This English country is twice the size of Buckingham Palace and it remains the largest private house in England. To this day no one knows exactly how many rooms it has.Some claim it contains 365, one for every day of the year. Wentworth Woodhouse sits like a jewel in the South Yorkshire countryside near Rotherham, surrounded by extensive grounds and greenery, wildlife, and beautiful architectural finds.
This imperious house is a Grade I listed building, and aside from its stunning beauty, it commands our respect purely for the sheer amount of different uses it has seen over the past 300 years, and the wealth of characters it has sheltered within its echoing walls. Ever since its construction in the early 18th century by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, the 1st Marquess of Rockingham, it has been alternately a powerful political stronghold and a victim of political attack.
Thomas’ son, for example, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, was Prime Minister of England twice in his long career as a Whig proponent, and thus the grand building became known as a ‘powerhouse’ of that particular party. How many glittering parties must it have seen I wonder, how many ladies’ delicate feet tapped a dainty dance on the ornate marble floors? Certainly, it lends itself so beautifully to the ideal historical setting for reenactment, as is clear from the films that have captured some of its time-capsule beauty, in productions such as Wives and Daughters and the more recent Mr. Turner.
But, in April 1946, the house came under attack. Manny Shinwell, the Labour Party’s Minister of Fuel and Power, decided to mine the house’s grounds extensively for coal, a much-needed resource in the aftermath of the Second World War. As a result, Wentworth Woodhouse became the largest open-cast mining site in England, and serious damage was done to the building as a result.
The woodland and much of the formal gardens were destroyed and not replaced. By 1998 the Fitzwilliam family had been forced to sell most of the house’s contents in auction sales and architecturally it was in a state of gross disrepair.
In a bid to save the house and pay for the damage incurred, Lady Mabel, sister of the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, managed to strike a deal with the West Riding County Council to lease the house as an educational establishment. Thus the house began another of its ‘9 lives’ from 1949 – 79 – as the Lady Mabel College of Physical Education, which trained female P.E. teachers.
Can you imagine what it must have been to train as a P.E. teacher in such an establishment, surrounded by the grandeur and crumbling beauty that Wentworth Woodhouse had become? Amongst other things, the great echoing Marble Hall was repurposed as a badminton court!
By 1989, the house was in such a state of disrepair that it required restorations valued at around £40 million. After 2 well-intentioned subsequent owners fell into financial difficulty, this historic site was placed on the market in 2015 with an asking price of £8 million.
Incidentally, the first time I saw this house was on my way past the new Savills office in York, where my mother lives, and it caught my eye as being a most unusual house to sell, especially at that asking price. To me, it was tantamount to selling such a site as Petworth House, or Kensington Palace – how could we possibly have let it happen?
With the current housing crisis, all I could think was what amazing use it could be put to if someone dedicated the right amount of money to it. It would be far more worthwhile in my mind to spend time and money on a site such as this, thus preserving history and English heritage and repurposing a beautiful building for future use, rather than tearing up more English countryside for homes that aren’t required when we already have so many that are just bought as assets and left to rot.
So thank goodness for the combined efforts of Country Life, Save Britain’s Heritage, the Newbold family, and countless interested members of the public, because I have just found out that Wentworth Woodhouse is to be saved! What sweet victory. According to the ‘Save Wentworth Woodhouse’ website (http://www.savewentworth.co.uk/) a new charitable trust has been established to ‘secure a long term future for Wentworth Woodhouse’.
The trustees of the new Wentworth Woodhouse Partnership Trust are: The Duke of Devonshire, Lady Juliet Tadgell, Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland, Julie Kenny (Chair), Timothy Cooke, Martin Drury, and Merlin Waterson, all of whom are well known for the philanthropic nature and interest in English heritage and culture. If they weren’t already titled and successful, I would suggest several honours for these incredibly generous and caring people!
The plans for the house are really exciting and varied. They come in 4 stages;
- Public opening of the main interiors and gardens, run by the National Trust.
- Catering and events.
- Workspaces in the stables!!
- And my personal favourite – residential! From the website: “Undoubtedly all these units, which provide a very attractive and varied offering, would make for desirable places to live. The preferred model would be to let the various houses and apartments either as holiday lets or on shorthold leases to provide an income stream for the new Trust.” – I will definitely be saving up if these are potential holiday lets!
Of course, every help is needed and every penny counts even with the house’s future secured by the Trust. If you would like to donate, please visit http://www.savewentworth.co.uk/pledge-your-support/ and click the ‘Donate Now’ on the Just Giving page.
Long live Wentworth Woodhouse!