a massive wrench for me to leave and there will always be a part of me that is Bettys."

Having never visited Wentworth before, Mrs Kaye says she is now 'totally in love' with the house and grounds and looking forward to the challenges ahead, including the conversion of two key areas of the old estate, the Camellia House and the stables complex.

"I've been brought in to build on some really good work and I've been very impressed. They turned around the gardens in about six months and opening them in lockdown was such a success with both new audiences and locals.

"It's my first time in a third sector environment and I think the volunteers are phenomenal. It's a lovely place to work. Dame Julie Kenny and Sarah McLeod are inspirational ladies and real champions of there being access for all."

She is particularly inspired by the potential of the hundreds of empty rooms abandoned following decades of underuse and neglect after Wentworth was leased out by the Fitzwilliams at the end of World War Two.

"It gives us a different stage, it's not stuffy and there's lot of freedom for people to explore, and space for arts and exhibitions.

"We've already had a lot of bookings for afternoon teas, and the views of the gardens from the Long Gallery are so impressive - there's no better setting. The regeneration of the stables will allow us to host weddings and events on a much larger scale."

The senior management team also want local businesses - including food, produce and drink suppliers - to grow in tandem with Wentworth and put nearby Rotherham and Barnsley on the map, as well as capitalise on the legacy of affection and loyalty felt by residents of the estate villages, many of whom volunteer where their ancestors once served the Fitzwilliams.

"We have targets in place for the proportion of local produce we want to serve. We always chat to visitors who've come for the first time and they are blown away by us - we need to create that destination. There is a lot of affection for us and it is all about preserving something for the community and bringing them on that journey with us."

Mrs Kaye will also work closely with new events manager Lydia Tickner, who is from an English Heritage background, to plan a programme of entertainment that is suitable for Wentworth and also stands out from the events offered by rival stately home attractions.

"There are a lot of rooms still to be brought back into use, a lot of areas that have been identified as having potential for dining, and the aspiration is to become a cultural destination akin to the Tate Modern of the north. We want more live music concerts with headline names, and we will find that balance of holding quality events and more niche ones. We want the crowd pleasers, but they also have to be of high calibre. We want things that are innovative and slightly different so we can reach a wider audience."