Estate's hidden gems come into the light of day

HIDDEN amid a tangled jumble of overgrown foliage, a leap of imagination is required to see beyond the mass of weeds to what was once the playground of super-rich Yorkshire landowners.

Around 200 years after their creation, a handful of quirky little creations in the grounds of the Bretton Estate, near Wakefield, will soon be open for the enjoyment of commoners for the first time in their history.

Among the hidden gems is the Shell Grotto, a cave-like feature which has the look of something out of a Tolkien-inspired film with its overgrown ivy and seashell lining.

It was once the home of a professional hermit, paid by the gentry to pop out of his modest abode for the delight of passing visitors.

The hidden grotto, along with an obelisk, a Greek-style summer house, stepping stones and a boathouse, are to be opened to public viewing thanks to a major new development which is taking place at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, famous for its works by Yorkshire-born sculptor Henry Moore.

The open-air sculpture park, with backing from Wakefield Council and 500,000 from Natural England, is to be expanded by 150 acres to cover an area which contains the hidden follies that so entertained the aristocrats who used to live at Bretton Hall, a grade II* listed building which last year was placed on English Heritage's At Risk Register.

The Park, at West Bretton, is to restore 85 acres of woodland and two 18th century-designed lakes covering a further 65 acres of the site.

The overgrown and neglected area is referred to as the "private pleasure ground" by park workers because of its association with the well-to-do former owners of the hall.

Their aim is to cut back vegetation and thin out wooded areas so visitors can enjoy the kind of views the gardens were originally designed to offer.

The restoration experts will have one eye on the original creator of much of the landscape, Richard Woods, a talented contemporary of "Capability" Brown, who worked on behalf of Sir Thomas Wentworth, 5th Baronet.

Wentworth was a "colourful personality", according to one historian, who was considered eccentric and regularly provided entertainment for the gossips of the neighbourhood.

He was unmarried but kept in touch with his four sisters and had "liaisons" with their friends.

Sir Thomas sailed his yacht Aurora on the lake he created by damming the River Dearne.

He had an illegitimate daughter and there was also talk of wild parties at the house.

The Shell Grotto was, no doubt, part of the fun.

A sculpture park spokeswoman said: "A man would have been employed by the estate to live in this contrived hermitry and make appearances to entertain the guests.

"It was a fashionable thing at the time among wealthy landowners; it was a status symbol and a way to entertain guests. The Shell Grotto was built in the late 18th century."

The 500,000 restoration project, due for completion next summer, will open up areas never before seen by the public.

The park's executive director, Peter Murray, said: "We are very proud that in these difficult economic times, Yorkshire Sculpture Park has been able to secure significant support for this major project which will reveal a whole new area of the park for visitors.

"It is testament to YSP's success over the last 33 years that we are continuing to develop the Bretton Estate in order to create a unique centre for art, heritage, learning, space and landscape."

Margaret Nieke, Natural England's historic environment adviser, said: "The work we are doing will not only open up some new areas of the park to visitors but it will breathe new life into some wonderful historic features."

Patrick James, managing director of consultants Landscape Agency, which put together a landscape management plan for the park, said: "The project will re-connect areas of this remarkable landscape for the first time in more than 70 years. It is hugely exciting and will bring a whole new dimension to the YSP."

A park spokeswoman said the 500,000 would be spent restoring and enhancing a woodland nature reserve, historic footpaths, bridges, views, follies and "incredible historical features" in order to improve views of Bretton Hall and the lakes.

Work is already under way on site and the newly-restored 150 acres will be opening to the public in the summer.

Hall family had link to author

The Wentworths of Bretton Hall were distantly related to author Jane Austen, whose works are peppered with names of Yorkshire landed gentry – from Captain Wentworth in Persuasion to Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

There is also an American link to the estate. In 1766 American businessman John Wentworth visited his distant relation at Bretton Hall and later named a parcel of land after the ancestral pile.

Nearly two centuries later in 1944, this was where the Bretton Woods agreement, which created the International Monetary Fund, was signed.

In the 1820s Robert Marnock was head gardener. He later designed Sheffield Botanical Gardens.