You’ve probably heard of Chatsworth, Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, but what about Wentworth Woodhouse and the Fitzwilliam family?
Five miles from Rotherham, sits wentworth Woodhouse in the anonymous south Yorkshire countryside, surrounded by once-thriving mining communities. Its facade is 606ft, in length, equivalent to about 16 London buses. Wentworth Woodhouse it is the biggest house in England and has the longest façade in Europe.
Once the home of one of the richest families in the land, It is said to have 365 rooms, one for every day of the year. In it’s hayday servants were specifically employed there to light candles and guests were given confetti to scatter behind them before dinner, so that afterwards they would find their way back through the five miles of corridor. Wentworth Woodhouse is a monument to great aristocratic wealth and decline and the stories behind the house, grounds, follies and the Fitzwilliam family would make a great film or Netflix series.
Although Wentworth’s history dates back to the 17th century, the beginning of the end of its life as a great stately home came in 1946. During the post-war coal shortage, Labour minister Manny Shinwell decreed that the estate, where the Fitzwilliam family had run a thriving mining business, would be given up for public use. Despite research showing that the coal was “not worth the getting”, Shinwell ordered that open-cast mining would tear through the formal gardens, right up to the Fitzwilliam’s’ “bloody front door”.
The debris from this piled up “level with [the 8th Earl’s bedroom window, even the local miners were appalled. In April 1946 Joe Hall, president of the Yorkshire branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, described the work as “sacrilege… against all common sense.” However, the family were powerless to stop it. Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, watched as diggers wrenched up the gardens. Two years later, Lord Fitzwilliam was killed in a plane crash over France with his mistress Kathleen “Kick” Cavendish (nee Kennedy, sister of John F. Kennedy). With no sons, only a 13-year-old daughter (now Lady Juliet Tadgell), his title passed to a cousin, who had no heirs, before another, the 10th Earl, who died in 1979, also without children. That marked the end of the Fitzwilliam’s, and, some thought, the end of Wentworth Woodhouse. After all, what use would a house with over 300 rooms be without a family to live in it?
Having failed to convince the National Trust to take the house, the Fitzwilliam’s leased Wentworth to West Riding County Council, keeping a family apartment in the back. In 1949 Lady Mabel College of Physical Education moved in, and the 60ft square Marble Salon, where in 1912 the ballerina Anna Pavlova had danced for George V, became a gymnasium. When in 1988 the lease expired, the house went on the market. A year later it was sold to businessman Wensley Haydon-Baillie, and then to the architect Clifford Newbold in 1999. When in 2015 Newbold died, the house was once again up for sale. For a while, Savills had it listed for offers in excess of £8m, and reports circulated that it had been bought by a Hong Kong investment company. The National Trust were urged, again, to take it on. Fortunately, the future of the house looks more promising and secure thanks to the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust (WWPT) who have taken it on.
Fran and I have wanted to visit the house ever since we walked past it about ten years ago, so when I learned that there were plans to open the house up to the public it was on the list. We had planned to take a look more recently, but the pandemic put a holt to our plans. Yesterday, Fran treated me to Cream Tea at Wentworth Woodhouse in the Long Gallery, which in my opinion outshines Betty’s Tea room in Harrogate in every way. The ambience of the Long Gallery has to be experienced to appreciate just how special it is. You get to sit at a table with plenty of space and look out into the garden, or glance up at the high ceiling and decorated walls and I think it’s magical.
Wentworth Woodhouse is a Yorkshire Hidden gem in my opinion for many reasons and it is accessible. The history of the Fitzwilliam family is very interesting, together with the house, it’s grounds and the follies. The restoration of Wentworth Woodhouse will require both lots of time and money, so help support it, it is well worth visiting. I personally will be returning to take more images and explore Wentworth Woodhouse’s history further and have another Cream Tea, I hope.
Here is a link to the Wentworth Woodhouse website with information on prices and everything Wentworth. https://wentworthwoodhouse.org.uk/