Wentworth Woodhouse: S Yorks stately home opens to public

Wentworth Woodhouse, Wentworth.
Wentworth Woodhouse, Wentworth.
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There really is no entrance quite like that of Wentworth Woodhouse.

At 600ft, the frontage of the South Yorkshire stately home is the longest of any country house in Europe.

Nestled between Rotherham and Barnsley, the house is the former seat of one of Britain’s wealthiest, most scandalous and powerful families, the Wentworths and, later, the Fitzwilliams.

But since the 1950s, the 18th century pile has been used as a teacher training college, an art college and an army training base. Not once in the last half century has the house enjoyed the grandeur that surrounded it before the Second World War.

But now, the home is on its way to being restored. And, if all goes to plan, in a few years’ time Wentworth Woodhouse will be the Chatsworth House of South Yorkshire.

The man employed to oversee its ambitious turnaround is Tom McWilliams, who lives on the estate.

And Tom, along with the house’s owners brothers Paul, Marcus and Giles Newbold, has started a programme of tours of the house – and demand is high.

“The tours have really taken off,” said Tom. “We started with one and now we run three so our staff has grown as a result – we only had one part-time gardener at first and now we employ three full-time.”

Today’s tour guide David Allot is bringing history to life with his two-hour ‘Fitzwilliam Tour’.

The tour meets at the house’s entrance and moves into the Pillared Hall, a foyer filled with a forest of columns. The tour travels through a labyrinth of rooms, taking in the Ship Room, so-called because of the pictures of ships that adorn the walls, and the Painted Drawing Room, which houses painted canvases of each of the five senses.

Legend has it there are 365 rooms and 1,000 windows – although architectural historian Dan Cruickshank has estimated the number of rooms to be 305.

Tour guide David, who spends most days at the house, said: “The trouble is defining what constitutes a room.

“There are cupboards here that are bigger than my bedroom at home. As for windows I wouldn’t like to count, but there are a lot.”

Every square foot of Wentworth Woodhouse breathes decadence, and nowhere is this more aptly reflected than the stunning Marble Saloon.

“Believe it or not, when the PE college was based here, they would play badminton in this room,” says David.

David’s comments resonate with one particular member of the tour, Brenda Dean, who was one of the students based at Wentworth Woodhouse in the 1970s.

“I remember having balls in this room and they would open up the doors to the balcony and it was just magical,” said Brenda. “It’s crazy to think this is where we lived and worked - we used to sunbathe on the roof.”

The dramatic shift in Wentworth Woodhouse’s fate – from stately home to PE department – came about as a result of crippling death duties.

“Peter Fitzwilliam couldn’t afford to live there in the 1940s so he moved to the family’s Irish estate,” says David.

But in 1948 Peter Fitzwilliam was killed in a plane crash while eloping with Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy – sister of future American president John F Kennedy.

With no direct male heir, many of Wentworth Woodhouse’s contents were sold off and the house was leased to Lady Mable College, which was used for teacher training.

Yet while the idea of students playing badminton in the Marble Saloon is unthinkable, it actually helped preserve the house.

“We may shudder at these things, but the fact the house was used is partly the reason we can enjoy it today,” says David.

In its pre-badminton heyday, Wentworth Woodhouse was a vast, high-class playground. Peter Fitzwilliam – though a decorated war hero – was renowned for his gambling, drinking and philandering.

But excess was not limited to Peter. Parties and gatherings were known for their scale – guests were issued with coloured confetti so as to leave a trail to their room in case they got lost and, on some occasions, there would be 50 guests seated around a table with a footman behind every chair.

Those days have gone, as have the days of roof-top college sunbathing.

Now, at least, through Wentworth Woodhouse tours, these episodes can come back to life, albeit briefly, on a two-hour tour.

Log on to www.wentworthwoodhouse.co.uk/tours for more details. Tours are currently being booked up to two months in advance.