Inside the £130m ‘conservation challenge of the century’
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Wentworth Woodhouse was once the largest private home in England. When King George V stayed here in 1912, 40,000 people packed the gardens to watch him arrive. He was a guest of its former owner, the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam. Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova danced for the party in the house’s opulent Marble Saloon.
Tonight in the same room, couples in tailcoats and ball gowns are dancing — although many are stumbling their way through the Regency waltz. Sarah McLeod wends between the dancers wearing a bright-orange, period-costume dress that she says makes her “look like a Jaffa cake”.
The costume and celebration are part of McLeod’s job. For the past three years, the chief executive of the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust has been trying to rescue this sprawling South Yorkshire house from financial and physical collapse. Restoring it after 70 years of neglect is the “conservation challenge of the century”, says Tony Earnshaw, the regional assistant director of the National Trust.
McLeod’s fledgling charity must raise £130m over 25 years to repair the Grade I-listed mansion and estate buildings. At the same time, it wants to grow its business operations over a decade — from an annual turnover of about £400,000 today to nearly £3m by 2028/29.
Its challenge reflects that of many grand country estates fallen on hard times. Historic England, the UK heritage organisation, says almost 100 country houses of historic significance are at risk. If the government or national organisations do not take them on, they are usually left in private hands or — like Wentworth — taken over by small, independent charities in last-ditch rescue bids. Whether they survive is often down to the ingenuity of people like McLeod.
Look beyond the cheerful dancing — as McLeod chats to guests and keeps an eye on the waiters — and there is evidence that the house is in dire need of restoration. The dimmed lights disguise peeling paint and patches where water damage has wilted the gold-filigree mouldings.
“We’ve got wet rot, dry rot, bats, asbestos — the lot,” says McLeod. Nearby, the door of the chapel opens to a wall of scaffolding that keeps the roof from falling in. Subsidence under the north wing has left it visibly crooked. Thirty metres above the dancers’ heads, the roof has been stripped back to skeletal timbers.
The building looks like a whale undergoing open-heart surgery. Repairs on more than two acres of slate roof, begun two years ago with a £7.6m grant from the UK government, are just the first phase in Wentworth’s enormous renovation challenge.
The size of the house, with its 180m facade and reputed 1,000 windows, is overwhelming. Exploring its 365 rooms is like wandering through scenes in a surreal play.
The afternoon before the ball, in a ramshackle staff room on the ground floor, two would-be footmen clamber into period costume and fret over a missing sock. Up a dank concrete staircase, the renovated Long Gallery is packed with a historical dance troupe picking over an M&S buffet.
Next door, a pale-yellow bedroom — full of the dancers’ coats and boots — leads into a 1970s-style bathroom fitted with dark-green porcelain. Nearby is a richly furnished film set that no one seems able to explain. Further still, the view from the west entrance hall reveals horse-drawn carriages waiting to take guests up the lantern-lit drive.
An illustrious history
Wentworth Woodhouse, begun in 1725 in the English baroque style and named after its original timber construction, once ranked alongside Chatsworth House and Blenheim Palace among the finest country houses in England. At various times, it played host to Benjamin Franklin and Edmund Burke, as well as monarchs and prima ballerinas.
But after the second world war, nationalisation policies of the then-Labour government sent the owners, their wealth and the house into decline — and its fame diminished accordingly.
Few cinemagoers would recognise Wentworth’s role in the 2019 film Downton Abbey, whose plot was inspired by King George’s visit to the house. Scenes were filmed in the same saloon where McLeod’s guests are twirling to the strains of a classical quartet and tucking into a baked-apple pudding.
With roof works shrouding the great house in a zeppelin-like structure of tarpaulins, McLeod’s team has planned a visitors’ route to view the restoration works from above. For a £50 donation, they can have a message etched on a roof slate before it is fixed back in position for the next century.
Many more fundraising ideas will be needed to keep the house standing for another 100 years. “We are a start-up business with huge overheads,” McLeod says. But she believes her business plan to save the house is realistic. “I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think we could do it. We can do it.”
The National Trust, one of the UK’s biggest charities, which safeguards more than 300 historic buildings across the country, would once have been the obvious organisation to rescue Wentworth.
It says it did not take over ownership of the estate when it last came up for sale in 2015 because the independent Wentworth Trust was eager to step in. The National Trust has since offered advice and financial support to the smaller organisation through a partnership.
That relationship reflects a shift in priorities at the National Trust, an influential organisation with 5.6m members in a country of about 60m people. “We don’t see [country houses] as the type of historic asset that is now most in need of our help,” says Harry Bowell, the Trust’s director of operations.
Its focus today is on climate change and protecting a range of sites “from mines, mills and cottages to woodlands and coastline” as well as “urban and local heritage”.
So Wentworth must rely on a combination of charity and entrepreneurial energy. Its fate depends on whether McLeod and her dozen or so staff can raise enough money.
War, politics and tragedy
Wentworth’s rich history — part of the reason why the charity feels so strongly about its preservation — is a story of rebellion, class struggle and three untimely deaths.
The oldest part of the building was home to the first Earl of Strafford, a much-hated adviser to King Charles I who was executed just before the English civil war. Strafford’s descendants — the Marquesses of Rockingham — built the current Wentworth in the early 1700s and made the new palace a centre of political life.
