Most grand houses now boast a luxury pool.
But the one at Rotherham’s Grade I listed country house Wentworth Woodhouse wasn’t built for its wealthy owners – but by the tenants who were helping to pay the bills.
In 1950, the Lady Mabel College of Physical Education took over most of one of the largest and grandest stately homes in England.
The mansion’s famed Palladian East front, its Riding School and Stables became classrooms and lodgings for students while Eric, the 9th Earl Fitzwilliam, and his family lived ‘at the back’ on the West Front.
In 1972, the college built the ultra-modern 25-metre pool, complete with two diving boards, for its female student PE teachers to practise swimming, lifesaving, canoeing and even a spot of synchronised swimming.
When Lady Mabel College closed in 1979, Sheffield City Polytechnic took over and its sports students used the pool daily.
But after the Poly vacated in 1986, the pool, changing rooms and shower block fell into decline, along with a cluster of other breezeblock and timber classrooms built around it. Positioned close to the mansion’s main driveway, the decaying ‘70s buildings became an eyesore.
However, work is underway to transform the site into the first purpose-built visitor car park for visitors at Wentworth Woodhouse. The new car park, with space for 181 cars, ten motorcycles and 20 bicycles, will replace the current rough-and-ready parking area beneath trees on the East Front of the house.
The first phase of the car park should be finished in time for visitors to use next summer. People will be able to park very close to the Cortworth Lane entrance and enter the house and gardens through the Stables and Mews Court, the old servants’ quadrant, areas that Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust plan to develop into an exciting visitor offer.
The 1970s swimming pool and teaching buildings have an important place in the house’s history. Following a call-out for memories, the Trust has learned many fascinating stories from people from across the country, from teachers to students and even a former goalkeeper.
Maria Gray was in one of the final cohorts of Lady Mabel students, having studies there between 1975-78. She improved her swimming at the pool, which she remembers as being modern and very well laid out. She went on to teach at schools in Snaith, Wath, Swinton and Dinnington before staying at Hall Cross School in Doncaster for 20 years
Now 66, she said: “I was a weak swimmer and was worried about passing the Bronze Medallion Life Saving Award in the first term. I reached a reasonable swimming standard and also learned to dive. These experiences really helped me with my teaching.”
Dodworth siblings, Justine and Gavin Robinson, had their mum Margaret, a Lady Mabel secretary, to thank for sessions in one of the newest pools around. The children of staff were offered lessons with the students.
“I was nine and Gavin was 11. I quickly went from non-swimmer up to 200m badge-holder and passed my bronze lifesaver badge,” said Justine, who now lives in Northampton. “We entered a college charity sponsored swim in 1978 and our dad came to regret signing up to 50p a length. I managed about 15 lengths but Gavin did 64 – almost a mile. It cost dad a fortune.”
Jean Butler of Thurnscoe was a full-time lifeguard and swimming teacher at the Wentworth Woodhouse pool between 1977-80. She helped hundreds of local children and adults in the evenings, and by day taught students. One of the Poly sports degree students took a shine to 22-year-old Jean which led to a 20-year marriage and three children.
Thankfully, Jean’s life-saving skills were never called on to save anyone from drowning. However, she could well have saved lives by insisting college bosses fitted extra door locks after she discovered students were sneaking into the pool after late-night drinking sessions.
Jean said: “I loved my job, apart from one task. When the pool occasionally got drained for cleaning, it was my job to get in there and scrub every tile before it could be refilled.”
Sally Cook was a Polytechnic sports sciences student at Wentworth between 1981-85. The pool became her favourite place when she moved into digs in Jump village.
“We had a 50p pre-payment meter and I worked out it was cheaper to swim every lunchtime and shower at the pool,” said Sally. “It became a bit of a sanctuary where I could relax, get fit and challenge myself.”
Sally, now 58 and living in Gloucestershire, took part in a triathlon in September and reckons the ‘muscle memory’ from her Wentworth swim sessions helped her complete the swimming challenge.
State-of-the-art by local standards, the pool was also a big attraction for villagers. They were invited in for swimming lessons and annual galas. It was also used for training by the local fire brigade crews who had to jump in in full firefighting kit to learn lifesaving techniques.
And former Rotherham United goalkeeper, Ray Mountford, credits the Wentworth Woodhouse pool with helping his team win the 1980-81 third division championship.
The club had no training facilities, so the squad trained in local parks and sports grounds until new manager, Ian Porterfield, secured the use of the Polytechnic’s sports teaching facilities at Wentworth Woodhouse for pre-season training.
“This was a quantum leap forward. We revelled in the beautiful, peaceful surroundings. I’m sure it contributed to our mindset. After gruelling training sessions in the grounds, we headed to the pool to relax, cool down and talk about the coming season. This was long before today’s ice baths, personal massages and the like.”
Ray, now 64 and a retired police inspector, said: “That season, 11 mediocre players became a formidable team. We won the third division championships and I am convinced the cool pool water had other effects on me… My wife and I managed to conceive our daughter Emma that summer, after trying for two years!”