National Trust opens its first South Yorkshire site at Grade I Listed gardens
Even with the proceeds of its Industrial Revolution wealth and impressive natural beauty South Yorkshire has defied the odds for more than a century in failing to produce a site the National Trust has wanted to adopt.
That undeserved record has now been broken however, with the 120 year old charity stepping in to take over the stewardship of Barnsley’s Grade I Listed Wentworth Castle Gardens.
The development is a significant step for the National Trust because it provides their first site in the county and the organisation has the knowledge and respect to make the site succeed where the local board previously set up to manage the site failed to make the finances stack up.
A new business plan and the exposure the Trust’s stewardship brings to its properties are expected to resolve that issue however, with the expectation the gardens will draw fresh tourists into the area, particularly NT members who have previously had no reason to include South Yorkshire in their plans.
That should see visitor numbers rise from the annual 85,000 the gardens had brought before the gates were close in 2017 to 135,000 within the next five years and to grow beyond that.
The location – a short drive from either junction 36 or 37 on the M1, which the site overlooks – means it is likely to attract National Trust members seeking to break long motoring journeys as well as local visitors and those with a specific desire to visit.
Wentworth Castle is the result of family rivalry and was built as an answer to Wentworth Woodhouse, over the border in Rotherham, but finished up in the hands of Northern College, an adult learning enterprise, with the gardens remaining in Barnsley Council’s ownership.
The failed Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust was an attempt to get the site back into public use, but Barnsley Council leader Sir Steve Houghton said the scale of the task was better suited to a national organisation with greater experience.
He said: “Having a National Trust facility in our borough is hugely significant. It helps to strengthen the visitor economy.”
It is estimated each visitor will spend £25 during their trip, rising to £40 for those who stay overnight, helping to boost local businesses.
“It is about linking it in to Elsecar, Worsbrough Mill, the town centre, Cannon Hall. The attractions we have got are as good as any you will get in the country,” he said.
But the aim is also to make sure the gardens are a feature residents know and use, with efforts now beginning to get schools and other elements of the community involved.
“This is not just about the west of the borough, it is about getting other communities to come and enjoy it and to participate in it.
“We want it to be rooted in the community. It is for the people of Barnsley as much as anything else,” he said.
*The National Trust may be a byword for quality but even it admits Wentworth Castle Gardens will remain “a work in progress” when they re-open to the public.
During two years of closure the sprawling site has been maintained largely by a team of volunteers and they have prevented the worst ravages of time from affecting the site.
But there is still work to be done to bring it up to scratch and an additional 61 volunteers have already been recruited to help the newly recruited professional workforce with that task.
Preparatory work has largely involved making sure the gardens’ follies and monuments are safe and properly maintained, with work to leave the gardens fully manicured starting from this point.
Joanna Royle, the National Trust’s assistant director for Yorkshire, said: “It is such an important and significant site that was clearly at risk.
“We saw an opportunity, from its historical significance and how important it is to the community. We thought it was a great opportunity to get involved.
“We are not setting out to make sweeping changes, we have made some changes to the basic visitor infrastructure with a new visitor welcoming building which is intended to made admission simpler.
“The cafe and shop are refurbished and there has been a lot of work behind the scenes, conservation of Listed buildings, follies and structures.
“We have been making sure they are safe and sound and planning out conservation work.
“The gardens have been closed for two years and are not in pristine condition. It is a very big site to maintain and from our perspective is a work in progress,” she said.
*Wentworth Castle gardens contain much more than just plants, with a fake ruined castle built after Thomas Wentworth bought the estate in 1708. It was constructed out of vanity, to create the impression the site had been the family seat for generations. The bid to impress led to many other structures going up, including a tall pillared sun monument and a geometrically designed Union Jack garden, combining the crosses of St George and St Andrew to celebrate the union of England and Scotland. Beyond the formal gardens are many acres of parkland and the extravagances of a bygone era are in abundance, with the now restored rotunda, built in 1746 in the style of a Roman temple now in clear view from the house and gardens. It had become a tumbledown ruin, hidden by trees before being rebuilt and restored earlier this century. There are many other follies, including the Queen Anne monument and Argyll column for those with time to explore the parklands.