Wentworth Woodhouse: A vision of greatness

Clifford Newbold.
Clifford Newbold.
Have your say

An 87-year-old architect is overseeing a plan to restore the biggest private family house in Europe. Sharon Dale reoports on the battle for Wentworth Woodhouse.

A gargantuan, 365-room mansion with serious issues certainly beats gardening and genealogy as a retirement hobby.

But as 87-year-old Clifford Newbold observes: “It keeps me busy and it’s turning out to be far more interesting than I thought.”

The eminent architect, who helped design London’s Millbank Tower, is dedicating his last years to saving Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, and turning it into South Yorkshire’s answer to Chatsworth.

It is an enormous task that has been hampered by expensive legal battles but, against all the odds, Clifford appears to be winning.

He bought the dilapidated, grade I listed building in 1999 and his determination to save Europe’s largest privately owned house for the nation has astonished everyone except his nearest and dearest, wife Dorothy and sons Marcus and Giles, who have upped sticks from London to support him.

Wentworth, which is half Baroque and half Palladian, is now the family home. A fortune has been spent on turning the Baroque back of the property into comfortable living quarters. The grand front is an ongoing project.

There have been no grants just advice from English Heritage, which begs the question: “Whose hard earned cash is being poured into this gigantic money pit?”

The answer is that its family money earned from the architecture practice and the Newbolds property companies.

“What people can’t understand is that it’s not about making money. We fell in love with the house and we are driven by passion. It’s something to enjoy and we want to save it for the nation. We’ve become obsessed by it,” says Giles, whose enthusiasm is impressive.

Profiteers would have given up on the 250,000sq ft house long ago. It’s not just the renovation, the maintenance, the two-and-a-half acres of roof and the fuel bills, but the subsidence caused by mining and an on-going , eight-year court case that has cost a huge sum.

The family is fighting the Coal Authority over new damage. It won the original case and an appeal but more money is now being spent on a final fling at the Supreme Court.

“It’s very frustrating. The work needed to re-stabilise the ground is substantial and will cost £100m but it will also create jobs,” says Giles.

The damage is plain to see. The whole place is lopsided with one floor running six inches lower at one end.

The Roman-style arches are opening up, friezes are fracturing and every week brings a new crack or a fresh avalanche of plaster.

“Look at the original Thomas Crapper loo,” says Clifford, who eventually has to give up trying to open the door to show me the luxurious lavatory. It has jammed thanks to new slippage.

They knew that there had been open cast mining at the back of the house and that in 1946 the Minister of Fuel, Manny Shinwell, had carried out a threat to owner Earl Fitzwilliam to bring seven deep cast mines “right up to your bloody front door”.

“He hated the aristocracy but the Fitzwilliams were good employers. It was very unfair,” says Clifford.

The architect has form for rescuing period buildings.

In the 1960s and 70s he bought and saved a number of London’s Georgian and Victorian properties from the bulldozer. “I called that my Saturday job,” he says. Wentworth is his biggest project

“I’d retired to Guernsey and thought I’d buy a country cottage to restore that was one to two hours from London. I found this advertised in a Sunday paper. It’s bigger and further away than I planned,” says Clifford, who paid over £2m for it.

“We moved in because you have to see how it works and you have to be on site every day to oversee a project like this.”

The foundations of the “country place” were formed by Thomas Wentworth, King Charles 1’s right hand man and passed to the Earls Fitzwilliam. With their fortune depleted by death duties it was sold to a local businessman in the 80s and later repossessed before being bought from a Swiss Bank by the Newbolds.

The restoration hasn’t fazed them but the schedule has been delayed by six years thanks to the legal dispute.

Still, they have installed new heating and new electrics and found craftsmen to restore the magnificent period features, which include supersize skirtings whose carved Yorkshire roses were hidden beneath layers of white gloss.

The best rooms include the pillared hall with its forest of Romanesque columns, the magnificent 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 painter spent a lot of time at Wentworth Woodhouse working for his great patron, the Marquess of Rockingham, owner of Whistlejacket, a racehorse that won the 2,000 guineas at York,

The original was sold along with many other treasures to pay crippling death duties but the Newbolds are in negotiations to bring it back along with other pieces held in the national archive

“It is owned by the National Gallery and we’re hopeful we’ll get it back as the consensus now is that people should see the pictures in the houses they were designed for rather than in London galleries. We have also got people in auction houses looking out for furniture and artefacts that originally came from Wentworth,” says Giles.

This and other income generating projects, plus a proposed biomass boiler, should help with the running costs.

The house has just opened to the public for guided tours, already a hit with Americans, who revere Charles Watson-Wentworth, who helped negotiate their independence. Catering expert Dine is taking over the north wing for weddings and functions. Brides and grooms are excited by the photo opportunities and those who have signed the visitors’ book agree it is an amazing place. “Well done. We love it”, they say, and one doctor, was movced to write: “Manny Shinwell was a git”.

Wentworth Woodhouse, www.wentworthwoodhouse.co.uk; www.dine-services.com.