Twice prime minister, the second Marquess, Charles Watson-Wentworth, argued that Britain should conciliate the American colonies before the revolution. He died suddenly in 1782, months after the independence victory at Yorktown.
Wentworth then passed to the Earls of Fitzwilliam. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Fitzwilliams’ South Yorkshire coal mines made them one of the richest families in the country. But as they stocked Wentworth with Van Dyck paintings and crystal chandeliers, the British political terrain shifted.
The postwar Labour government nationalised the coal industry, diminishing the Fitzwilliam income. The family faced a large tax bill after the death of the 7th Earl, as estate taxes for the richest climbed to 75 per cent.
In her book Black Diamonds, Catherine Bailey records how the Labour minister of fuel and power, Emanuel “Manny” Shinwell, singled out the family as representing Britain’s “foolish, callous, profit-hunting” business elite. Shinwell railed against the earl for paying the equivalent of 40 years of one of his worker’s wages to buy a racehorse.
Under Shinwell, the Wentworth gardens were open-pit mined for coal by the National Coal Board — up to 150 metres from the back door. James Lees-Milne, who visited at the time on behalf of the National Trust, wrote that the terrain was worse than “French battlefields after D-Day”. In the house, he wrote, “all the contents are put away or stacked in heaps in a few rooms . . . The dirt is appalling.”
Meanwhile, the 8th Earl embarked on a love affair with an American, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, sister of the future US president. The couple died in a plane crash en route to Cannes in 1948, leaving yet another massive tax bill.
The house was almost demolished, but was taken over by the local authority and used as a college until 1986. Two subsequent private owners were unable to cope with the scale of repairs.
So when a deal to sell Wentworth to a Hong Kong-based investment company fell through in 2015, the new trust — led by Yorkshire-born businesswoman Julie Kenny and backed by the conservation group Save Britain’s Heritage — managed to secure £7m to buy the site, and another £7.6m for urgent repairs from then-chancellor Philip Hammond.
McLeod was hired in 2017 as the trust’s new chief executive with a mandate to restore the crumbling building and build a charitable business model to secure its future.
‘It’s always drama’
McLeod is an 18-year conservation veteran. Before starting at Wentworth, she led a £48m restoration of the Cromford Mills World Heritage Site in Derbyshire. Today, she marches around Wentworth’s five-mile labyrinth of corridors at breakneck speed.
As she arrives at 2pm for what will be a 12-hour workday, her staff report a problem with the site’s electricity generators. McLeod stays cool: “It’s always drama,” she sighs.
Her team have removed 350 tonnes of junk from the site and installed its first internet connection. Close to 40,000 people have taken tours since 2017, and in 2019 the house hosted a public event every other week on average.
“They’ve done incredibly well to have got to where they are,” says Earnshaw, the Yorkshire National Trust official. “Three years is not a lot of time to get the business up and running.”
Gone are the days when a country house could run on stray £5 notes left in a donation bowl. “We have to be around for the long term, as a business, if we’re going to be here for conservation,” says Earnshaw.
This philosophy is evident in Wentworth’s 600-page master plan for the next decade. “We don’t want someone to have to do this again in 100 years,” says McLeod. But she also knows that 3,000 other houses are competing for visitors. Like them, Wentworth will have to play to its strengths.
Ironically, one of those is its derelict condition, which allows more flexibility in how its rooms can be used. With a largely empty interior, there is no danger of a drunken wedding guest elbowing a Vermeer or sitting on a Chippendale sideboard.
The state rooms — their intricate plaster decorations mostly intact — are open as a visitor attraction, with the usual café and gift shop. But McLeod is keen to use the unfurnished rooms in “experimental” ways. Recently, a massive globe was hung in the middle of the Marble Saloon in a temporary exhibition on climate change.
The target is for Wentworth to make 60 per cent of its revenue from events, and just 7 per cent from admission. That means hosting almost 100 weddings a year, plus 120 other private functions.
Elsewhere, the complex will have office space, commercial units and accommodation for event guests and holidaymakers. After paying for upkeep, the charity’s plans call for programmes to draw in people in the relatively poor surrounding area, most of whom, McLeod says, “aren’t your traditional country-house visitor”.
McLeod knows the current 10-year plan will change, and the immediate challenges are formidable. “It comes at you like a train,” she says. The trust recently had to accelerate the repair schedule for the Grade I-listed stables. “We’re doing emergency propping right now.”
More repairs means raising more money, and fast. McLeod says the trust raised £1.7m in the past year to fund the next phase of redevelopment. Now it faces a 12-month deadline to raise another £3.8m to complete the greenhouse, followed by a planned £20m fundraising call for the stables.
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The strategy aims to match needs with donors, such as conservation grants for work on the buildings, local development funds for community programmes and private donors for high-profile projects (such as refurbishing notable historic interiors).
So far, the Wentworth Trust has managed to raise the millions it needed to buy the house and start repairs. But demand for funding will grow as the restoration work gets under way. McLeod is already mulling her next grant applications and planning a public appeal for people to sponsor individual tiles in the Marble Saloon floor.
Despite her zeal, the future worries her. In the first few years, people were excited to see the house making progress. But the novelty will wear off. “We have to raise really big sums of money,” she says, “The hard work comes now.”
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