The experts all agree about Wentworth Woodhouse. In his England’s Thousand Best Houses, Simon Jenkins reckons it can be ranked “with Harewood and Castle Howard among the great mansions of the North”. Pevsner’s Buildings of England, the architectural Bible, describes it as “not just one of Yorkshire’s but one of England’s greatest and most remarkable houses”.
And now, on a chilly, misty South Yorkshire morning, Reg Nash is spelling it out. “Think about it,” he says, as we take in the pillars, the marble, the gleaming gold, the classical statues and the sheer size of the place. “We’re not in Florence. We’re not in Rome. We’re in Rotherham.”
Specifically, we’re in an unexpected rural oasis between Rotherham and Barnsley, exploring Europe’s biggest privately owned country house. Reg, a guide there, is leading a public tour with quickfire patter and practised panache.
“I’m going to repeat myself as we go from room to room,” he says. “I’ll say: ‘Have you seen the fantastic ceiling? Have you seen the marvellous marble fireplace?’”
He ushers the two-dozen-strong group through the doors of the Marble Saloon, arguably the 18th century house’s greatest glory. “I want to hear at least one ‘wow!’ as we go in here,” he says.
There are around 24 “wows!” It’s an astonishing room in an astonishing house. What’s equally astonishing is that so few people have heard of it. Mention Wentworth Woodhouse to people living as near as ten miles away and you can get blank looks (“Do you mean Wentworth Garden Centre?”).
The Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust aims to change all that. It bought the house last year for £7m and has launched a £130m plan to rescue it from decades of neglect and decay and make it “a world-class visitor destination”.
With a £750,000 grant and practical advice from the National Trust, plus a £7.6m government grant, Sarah McLeod, the Preservation Trust’s feisty chief executive, has recruited 19 full-time staff and is clear-eyed about the challenges.
“It’s a wonder it’s still here,” she says, describing how previous owners demolished some parts of the house, left others almost derelict and built ugly extensions. In places, the roof leaks and debris is piled up in long-abandoned rooms.
So does all that – and the fact that there are reputedly 365 rooms (though some may simply be colossal cupboards) – make it a bit of a white elephant? “I disagree,” Sarah says, firmly. “It may be a white elephant as a domestic dwelling, but we’ve shown it can be sustainable. It’s already a wedding venue and there are plans to create commercial office space and holiday lets.
“What I absolutely don’t want is to put reproduction furniture in the rooms. This isn’t the second Chatsworth; it’s the first Wentworth Woodhouse. It’s not a house rammed full of artworks; we need to be imaginative in what we’re going to do with it. Its USP is the amazing love that people have for it. And its scale.”
To try to grasp that scale, stand in its 83-acre park and take in its west front – at more than 600 feet, the longest facade of any English country house. It’s panoramic, as though half-a-dozen standard-issue stately homes have somehow been shunted together.
It was once celebrated as the only house in England where footmen led guests down to dinner from their bedrooms in case they lost their way in the five miles of corridors. Reg Nash has an arguably better version of the story – that the footmen left trails of confetti along the corridors so guests could find their own way.
It’s certainly a confusing place to wander round, a maze of corridors and staircases and doors that may not take you anywhere; a game of domestic snakes and ladders. Back in the Forties, the National Trust’s James Lees-Milne wrote in his diary: “I could not find my way about the interior and never once knew in what direction I was looking from a window.”
His confusion was understandable. Wentworth Woodhouse is actually two linked 18th century houses constructed back-to-back at more or less the same time (the remains of a third, earlier, house are embedded between them, but we’ll let that pass).
The east-facing one, with the celebrated facade, houses the State Rooms, including the Marble Saloon. The west-facing one is where the owners, for centuries the Fitzwilliam family (their memorials are in Wentworth village’s two churches), actually lived. “It must be the most magnificent back-to-back in the country,” says Reg.
