A family war of the follies leaves a little reminder of rivals

DON'T you just love a story of family rivalry – that is, so long as it doesn't concern your own kith and kin?

Strolling through the hundreds of graceful acres of some of Britain's large country estates, the visitor will appreciate the planning and hard work that went into creating the sumptuous gardens and views of mansion and monuments, but we don't necessarily understand how these vast properties came about.

Take Wentworth Castle. Five minutes from junction 37 of the M1, this is the only grade one listed landscape in South Yorkshire, and it encompasses a fascinating collection of 26 listed buildings and monuments. Among them are the Rotunda, Queen Anne's Obelisk, the Duke of Argyll's Column and the majestic Stainborough Castle, a large romantic folly built by Sir Thomas Wentworth the Earl of Strafford in 1730.

Designed as an "eyecatcher", this mock castle, believed to be the second oldest Gothic garden folly in the country, is a wonderful architectural flourish with four towers named Harriet, Anne, Lucy and William after the Earl's children. The interior of each was painted a different colour.

Patrick Eyres, a landscape historian and one of the trustees of Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust, clearly enjoys telling the story of the castle and the property on which it stands.

"In 1695, when Sir Thomas's father died, he expected to inherit the estate at Wentworth Woodhouse which had been in the family for generations, six miles as the crow flies from where Wentworth Castle now stands.

"But for some reason the inheritance was passed down the female line to a cousin called Thomas Watson, who added Wentworth to his name. He was a member of the gentry, whereas Sir Thomas was an aristocrat, a renowned and respected diplomat. Finding himself disinherited, Sir Thomas bought the 500-acre Stainborough Hall Estate nearby and set about building a castle and a series of follies around his land, including the mock castle. It had a bailey wall and four turrets, a gatehouse keep with four towers and a first floor banqueting room. It was properly plastered inside, and was used regularly to entertain. The name of the estate was changed to Wentworth Castle, probably to annoy the cousin down the road.

"A lovely letter exists, written by Sir Thomas, detailing how he entertained in the folly, and even enjoyed a 'breakfast' there with Thomas Watson Wentworth, although the two men were poles apart in many ways including politically."

The disinherited Sir Thomas went about adding to his acreage by secretly buying up land from local farmers and referring to his rival in documents by the codename "the vermin". The Earl of Strafford's son continued the rivalry, and the owners vied with each other to create eye-catching follies on their land.

The pinnacle of this "folly war" really was Stainborough Castle, says Patrick Eyres. "I think we can safely say that Sir Thomas Wentworth and his family's efforts outranked, outswanked and outshone those of the cousin at Wentworth Woodhouse – although over time the family at Wentworth Woodhouse rose to become more senior within the aristocracy. The castle folly at Wentworth Castle was placed deliberately so as to be seen from the highest point of the Wentworth Woodhouse Estate. Unlike most follies, though, it was useful for entertaining and for the children to play in."

Today, Wentworth Woodhouse is still in private ownership, whereas Wentworth Castle is now the Northern College, an adult education centre. The gardens and parkland are open to the public and are looked after by the trust. In the 1960s two of the castle folly's towers collapsed after the structure was destabilised by the opening up of new coal seams beneath it. The castle fell into disrepair and became overgrown, although some thought this added to its romance.

In recent years, Stainborough Castle has been expensively restored after a campaign to raise 20m to refurbish the mansion, gardens, parkland and follies, and it can be used for picnics or to hold events, seating hundreds of visitors for theatrical and musical performances.

The folly was featured in the BBC's Restoration series and will be seen again next year in another BBC series about Britain's "hidden" houses, which will examine the famous Wentworth family rivalry.

Wentworth Castle Gardens, Low Lane, Stainborough, South Yorkshire S75 3EN. 01226 776040 or www.wentworthcastle.org