`

Sarah McLeod interview: Trust’s chief executive on restoring Wentworth Woodhouse – the ‘biggest house in England’ hidden for years

Sarah McLeod at Wentworth Woodhouse. Picture: Scott Merrylees
Sarah McLeod at Wentworth Woodhouse. Picture: Scott Merrylees

On a balmy afternoon a few Mondays ago, people out walking at one of South Yorkshire's most important sites were treated to a dramatic scene straight out of a Hollywood movie - a helicopter circling over the Grade I-listed Wentworth Woodhouse, then landing in front of applauding wedding guests who gathered on the balcony to watch the happy couple take to the skies.

The opulent home near Rotherham is the perfect setting for such a spectacle. Built in the 18th century for the 1st Marquess of Rockingham and claimed to be the largest privately-owned house in Europe, it has an immense 606ft façade; half Baroque and half Palladian in style, it has some 365 rooms and covers 250,000 sq ft, standing in 87 acres of grounds.

The Grade I listed Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham.

The Grade I listed Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham.

But come November, the place so popular with wealthy newlyweds will be shrouded in scaffolding for two years as work to protect and restore the grand but severely dilapidated property steps up a gear - and Sarah McLeod, chief executive of the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, knows just what this means.

"Scaffolding makes brides very unhappy," she says drily. "They want to be a princess for the day, they want to stand on that balcony."

The roof will be removed and new slates laid down to make the historic mansion watertight - and workers hammering lead will also be unpopular with the film and TV crews that descend on the estate for productions like ITV's Victoria and the Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, in which the house made an ideal stand-in for Buckingham Palace.

"They need silence for their sets," says Sarah. "So we've had to take our business model and completely turn it on its head for next year."

Tours on the roof, a bigger shop and a proper café are the answer, she thinks. 

"It's been painful for me this year because people have come in to go on tours and they've said 'We've had a wonderful tour, can we buy some lunch?' And I've had to say, no, you keep your money - there's no food here," says Sarah, who took charge just over 12 months ago. "We need that income desperately." 

And ahead of that, in October, a masterplan is to be launched from Yorkshire and Downing Street detailing the trust's vision for the site, which involves transforming Wentworth Woodhouse into a mixed-use destination, combining commercial elements - offices, hotel accommodation - with the state rooms and gardens that rival Chatsworth in their sheer size.

The bill for all this was originally estimated at £42 million. In reality, it could reach as much as £200m, Sarah has admitted.

"When you ask people what they think Wentworth Woodhouse is all about, the number one answer that comes up is the scale of it - it's just so big," says Sarah. "The other answer is that it's like a secret. It's been hidden for so long. How can it be the biggest house in England and people don't know about it and haven't been allowed in, in modern times?"

A long saga led to the trust buying the property for £7m in 2017. The marquess' house was eventually passed to the Fitzwilliam family and commandeered as an intelligence base during World War Two. After 1945 the garden and park was used for open cast coalmining, causing damage and subsidence, while the mansion became a training college for women PE teachers. It then changed hands and was bought by architect Clifford Newbold in 1999, who had his own ambitions for refurbishment before his death in 2015, which gave Sarah's trust - chaired by entrepreneur Julie Kenny - its cue to intervene.

The project is 'hugely exciting but very complex', says Sarah breathlessly. "It has just been coming at me like a train." 

Julie managed to secure an audience with the chancellor Philip Hammond, who approved a £7.6m grant towards the scheme.

"Although people see Wentworth Woodhouse as an asset, it's actually a liability. Because it's listed the trustees are legally responsible to ensure its upkeep and maintenance, and it was in such a poor condition it was obvious that if they didn't do some urgent work on it - I mean, really urgent work - parts of the building would be lost. From the day they took the site on we've gone straight into the capital works programme - that's why they needed me to come in as quickly as possible. Julie's background is in alarm systems, not restoration, bless her."

The Government money deals with 'about 20 per cent of the roof'. "Frankly £7.6m doesn't even scratch the surface on what's urgent, but it was a huge help. It's purely to stop water coming in and dry rot eating away at the house in the areas where it's most prolific."

