The widest private house in England, and probably Europe, is on the mend after 25 years of neglect, although the final restoration will take 20 to 30 years and cost between £150 and £200 million.
I first visited Wentworth Woodhouse, the biggest country house you’ve never heard of, about three years ago when its future was very much in doubt. The staffer who showed our very small tour group of three around, was knowledgeable but concerned. The owner had died after a decade of struggling to effect some maintenance work and the entire estate was for sale. The docent was praying English Heritage or the National Trust would not be the new owners. Although he wouldn’t say why, I suspect he was rightly concerned about the byzantine ways of these two large bureaucracies on a huge but endangered property. In the end, he needn’t have worried as a local trust raised the required £7 million and scooped up the property, stables and 83 surrounding acres.
The Grade 1 listed property was in the hands of architect Clifford Newbold from 1999. He had hoped to fund renovations with the proceeds of a £100 million lawsuit against the Coal Board, but the suit failed and in 2015 he died, having only made small repairs. A huge five-year fundraising effort resulted in the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust purchasing the property in early 2017. WWPT chief executive Sarah McLeod says: “It’s definitely a long-term project,” but added she expects that the property will become a national landmark long before the restoration is completed. The British Chancellor loosened the purse strings in the latest budget with a gift of £7.6 million for urgent maintenance declaring the building “a key piece of Northern heritage at a critical risk of being lost to future generations.”
In 1945 a national coal shortage led to an open pit mine being dug to within 12 feet of the backdoor. However, locals said the quality of the coal was “not worth the getting,” and the whole enterprise, authorised by socialist minister Emmanuel Shinwell, was an act of class war intended to drive out the aristocracy.
Over the intervening years subsidence has, not surprisingly, become a problem. The other big ticket item is the four-acre roof, which leaks in all the wrong places. It will take 14 thousand slate tiles to fix the roof over the grand Marble Saloon alone, and work has just begun.
That’s the modern story and in a moment the past.
But more importantly: what do you get when you book a tour? Guided tours are a must as the place has 365 rooms, five miles of corridors and cupboards the size of your living room. Book online.
The exterior is staggering as you drive up. It is without doubt one of the finest Georgian houses in England and at 606 feet has the widest façade. Equally unusual, it comprises two entire houses back-to-back. The West Front, constructed between 1724-28 was until recently occupied by the Newbold family, and I have not seen it, although tours are now scheduled. This is a brick building in the English Baroque style and faced private gardens originally and currently the somewhat restored coal pit.
The East Front, built between 1731-50, and where visitors enter, is built of sandstone in the classical Palladian style. It is, believe me, a masterpiece. Even though it is absolutely huge, wider than Buckingham Palace and about the same floor area as the Kremlin, it is so perfectly proportioned that it does not feel intimidating.
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in his exhaustive 1950s 45-volume treatise on the counties of England, said: “The interiors of Wentworth Woodhouse are of quite exceptional value. They represent, with few exceptions, the style of no more than one generation, but they represent it in a variety of different shades, from the Viennese or Venetian gaiety of the West Entrance Hall to the Palladian purity of the grand saloon.” It is these interiors we are now going to visit.
Sadly, all the original furnishings, art and sculptures have been removed and sold off over the years. Reproductions of some of the famous paintings have been hung in the original spots. So it is not the furniture, or the collections of ancestral wanderings, such as one finds at Chatsworth or Blenheim Palace, we will marvel at. It is the beauty of the rooms themselves and as they are mostly stripped to the walls, their lovely proportions are exposed. Our attention is not diverted by period pieces or grand table settings or portraits of ancestors.
Visitors enter through the extraordinary Pillared Hall, whose rows of plain Tuscan columns support the Saloon above. Then the various tours set off on different agendas, depending on how much you have forked out, between £10 and £25 on my visit, with the latter covering 27 rooms on the ground and first floors, and recently added 11 rooms in the West side of the house, plus other goodies including a walk through the private gardens. My favourite room was undoubtedly the vast Marble Saloon, 60 feet square and 40 feet high. Although they were closed off due to subsidence at the time, we were allowed a peek into neighbouring rooms. Looking from one, through an astounding enfilade of rooms, we could see right to the opposite side of the house.
The original house was built by one Thomas Watson-Wentworth, 1st Marquess of Rockingham. His son, the 2nd Marquess, twice Prime Minister of England, vastly expanded the property. Then in the 18th century, the house was inherited by the Earls Fitzwilliam. The 4th Earl was a celebrity, throwing parties for up to 10 thousand guests. Over a thousand people worked at the house in its heyday. The 7th Earl died in 1942 and his son inherited, but was killed in a plane crash in France just two years later. Since there was no heir the house was leased and fell to a number of uses, and the long road downhill began.
More recently, scenes from the Churchill epic, Darkest Hour, and episodes of the television series Victoria, were filmed here and perhaps the building’s darkest hour is behind it.
The real Queen Victoria described it in her personal diary as “an immense house … a very fine edifice.” Since she was comparing it with her home at Buckingham Palace, she must have been impressed. You will be too. I shall enjoy going back to Wentworth Woodhouse over the years to see progress. Having been there almost before anything was fixed, it will be very special to watch.
How to get there: Follow the M1 to Exit 35, just north of Sheffield and Rotherham, WW is just 3.4 miles or a nine minute drive away. Check the map on their website.