A band of strangers are volunteering their time to restore the grounds of a huge stately home. Chris Burn meets the Wentworth Woodhouse ‘Welly Wangers’. Pictures by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Steve Ash has a confession to make. “I used to hate gardening,” says Steve, one of the volunteers helping to revitalise the huge grounds of Wentworth Woodhouse which were once home to one of the country’s most-admired pleasure gardens. “But this has inspired me – it is partly the scale of the ambition and partly how quickly you can see the results.”
Steve is part of a group of a dozen volunteers – they share a WhatsApp group called the “Welly Wangers” – who come to the grand Georgian house on the outskirts of Rotherham every Tuesday to help out in the 87 acres of gardens of what is thought to be the UK’s largest stately home, which is in the early stages of a massive renovation project expected to last for three decades and cost over £100m.
The group met as strangers 18 months ago but have become firm friends and the success of the volunteering initiative has led to a second group of garden helpers working at the site on Wednesdays, with hopes that there may soon be enough numbers for a Thursday session as well.
Under the direction of Wentworth Woodhouse’s head gardener, Scott Jamieson, the grounds are slowly but surely being transformed to their former glory.
The house and the grounds were sold in April 2017 to the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust after previous private owners had struggled to keep up with the huge amount of restoration and maintenance work that was required. A 2018 masterplan from the trust said the property was in a “critical state of decay” and it had taken possession of a site “with one phone line, an intermittent internet connection, a single vacuum cleaner and a handful of committed staff who had been working without clear direction”.
Money for the restoration process is due to come from private, public and self-generated sources, with a key part of the regeneration project being the help of a small army of volunteers who have come forward to run house tours, staff events and assist in the garden.
Steve was among the first five volunteers to start work in the grounds around 18 months ago and says they were left under no illusions about the scale of the task that faced them as Scott and his fellow professional gardener Andy took them on a tour to show them the piles of leaves, overgrown areas and extensive weeds that needed tackling.
“As he was taking us around, he was really clear it was going to be hard work but the result would be the legacy that we would leave at this place,” says Steve.
The 57-year-old adds that despite his previous dislike of gardening, after retiring five years ago as director of a digital media company he decided to volunteer for fitness reasons, as well as learning more about looking after a large plot of land, as his house in France has an acre of grounds.
“I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I have done. The best part of it is the people. The thing I missed most when I retired was the teamwork and sense of joint achievement. The people here are so brilliant.”
Head gardener Scott, who is originally from Arbroath in Scotland, has been in post for 17 years after previously working in golf course management and running a flower shop. Prior to 2017 he had little assistance in looking after the grounds.
“For a long time there were only two of us, then for a period of time it was me on my own,” he says.
Members of the public can go through the grounds on guided tours at the moment but Scott’s long-term ambition is for the garden to be opened up to visitors every day.
The parks at Wentworth Woodhouse were originally laid out by celebrated landscape designer Humphry Repton in one of his most ambitious projects. The house once stood within vast pleasure gardens and monuments that still remain include an 18th century Ionic temple and Camellia House, as well as a 15ft high decorative urn from 1837 called the Punch Bowl.
The decline of the home and grounds set in after the Second World War when in 1947 the Government decreed that coal should be mined to within a hundred yards of the house in great open pits.
Following the death of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam in a flying accident in 1948, a greater part of the house was vacated and in 1950, it was let to the West Riding County Council, which made use of it until 1986, first as a teacher training college and then as part of Sheffield City Polytechnic. It was sold to a private purchaser in 1988 and then again to the Newbold family in 1999 before moving to the trust in 2017.
Scott says his ambition is to leave a lasting legacy in the gardens with the help of the volunteers as custodians. “You feel part of history,” he says. “Now the future is really secure for the house and garden, the more visitors we get, the more jobs we can do. It is lovely to see it develop and almost come back to its heyday when there were 33 full-time gardeners.”
Scott says many visitors have relatives who used to be employed at the house, and among the garden volunteers with a personal connection is retired bank manager Mike Harrison, from nearby Hoyland. His wife’s uncle Doug Mitchell used to be a gardener at Wentworth Woodhouse, with Doug’s father also holding the same job in the inter-war years.
The 63-year-old says the personal connection makes being involved with the group particularly special. “Doug had an allotment and he used to tell me a few stories of gardening here and doffing his cap to the Earl. I like to be outdoors and it is nice having that connection,” says Mike.
“Sometimes it is really hard work. The analogy I make is it is like painting the Forth Bridge – by the time you finish, you need to start at the beginning again. It is a 30-year project and we are scratching the surface to some extent but you have got to start somewhere. If you come on a Tuesday and Scott says we will do this bit and we clear it and see the light coming through, you get an instant sense of satisfaction.”
The personal connection with Wentworth Woodhouse also runs deep for 64-year-old Sue Chadwick, who lives in the village of Wentworth. “I lived in the village for 30 years and have known it since I was a child and have seen all the comings and goings of different owners,” she says. “But I had never been in the gardens before.”
Sue, who used to run a garden centre, says there has been great progress since the volunteers started helping. “It was heartbreaking because it was so neglected. Although Scott was here, he couldn’t do it on his own.”
She says each day’s work makes a big difference. “It is a great group of people and we have a laugh and get on but you have to be prepared for some hard work. All of us are a lot fitter than we were 12 months ago. It is not dead-heading roses, it is digging and chucking logs on bonfires. Most of us have been here the full two years and we can see such a difference.”
Martin Brook, 58, who grew up in the nearby village of Nether Haugh, says: “We used to play on the fields and get chased off by the grounds-keepers as kids. To be part of this is fantastic.
“There are a lot of bad things going on in the world and this is a good thing. It is a sleeping giant and we are awakening it. You couldn’t buy a ticket to do what we are doing here – you couldn’t put a price on it.”
Scott’s next guided tour of the gardens is on July 24. Visit www.wentworthwoodhouse.org.uk for details. For more information about volunteering call 01226 351161 or email email@example.com.