Updated: Sep 20
Wentworth Woodhouse is one of the most spectacular Country Houses anywhere in the world. It’s also record breaking. For example, Wentworth is the largest Private house in the UK, and features the longest facade of any Country Home in Europe.
You would be forgiven however for not knowing much about this immense structure, in fact you might not even know of its existence. The reason, is that up until recently, Wentworth Woodhouse was just another forgotten Stately Home, unloved and largely falling into disrepair. But, this is all abut to change, with Wentworth Woodhouse finally getting the attention it deserves. Read on to find out more about one of the UK’s most impressive historic buildings, and how one forward thinking Charitable Trust is bringing this epic piece of history back to life.
Situated on the outskirts of Rotherham in South Yorkshire, Wentworth Woodhouse is quite a sight to behold. The size and scale of the place is absolutely extraordinary, and laying eyes on it for the first time is truly an unforgettable experience. The architecture too is quite striking. The stark contrast between the Baroque west front, and the Palladian East front gives the impression of two very separate houses built back to back. But, there are essentially three houses at Wentworth, as at its core sits the original 17th century structure, the former home of the Earls of Strafford.
The history of Wentworth Woodhouse
The history of Wentworth Woodhouse predates the 17th century by quiet some years however. Certainly, the village of Wentworth was established by at least 1066, with the Wentworth family acquiring land through marriage to the Woodhouse family by around 1300. This marriage brought many benefits for the family, with the Wentworth’s going on to vastly expand their estates and emerge as a significant landowning family. Certainly a large medieval house would have predated the 17th century one, but by 1630 construction of the new grand house was underway, a sure sign of the Wentworth’s success.
The Earls of Stafford
The Jacobean house was constructed by the Member of Parliament for Yorkshire, Thomas Wentworth, whom having previously served as Lord Deputy of Ireland, was created Baron Raby and 1st Earl of Stafford in 1640. Wentworth however had made many enemies, particularly in Parliament, and his downfall came in 1641 when King Charles I reluctantly signed his death warrant, in an attempt to appease his political opponents. Wentworth was executed the same year, and this did little to prevent to ensuing civil war.
Further tragedy came in 1695, when the second Earl died childless. With the Earldom becoming extinct, the vast Wentworth estate passed unexpectedly to the Earl’s nephew, Thomas Watson, something that came as a great surprise to the Earl’s cousin and apparent heir, Thomas Wentworth. What ensued was a bitter feud between Watson and Wentworth, with Wentworth purchasing the nearby Stainborough Hall in 1708, and going on to create the rival Wentworth Castle Estate. He was also successful in reviving the Earldom of Strafford, and created 1st Earl Strafford (second creation) in 1711.
You can find out more about the history of National Trust Wentworth Castle, along with photos, here.
The first great Palladian house
As part of his inheritance, Thomas Watson was required to change the family name to Watson-Wentworth, and whilst the seasoned politician failed to acquire any significant titles for himself, his son – another Thomas – upon inheriting the estate in 1723, was later created Marquis of Rockingham. Being a prominent Whig MP himself, the Marquis required a new house worthy of his assumed status, and set upon rebuilding the family home. In 1725 construction began on the new Baroque styled West front, which incorporated elements of the old house. Prior to this even being completed however, the Baroque style had fallen out of fashion, and spurred on by progress being made by his rivals at Wentworth Castle, the Marquis embarked on the epic construction of the Palladian East front in 1735.
By the time Charles, the second Marquis of Rockingham, inherited his fathers estates in 1750, the East front was still incomplete. It would be a further 10 years until he saw the fruits of his father’s ambition, with the new house being considered one of the first grand Palladian houses in the UK. Charles Watson-Wentworth is best known for serving two terms as Prime Minister, but his love of horse racing is also legendary. Charles is slated with adding two porticos to the East front of the house, and his love of horse racing and hunting is reflected in the giant stable complex he commissioned in 1766. On his death in 1782, the estates passed to his nephew, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, and within the Fitzwilliam family the house remained until it was sold on in 1989.
The spectacular Whistlejacket Room is about as opulent as they come.
The bigger they come….