Death duties made it almost impossible to maintain after the Second World War. To save it from becoming a great lumbering, slumbering dinosaur, part of it was leased to West Riding County Council, which converted much of it into a training college for female PE teachers.
Black Diamonds, Catherine Bailey’s gripping account of the Fitzwilliams and what would become their “crumbling and forgotten palace in Yorkshire”, includes a photograph of white-plimsolled students playing badminton in the Marble Saloon.
The picture was taken in the late 1960s, when Jo Owen was among the 180 students based there. She lived in the east-facing part and points to the window of her old room on a wooden scale-model that helps visitors get their bearings.
Was it an odd place for a teenage girl to find herself? “Well, I recognised that it was very grand, and we spent an awful of time walking up and down,” she says. After evening visits to a friend at the other end of the darkened house, she had to remember where the light switches were on the long walk back to her own room. “But nobody ever saw anything weird.”
Jo, one of 120 volunteers at the house, leads me through the family quarters. In the glory days, there were 1,000 staff, including a state bedmaker. They waited below stairs to be summoned to one or other of the family rooms – listed on a board now hung in the house’s cafe: Lady Charlotte’s Dressing Room, Red Bedroom, Small Red Bedroom, Lady F’s Boudoir, Green Nurseries 1 & 2, Billiard Room, Old Billiard Room.
George V and Queen Mary stayed at Wentworth Woodhouse for four nights in 1912; their entourage filled 76 bedrooms and the evening before they left, local miners staged a “torchlight tattoo” to entertain them.
Things took a less harmonious turn in 1946. The Labour minister Emanuel (Manny) Shinwell, no admirer of the rich and privileged, created Britain’s biggest opencast mining site in the grounds. It stretched up to the house doors, with 50ft-high piles of rubble and earth. “Like holding the Battle of the Somme in front of the Chateau of Versailles,” wrote the country house expert Marcus Binney.
Jo Owen recalls stories of post-war auctions and sales to try to raise money. “It’s reputed that at one sale, 14 four-poster beds were sold.”
Sheffield Polytechnic (now Hallam University) took over the lease, but gave it up in 1988, and the house was sold to Wensley Haydon-Baillie, one of the UK’s 50 richest men. He subsequently sold it to Clifford Newbold, a retired architect, who said he had originally been on the lookout for a country cottage to restore. Newbold made his home there and launched restoration work.
“He was a lovely, lovely man,” says Jo. “If it hadn’t been for him and the college, this house would have been a wreck.”
Even so, there’s no avoiding the decay. We turn from a corridor, where a plastic bucket is collecting dripping water, into a room with peeling 18th century wallpaper. Outside, some of the statues have lost their heads, though carved gryphons, coiling snakes and gummy lions have survived intact.
Most rooms either have no furniture or feature props left over from one of the many films or TV dramas that have used the house as a location. “When people come round they fall in love with the place,” says Jo. “When you’re in the State Rooms, you have to pinch yourself to believe you’re in them.”
There are big hopes for Wentworth Woodhouse. “If the house was fully restored, it could rival Chatsworth or Blenheim,” says volunteer Jonathan Robinson.
In another room, Reg Nash is winding down his tour. His group – including visitors from across Britain as well as locals – are impressed both by him and by the place itself. “It’s fantastic,” says Maureen Williams, from Yarm in North Yorkshire. “Normally to see this sort of marble statue you have to go to Italy, but this is in Rotherham!”
Roger Chapman, from Bury St Edmunds, visiting friends in Sheffield, is equally enthusiastic. “I hadn’t heard of Wentworth Woodhouse until today,” he says. “It’s magnificent. I’ve been round other houses that are dank and a bit dreary, but this is friendly and warm.”
“Have you seen the fantastic ceiling?” asks Reg – again. “Have you seen the marvellous marble fireplace?”
Pre-booked tours at Wentworth Woodhouse (01226 351161; www.wentworthwoodhouse.org.uk) cost £20 (house tours) or £5 (garden tours). Half price for children (aged five to 16) and National Trust members.