Wentworth Castle Gardens - A restoration tragedy

A visitor enjoys the sunshine amid a sea of rhododendrons outside the famous Victorian conservatory at Wentworth Castle Gardens.
A visitor enjoys the sunshine amid a sea of rhododendrons outside the famous Victorian conservatory at Wentworth Castle Gardens.
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Despite getting Royal support and a multi-million-pound restoration, one of Yorkshire’s finest gardens is closing to the public. Mike Waites reports.

The early rhododendrons and camellias are in bloom as usual this spring in the gardens originally created to compete with the grandest estates in Georgian England.

Wentworth Castle Gardeners pictured here in the late 1890s.

Wentworth Castle Gardeners pictured here in the late 1890s.

But soon Lady Lucy’s Walk, comprising a beautiful avenue of limes, and other hidden gems will fall quiet as Wentworth Castle gardens shuts to the public following a brief 21st Century renaissance.

Lack of visitor numbers is being blamed for the decision to close the historic site near Barnsley despite more than £20m worth of investment in the last 15 years to restore its fortunes following decades of neglect.

Talks are underway to secure the future of the only Grade I-Listed landscape in South Yorkshire, which is said to be “nationally significant” for its extensive monuments including some of the earliest follies in the country.

In an irony which would not have been lost on its founder Thomas Wentworth, who only built the estate due to a bitter dispute over the inheritance of the family seat at Wentworth Woodhouse seven miles away, the closure comes just as a Government-backed package of support for the rival building has been finally agreed.

Wentworth, a soldier and politician, bought the land in 1708. He and his successors extended and improved the house originally standing on the site but in particular created a network of formal gardens and idiosyncratic features set among 500 acres of rolling parkland.

For Trevor Mitchell, Historic England’s planning director for Yorkshire, the gardens and park at Wentworth Castle “form one of the finest landscapes in England”. Retaining much of the original 18th Century Baroque layout, he describes as “remarkable” its collection of garden buildings including a mock castle, a domed temple and a highly-ornamented Victorian conservatory.

Like many great estates, it fell on hard times in the last century. Bought by the Barnsley corporation in 1948, by the turn of the millennium the overgrown gardens, including many of the 26 Grade I listed structures, were on the verge of dereliction.

Several were placed on English Heritage’s at-risk register and there were fears many of its treasures could be lost forever.

Action was finally taken in 2001 when Barnsley Council and the Northern College, which had taken over the main building to run adult education courses two decades earlier and is unaffected by the gardens closure, created Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Park Heritage Trust as a vehicle to access restoration funds and relieve the local authority of maintenance costs.

The estate attracted national attention two years later with the surprise success of the BBC’s Restoration programme which sought to salvage threatened national assets. It became a finalist and won millions of pounds in grants leading to the opening of the gardens in 2007.

Among the restored features is Stainborough Castle. Completed in 1731, it led to the estate being named Wentworth Castle and was one of the first Gothic follies in the country. It was among the most damaged parts of the estate after open cast mining undermined its foundations leading to the collapse of two of its towers. Now restored, the views from its main tower stretch as far as Ferrybridge power station and beyond on a clear day.

Another important feature is the Sun Monument dedicated to the remarkable author and traveller Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who introduced an early smallpox vaccine to Britain, and whose husband’s family seat was at nearby Wortley Hall.

The first landscape monument to a non-royal living woman in the country, the obelisk originally had a bronze disc on top which is said to have been visible in sunshine on the rival Wentworth Woodhouse estate.

Experts used old documents and illustrations to recreate gardens planted in the shape of the Union flag to mark the Act of Union between England and Scotland and made further enhancements to National Collections of magnolias, rhododendrons and camellias.

In total, more than £20m in investment from organisations including the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, the now-disbanded Yorkshire Forward and the European Regional Development Fund was put towards restoring the estate.

Ten years after the estate was featured on Restoration, the final major piece of work, which attracted the attention of Prince Charles on a visit in 2013, was the completion of the painstakingly-restored glasshouse.

Described as the “jewel in the crown” of the gardens, the conservatory is one of the last surviving Victorian winter gardens in the country. It had electricity installed in 1885, shortly before it arrived even at Buckingham Palace, to house specimens collected from around the world by plant hunters.

The work saw the estate become a finalist in the Best Visitor Attraction category of the White Rose Awards, but despite the investment and cost-cutting measures figures show the trust running it was struggling financially.

Accounts covering 2015-16, its eighth year of full trading, published last month, reveal it was reliant on outside financial support. Officials had set their sights on attracting 75,000 visitors a year but only 58,000 came through its doors.

In December, Barnsley Council, which says it has provided £1.4m to the trust, loan repayment holidays and further support in kind, refused further financial assistance.

A report by independent auditors signed in February recorded an adverse opinion on the trust’s accounts and said it was “demonstrably not a going concern” and it remains unclear what will happen to the ownership of the estate.

Barnsley councillor Roy Miller said the trust had not been able to make enough money to cover the running costs to manage the site and keep the gardens open as a year-round attraction.

“The current business model is not sustainable and it would be wrong to continue to support it indefinitely at funding levels that would require considerably more grant support than the council currently provides, especially as visitor numbers and income are falling, therefore the trust has already agreed and started the process of winding down,” he said.

A number of options are said to be under consideration and organisations including the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has invested £12m in improvement works, and Historic England are among those offering support for a solution to continue to allow public access to its treasures.

This Easter marks the 10th anniversary of the gardens opening. They will close for the final time on Easter Monday.

Sustainable future needed

John Edwards, chair of the Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Park Heritage Trust and a former chief executive at Barnsley Council, said the charity had many successful bids for funding leading to high-profile restoration projects but it had become clear the business model was unsustainable without outside support.

“We’re incredibly proud of all that has been achieved in the last decade, especially the restoration projects that were made possible thanks to the hard work and dedication of so many people,” he said.

Mr Edwards added: “The council is helping us to manage the closure of the trust, and we remain hopeful that a sustainable future will be found for the gardens.”