IT started, for the Newbold family at least, over Sunday lunch, writes Colin Drury.
For 10 years, self-made architect Clifford Newbold and his three grown-up sons Marcus, Paul, and Giles had been looking for both a family home and a major restoration project.
Then one weekend in 1999, just as they were preparing to share a roast at Giles’s north London home, they spotted an advert in The Sunday Times.
It was for Wentworth Woodhouse, in Wentworth village, near Rotherham - and it was described as one of the biggest private homes in Europe.
“That was the first time we’d heard of it,” Giles recalls as he stands in the property’s immense Long Gallery. “We didn’t have any connection with the area but it ticked all the boxes for us.
“It had history and heritage and it was clearly going to be a massive challenge. If anything it was too big but there’s that saying - you don’t go to the moon because it’s easy, you go because it’s hard.
“We viewed it over four days, going all over the house and really it was love at first sight.”
It is easy to see why.
Wentworth Woodhouse is not only massive - 365 rooms, 1,000 windows, five miles of underground passages and a front facade that is twice the size of Buckingham Palace’s - it is also the very definition of opulent.
Built between 1725 and 1750 for Thomas Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham, prime ministers, earls and millionaires have all lived here since (not to mention dozens of trainee PE teachers when it was used as an education college between 1949 and 1979).
There are marble floors, 150 acres of parkland and so many winding corridors it is said guests were once presented with caskets of coloured confetti to sprinkle where they went so they could find their way back to their rooms.
And yet, for something so magnificent, the Newbold’s managed to buy it as a relative bargain - for a little over £1.5 million.
The previous owner businessman Wensley Haydon-Baillie had gone bankrupt and many potential buyers were scared by the sheer amount of work needed on the fast-crumbling Grade I listed property.
But for the family - sprightly 85-year-old Clifford, wife Dorothy and sons Marcus, a 40-year-old doctor, Paul, a 38-year-old architect, and Giles, a 36-year-old building surveyor - that was the attraction.
Within a few weeks they had bought it.
And that, says Giles, is when the real work - and spending - begun.
“We knew there would be a lot of work but certain things we feel were kept from us about quite how much,” he says today. “Would it have stopped us buying the place? We would have had more questions but we have certainly never regretted it.”
Over the past 12 years, while villagers have been left wondering just who it was who had bought the huge house on their doorstep, Clifford - at an age when most people are taking it easy - has been up at 8am each morning, working with teams of historians, conservationists and architects, to draw up a Conservation Management Plan.
This has identified heritage, restoration and historical issues which were all taken into account while creating the detailed £200 million plans that now lie on the table, plans which the family say will secure the future of the building for generations.
They include a museum, 70-bed luxury hotel, spa, conference facilities and office space.
“We want this place to once again become the beating heart of the community,” says Giles. “This is our English heritage and it should be open to everyone, and it should be able to generate employment.
“We want to make sure the house is never allowed to fall into the state it has done again, and when we have secured it’s future, we plan to place it into a charitable trust.”
The family are now preparing for a court hearing which will decide who should pay to make the property structurally sound.
The Newbolds will argue the mining of the surrounding gardens and park between the 1940s and 1970s - which included shafts being dug just 20 yards from the front door - caused the damage. If a court rules in the family’s favour, the Coal Authority will be liable.
The preliminary hearing takes place this August.
“This has been the biggest struggle about the whole thing,” says Giles. “I can’t say too much about it because proceedings are active but we feel the Coal Authority is dragging its feet.
“This is a very serious issue. Actual cracks are appearing in the house and it needs to be resolved.
“Once it is, we can have people working on site within weeks and have the place up and running within three years of that.”