Unfortunately, by this point the grand house at Wentworth was very much experiencing a period of decline. This was largely due to the decision of the government following the Second World War, to subject Wentworth Woodhouse to 40 years of open-cast coal mining, and the nationalisation of the mines – a great source of income for the Fitzwilliams – had devastating financial consequences for the family. Thus, by 1950 much of the house and grounds was occupied by an educational college, and so it remained until 1986, when the then polytechnic moved to Sheffield.
Inside Wentworth Woodhouse
In 1989 Wentworth Woodhouse was purchased as a private residence, and again in 1998. The task of running a historic house as grand as Wentworth Woodhouse must have been a colossal task. Clearly, both private buyers had bitten off more than they could chew, but in 2017 the future of the house was finally secured, when it was returned to the nation through its acquisition by the the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust.
A new lease of life for Wentworth Woodhouse
Today then, the house and grounds is very much undergoing a period of investment and restoration. This is clearly going to be a long term project, but In a monumental move by the Trust, the house and grounds are now open for the public’s enjoyment. This is truly a fantastic milestone, even more so due to the complications arising from the global COVID pandemic. Obviously, Wentworth is very much a work in progress, but when I visited in late June 2021, the grounds were looking absolutely stunning, and the progress that had been made on the house was clearly evident.
Those interiors though…..
Talking of the interiors, these are comparable to those of even the most opulent of royal palaces. Not all of the house is yet open to visitors, but the magnificence of the place hits you as soon as you enter the Pillared Hall. This exceptional space plays host to numerous Neoclassical statues and leads on to the beautiful main staircase. This was commissioned by the 4th Earl in 1801, and built by the leading architect of the time, John Carr. Other accessible rooms on the ground floor include the Ship Room, The Painted Drawing Room and the Chapel. A modern day shop and a beautiful tea room can also be found on the ground floor.
Visitors emerging onto the first floor from the elaborate neoclassical staircase, will be absolutely blown away by what is to come. People who have seen my documentary on Castle Howard will know how much I love its Great Hall, but emerging into the Marble Saloon at Wentworth Woodhouse, is an experience unrivaled by anything. Eagle eyed viewers will recognise this as the backdrop to the ball scene in the Downton Abbey Movie, but this colossal space is something that really has to be seen first hand to be fully appreciated. The Marble Saloon is utterly magnificent, and is worthy of its title as ‘England’s finest Georgian room’.
So far, much of the house’s restoration has focused on repairing the roof. Prior to these repairs taking place, water had been allowed to leak into the interiors, causing much damage. This unfortunately includes the Marble Saloon, but now that much of the external repairs have been completed, work can begin to reverse some of this destruction.
A bright future for Wentworth Woodhouse
Without spoiling the visitor experience, as you absolutely do need to visit yourself, some of the other rooms open to explore include the Whistlejacket Room with its elaborate gilding, the State Dining Room with its timeless Georgian Green paint job and the Pine paneled Boudoir with its elegant marble chimney-piece. Also worthy of note is the light filled Long Gallery. This is thought to have been part of the original Jacobean house, and was undergoing maintenance work when I visited.
I actually can’t wait to be afforded the opportunity to explore more of the house as it becomes available in the future, but the rooms that are currently accessible to visitors are being beautiful restored, testament to the drive and enthusiasm of all those involved.
The Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust has committed to a 20 year programme of works which is detailed in its Masterplan: A New Life. As part of this, the Trust are committed to developing other elements of the estate. For example, work is due to commence soon on the beautiful Camellia House, with attention turning to the gargantuan stable block soon after.
The slightly reclaimed but entirely beautiful Ionic Temple
It’s fair to say that what the Trust has achieved in such a short period of time, is absolutely extraordinary, and I for one can’t wait to see what the future holds. Up until recently this remarkable piece of history was on the brink of ruin, but now with the vision of the Preservation Trust and the hard work all those involved in its restoration, the future of the UK’s largest historic home looks very rosy indeed.
If you haven’t visited Wentworth Woodhouse already, then I absolutely urge you to do so. You won’t be disappointed. You can find out more about Wentworth Woodhouse and the work that is going on by visiting Wentworthwoodhouse.org.uk.
Your support means the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust can continue renovating this spectacular piece of British History and ensure it is accessible for generations to come.
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