The masterplan behind the multi-million pound restoration of Wentworth Woodhouse
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 February 2019
Wentworth Woodhouse is probably the most challenging restoration project in the country. Tony Greenway finds out more.
In October 2016, Wentworth Woodhouse – a forgotten gem of a stately home in South Yorkshire – made national news headlines when the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, awarded it £7.6million in his autumn statement. This was music to the ears of the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust (WWPT), the charity managing a major project to restore the house and open it to the public.
On the face of it, £7.6million sounds like a lot of cash but, in Wentworth Woodhouse’s case, it’s a mere drop in the ocean. That’s because this Grade I listed Georgian masterpiece near Rotherham is vast – on the scale of Chatsworth or Blenheim – but has been so badly neglected over the years that it is, literally, falling to pieces. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that Wentworth Woodhouse is arguably the most challenging restoration project in the country right now.
When the Trust took on the site in 2017, they found the mansion, stables, riding school and Camelia House conservatory in a worrying state of decay. There were buildings riddled with asbestos, collapsed drains, endemic dry rot, rotting timbers and deteriorating stonework. So Hammond’s £7.6million – while very welcome and urgently needed – was only enough to cover repairs to the mansion’s leaking four-acre roof. Thankfully, these are already underway.
Early last year, Yorkshire Life reported on the urgent efforts to save Wentworth Woodhouse, and talked to Julie Kenny, chair of the Trust. She wasn’t sure how much the renovation costs might run to, but agreed that the final figure would almost certainly have a lot of zeros on the end of it. It might be ‘£100million, £150million, £200million’, she told me. But there’s no time to waste. ‘We purchased the site just in time,’ says Kenny. ‘Significant heritage features were at risk.’
Now the project to save the Big House (as the locals call it) is beginning to rev up. Kenny and Sarah McLeod, the Trust’s CEO, launched a Masterplan for the building at No 11 Downing Street, last October. The 500-page document – entitled A New Life – took 14 months to complete and ‘aims to awake the house from its slumber, make it as famous as in its 18th century heyday and put Rotherham on the map’. Government ministers, MPs, Andrew Lloyd Webber (more about him later), and officials from some of the UK’s leading heritage groups were at the event.
‘We asked for the masterplan launch to be held at No 11,’ explains McLeod. ‘We had two launches actually: one at Downing Street and one in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire launch was much more about our community, and we invited community leaders and stakeholders from the area. The Downing Street launch was focused on funders because all the major ones are based in London. We wanted to get all of them in one room so they could understand the significance of the project. We also wanted to ensure we had cross-party support, so there were MPs from the Labour Party as well as the Tories. I think everyone understands the social impact it can have in terms of job creation, etc.’
Feedback from the launches has been extremely positive, notes McLeod and although the Chancellor wasn’t at No 11 when the Trust came calling, his ministers were. ‘To be fair, I think he was somewhere else discussing Brexit,’ she says. Might he make even more money available for Wentworth Woodhouse? ‘I don’t know about that,’ says McLeod. ‘We’ve certainly not been given any indication that he will but I would never say never and I’d never give up on anything. And neither would Julie Kenny. Who knows in the future?’ Various money-raising ideas are in play, however, including an in-house fundraising campaign and even donation boxes in Wentworth village and local pubs. ‘Every single penny counts,’ says McLeod. The house is also being used as a film and TV location and as a wedding venue, and is open to the public for guided tours.
Ultimately, though, the idea is to make Wentworth Woodhouse self-sustaining. ‘This is a big project that’s going to take time,’ says McLeod, who explains that the restoration work will be carried out in a phases. ‘People appreciate that we’re not saying “Let’s do all the stonework!” or “Let’s do all the joinery!” Instead, we’re taking one part of the site at a time, repairing it and bringing it back into full use. Then we can move on to the next part. It’s absolutely the only way to work on a project of this size. Completing each piece as we go means it will generate income – and enough to be able to maintain itself in the future. Ultimately the key is planning a sustainable model. What we want to avoid is the renovation process having to be repeated in 100 years’ time because the building hasn’t been able to pay for itself.’
If all goes smoothly, building work should start at the end of the year. ‘We’re well on the way now,’ says McLeod. ‘The idea is to push on and keep the momentum going.’
We do have to address the composer in the room, however: one that has written Cats, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. What was Andrew Lloyd Webber doing at the Downing Street launch? ‘Andrew is interested in heritage,’ explains McLeod. ‘He has the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation which primarily gives to arts, culture and musical-based projects – but also heritage. He sponsors Heritage Angels (awards which celebrate champions of local heritage) and he’s passionate about the house. He rang to ask if he could come and have a look and then spent a day with us. He’s keen to see us succeed. There’s so much support for this project across all sectors and from a variety of different people. That’s what makes it so special.’