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The restoration of Wentworth Castle Gardens

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 August 2019

Wentworth

Wentworth

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A crumbling conservatory and unloved grounds have been brought back to life for a new generation of visitors to Wentworth Castle Gardens.

Wentworth Castle Gardens Lady Lucy's Walk (c) National Trust Images/Chris LaceyWentworth Castle Gardens Lady Lucy's Walk (c) National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

A few years ago a shameful spotlight shone on Wentworth Castle Gardens. Its Victorian conservatory, once a dazzling showpiece was in such a sorry state that it featured in Restoration, a BBC2 series which set out to save dilapidated historic buildings.

Today there's reason for joy. Now completely restored and revived, it's an amazing space, full of exotic plants and symbolic of the rise in fortunes of Wentworth Castle Gardens under new stewardship of The National Trust.

It's a happy ending for an estate with a tasty back story of its creator Thomas Wentworth. A man who as a royal diplomat from the reign of Queen Anne, didn't only get angry. He also got even.

In 1695, he was infuriated to learn that his cousin had inherited the vast family home of Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, a stately pile that Thomas thought was his by rights. But he didn't simply stew on the injustice of it all. He planned a revenge of sorts, by establishing the Wentworth Castle estate in nearby Barnsley, which he swore to make even more magnificent than Wentworth Woodhouse to show-off his wealth and status and annoy his relative.

Wentworth Castle Gardens deer and parkland (c) National Trust Images/John MillarWentworth Castle Gardens deer and parkland (c) National Trust Images/John Millar

Thomas didn't do anything by halves. His designs for the estate (then called Stainborough), featured a number of monuments and follies, including a bizarre fairytale-like structure he called 'Stainborough Castle', which he had built to look like the ruins of a medieval fortress. Then there was a garden he had planted in the shape of the Union Flag and an obelisk with a shining gold top.

I mean: bitter, much? If ever there was a man with a score to settle and a point to prove it was Thomas Wentworth.

'The whole story is fascinating,' says Tony Earnshaw, assistant director for the National Trust in Yorkshire. 'The competition and social climbing snobbery is just great. If you're going to do it, do it properly, like Thomas Wentworth. I also like the fact that he called his estate 'Wentworth Castle', which sounds much grander than 'Wentworth Woodhouse'. He built the Stainborough Castle folly as a semi-ruin effectively, so that anyone he was showing around would assume it had been part of his family pile for years and years, which is not true at all.' You almost have to admire Thomas's sheer, bare-faced deceit.

Matt Gladstone, executive director for Place at Barnsley Council, agrees. 'The family feud between Wentworth Woodhouse and Wentworth Castle is intriguing,' he says. 'Basically, (Thomas Wentworth) built a castle folly in his grounds simply to demonstrate 'I've got a castle… and you haven't.'

Wentworth Castle Gardens Victorian Conservatory (c) National Trust Images/Andrew ButlerWentworth Castle Gardens Victorian Conservatory (c) National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Which is quite funny. But what happened next isn't. A couple of centuries later the estate had fallen into a terrible state of disrepair. It was bought by Barnsley Corporation in 1948, underwent renovation and was opened to the public in 2007, as Wentworth Castle Gardens, by the Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Park Heritage Trust. Unfortunately, the site had to close in 2017 due to lack of visitors.

That could have been a disaster, because Wentworth Castle Gardens comprises 63 acres of gardens and 500 acres of parkland, and the whole lot could easily have gone to rack and ruin. "From a council perspective it was 'what do we do with it?'" admits Gladstone.

The house at Wentworth Castle Gardens, built in the 1670s and (no surprise) extended by Thomas Wentworth, is now the home of the Northern College, a residential adult education establishment.

Wentworth Castle Gardens view from folly (c) National Trust Images/Chris LaceyWentworth Castle Gardens view from folly (c) National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Over the last two years, the college, the council and the National Trust began working closely together to identify a way to give the gardens a new future.

The National Trust took out a 25-year lease on the estate so that, in June, Wentworth Castle Gardens was able to re-open.

'Getting the National Trust on board gives Wentworth Castle Gardens a completely different perspective and brand,' says Gladstone.

'Footfall-wise the National Trust estimates conservative figures of well over 100,000 visitors, whereas, previously, visitor numbers were around the 50,000 mark. This is a new National Trust property and the only Grade 1 listed parkland and gardens in South Yorkshire. People will want to visit automatically.'

Wentworth Castle Gardens parkland rotunda (c) National Trust Images/Chris LaceyWentworth Castle Gardens parkland rotunda (c) National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

From the National Trust's perspective, the location of the estate was a big draw. 'Wentworth Castle Gardens is right in the heart of South Yorkshire and has a substantial number of people on its doorstep,' says Tony Earnshaw.

One of the must-sees is that Victorian conservatory. One of the last surviving winter gardens in England, it was one of the first places in the country to have electric lighting, even beating Buckingham Palace.

Earnshaw is a big fan of the greenhouse; but, for him, there's something magical about the castle folly. 'It's quite mystical,' he says. 'It doesn't matter if you're standing there on a sunny day or in heavy rain. It has this 'other worldly' feel about it. That makes it exciting.'

That would be music to Thomas Wentworth's ears. 

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