As a retirement project, turning a dilapidated 365 room mansion into South Yorkshire’s answer to Chatsworth was always going to be more challenging than gardening or golf.
It’s not surprising then that architect Clifford Newbold has run out of time and energy and has decided to hand the baton to someone else. Now approaching 90, Clifford is preparing to sell Wentworth Woodhouse 15 years after falling in love with the historic property that boasts a façade twice as wide as Buckingham Palace and two-and-a-half acres of roof.
The price for Britain’s largest home has yet to be decided though £7m has been suggested. While it sounds like a bargain, the gargantuan, 250,000 sq. ft pile, near Rotherham, has issues. The main one is subsidence.
The building is lopsided with one floor running six inches lower at one end. The Roman-style arches are opening up, and friezes are fracturing due to ground movement.
Much of the damage was done in the 1940s when the Minister of Fuel, Manny Shinwell, carried out a threat to Wentworth’s owner Earl Fitzwilliam to bring seven deep cast mines “right up to your bloody front door”. He didn’t like the aristocracy.
The Newbold family is now embroiled in a £100m compensation claim against the Coal Authority. After winning the original case and an appeal, there is a final court date scheduled for 2016. Even if the compensation is forthcoming, the next owner will need deep pockets to maintain the house, which has five miles of corridors.
The family’s preferred buyer is a charitable trust, which is trying to raise money to buy the early 18th century property. Its architecture and history is certainly worth saving. It was the seat of former prime minister Charles Watson-Wentworth before passing to the Earls Fitzwilliam. A local businesman bought it in the 80s but it was later repossessed before being bought by the Newbold’s
The trust vows to continue the family’s mission to make Wentworth a major tourist attractions. Clifford, his wife Dorothy and their sons, Marcus and Giles, opened it to the public last year and visitor numbers are growing.
The deadline for fundraising is spring, when Wentworth Woodhouse is expected to go on the open market with Savills. Clifford’s son, Giles, says: “We have been assisting a potential trust for about two years with the view of placing the house into its ownership to continue our work of restoring Wentworth Woodhouse. As is always the case the trust has found fundraising difficult.”
He adds: “The whole family fell in love with the house and have put their hearts and souls into the project over the last 15 years, trying to secure its future. We were truly delighted to be able to open the house to the public as this meant everyone, especially the people of Yorkshire, could enjoy and appreciate its beauty and history. We want whoever takes on the property to do whatever they can to continue the restoration and preservation of what is, arguably, Britain’s most magnificent house, so that future generations can enjoy it too.”
It is thought that the family has spent at least £5m and there have been no grants .They have installed new heating and new electrics and found craftsmen to restore the magnificent period features. But the building could swallow millions more. A figure of £42m has been suggested.
Giles says: “We have done a great deal of work and the back section of the property is virtually completed. Most of the State area has been renovated, with just the principal State Rooms left to be redecorated. The amount someone needs to spend depends entirely on what they want to do and achieve. The figure suggested is a bit of a ‘bells and whistles’ number and would include rectifying the worst of the mining subsidence damage. At the end of the day the cost will vary wildly depending on the purchaser’s plans for the home’s end use.”
For Clifford, who helped design London’s Millbank Tower, it was always about love not money. He lived between Guernsey and London but astounded friends and family by moving North and dedicating his last years to saving Wentworth Woodhouse.
Locals and visitors are thrilled that he sacrificed sun, sea and the city for South Yorkshire. Whatever happens his reward is an honourable place in the history of this great house.
* Wentworth Woodhouse boasts a magnificent interior. The best rooms include the pillared hall with its forest of Romanesque columns, the marble saloon, dubbed the finest Georgian room in England, and the Whistlejacket room, created in 1762 especially for the life-size painting by George Stubbs. The painting is now in the National Gallery.
The interiors feature as the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, in the new Mike Leigh film “Mr Turner” about the artist JMW Turner and are being used in a new BBC adaptation of the novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. www.wentworthwoodhouse.co.uk