It’s been hailed as one of the biggest conservation projects of our generation and, if you’ve walked past Wentworth Woodhouse in recent years, it’s easy to see why.
The exterior of Britain’s largest stately home is currently clad in scaffolding which has been used to aid the urgent £7.6million repair of two acres of roof.
Twice as large as Buckingham Palace and in far poorer condition than the House of Commons, the total repair bill is set to reach £130million. So, the race has been on for its owners, Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, to raise funds wherever they can to stop this precious South Yorkshire gem from crumbling into the history books.
But since taking over just three short years ago, extensive progress has been made by the small Trust.
We were invited to an early morning breakfast meeting back in January with chair of the Trust, Dame Julie Kenny, and CEO, Sarah McLoed, to review developments and assess the future standing of Wentworth Woodhouse.
It’s fair to say nobody can underestimate the task that lies ahead, but whilst the imposing scaffolding may have become a talking point, the work that has happened behind the scenes should not be overshadowed.
Phase I of the capital works is almost complete, with a final push to the extensive repairs to the roof of the Bedlam Wing, chapel and Stable Block riding school to prospectively finish ahead of schedule by the autumn.
Following this, the next big project is the Camellia House which sits in a sorry-looking state in the House’s grand gardens. Works are set to begin early next year once planning permission has been granted, which has been submitted to transform the Camellia House into a garden café and events space.
Although Wentworth Woodhouse is known for its aristocratic roots, it is also home to one of the most significant collections of camellia in the western world, including 19 of the first to arrive in the UK.
The Camellia House currently has no roof and so the plants are growing through the top. Architects have had to work around them to preserve and protect these ancient blooms.
The Trust and their gardening team have been working closely with heritage gardeners from Chiswick and Chatsworth to develop a thorough and cautious maintenance programme which includes regular painstaking cleaning using cotton buds.
Cuttings have been taken as a backup and it is hoped a profitable heritage nursery can be created.
As well as a café, the renovated Camellia House will also become a corporate venue for up to 50 people with its own private access, ideal for smaller weddings.
The Trust has already been awarded over £1.77m in grants, with another £3.5m waiting to be approved, for the Camellia House and Stable Block which is another large project planned to commence over the next few years.
Over at the Stable Block, we donned our hard hats and hi-vis jackets for a tour of the dilapidated grade I listed riding school which will be developed into a 600-capacity events centre from 2024.
Even in its current ramshackle state, the empty shell lays bare its potential. At 20-metres wide, the plan is to create an adaptable venue that can be used for exhibitions, weddings and studio space. It will also include catering facilities and 22 accommodation rooms to support it.
But it comes at a cost – £20million to be precise.
Whilst these projects may seem years off, the Trust need to develop areas of the house that allow them to become independent and sustainable first.
Over the last three years, the Trust has been reliant on a £250,000-a-year grant from the National Trust which will reduce to a diminishing rate for a further three years from March. To be self-sufficient and carry on their pledge, they need to be generating a similar amount.
One of the most efficient developments at the house in recent times has been the introduction of a tearoom and shop. This, coupled with an increased tour offering, a great events programme and the house being used as a filming location, has seen income rise by over £400,000 in three years.
“Every penny counts. Whether you spend a few pounds on a coffee or pay for a bespoke VIP day for clients and friends, we can’t raise £130m without your support. We also welcome input from the community as we don’t have all the ideas and are constantly learning on the job,” Julie says.
They have started working with local schools and young people to engage them in heritage, construction and conservation, offering enterprise days where students are encouraged to visualise what they would do if they were CEO for a day.
“These young people are very open minded and don’t look at the restrictions. We’ve had some excellent ideas that we’re following up on, such as a careers fair here at the House,” Sarah says.
Of course, none of the accomplishments over the last few years could have been achieved without the substantial volunteer force they have.
There are currently 183 volunteers who gave a total 26,486 unpaid hours last year, in various roles across the business – from Julie Kenny to tour guides – who all represent Wentworth Woodhouse with the same passion.