In preparing the masterplan the trust has run a public consultation that attracted 1,000 responses, spoken to anyone who might want their say - Wentworth residents, Historic England, Rotherham Council's planning department - and visited 18 other refurbished stately homes.

"Every single one we went to was able to tell us the thing they'd done wrong, which is really useful."

Shrewdly, Sarah is looking for what she calls 'capacity for change' - bits of the house the trust is able to totally overhaul and repurpose. Some sections - such as an extension containing the college refectory that bears no resemblance to the rest of the mansion - have leapt out already, but others, such as the stunning Marble Saloon, can only be painstakingly renovated to their original condition. "The interiors are extremely precious," says Sarah. "You're not going to go in there and start knocking them about."

The trust has ideas for most of the site, apart from a 'great big hunk of building' in the middle of the mansion. "We'll just mothball that, because it will evolve naturally."

Initially the focus will be on the stables, a handsome structure earmarked for an events centre that stands alongside the main driveway. Sarah envisages commercial lets and a bar or restaurant - money-spinners that will generate funds before the restoration moves to the main premises.

"There's no point doing it if it's not going to be financially sustainable because you just find yourself back in the same place."

Completing the stables and the Camellia House - a conservatory in the gardens - will probably take 10 years, while Wentworth's full restoration will need three decades to finish, Sarah believes, by which time she will be long gone.

"These projects take time. The last job I did I was there for 15 years and chief executive for nine."

Sarah previously turned around Cromford Mills in Derbyshire, where Sir Richard Arkwright constructed the first successful water-powered cotton spinning mill in 1771. She led a £48m project at the World Heritage Site, which now has business spaces, shops and cafés. "And it's still not finished. It was the right time for me to leave and it was the right time for Cromford to have somebody new."

She was 'getting itchy feet' as she approached 50, she says.

"I couldn't imagine there was a bigger project than Cromford and one day, there in my email, was 'Would you be interested in this role at Wentworth Woodhouse?' I just thought 'That's a big job. Who'd be mad enough to do that?' But why not? Let's have a crack at it and see. I didn't actually expect to get it but I was thrilled when I did."

Sarah, now 51, is originally from Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, but lived in Matlock from the age of five, moving to London at 18. She was brought up by her mother, a special needs teacher, and showed no aptitude for history, despite her later career.

"I failed my history O-level, actually. But I don't really see it as a history job. You're kind of a massive delegator. I'm not an expert of anything, really, but I am quite good at understanding what I do need experts in. My greatest skill is I've got really good understanding and knowledge of who the best people are to work with."

Sarah is in charge of 19 full-time staff and 100 volunteers at Wentworth Woodhouse. She shares her office with colleagues and there is 'no particular hierarchy', she says, although she works from home often to concentrate on writing funding bids.

She spends 24 hours every weekend with her son Sylvester, 23, who is profoundly autistic and lives in care. "He can't speak, so we spend 24 hours in silence. Which is incredibly cathartic because I spend all day every day talking. It's a really good stress buster for me."

She also has two daughters - Jaybird, 24, with her ex-husband who is Sylvester's father too, and Clare, 25, who was a foster child. The girls are about to move to New Zealand to work - Sarah's ex is a Kiwi, she explains. Presently Sarah is renting a 'tiny little house' in Wentworth village, where she hopes to move properly soon. "I wanted to be much more accessible to the people in the village so they could stop me and ask what's going on." 

Sarah chairs the Heritage Trust Network, a UK-wide group that supports places like Wentworth Woodhouse, where thoughts are now turning to a 'cultural strategy', moving beyond the open air cinema, outdoor theatre and musical performances that happen currently.

"I want to be a little bit more experimental," she says. "For November next year I want to look at some kind of illumination across the front of the house. I would much rather people come and see something like that than fireworks. Let's move into the 21st century and tell these stories in a really modern way and do something other stately homes aren't doing."