Wentworth Woodhouse is a very impressive stately pile, with over 300 rooms and a frontage twice the length of Buckingham Palace. It has only recently opened to the public after being closed for twenty-five years, so we didn't know what to expect. Driving past the huge unused stable block, we swung round to get a full view of the Palladian, and palatial, grey stone east front of the house, built not so much as a home as a statement of wealth and political power.
Surprisingly, this is also the biggest "back-to-back" in the country, as the previous house is west facing, built of brick in the Baroque style. This was not deemed ostentatious enough to rival the new Wentworth Castle, recently built a few miles away by a rival branch of the family, and as the titles grew in importance, so did the buildings to show off the newly-acquired coats of arms. The Earl of Malton, as the Wentworth heir had now become, simply started again with a second house, facing the opposite direction, and a later incumbent actually had a hill removed to improve the view!
Our volunteer guide Reg met us in the severely pillared hall, and had us hooked with his knowledgeable and witty commentary on the checkered fortunes of the family and their houses.The interior matches the exterior in scale and the few rooms that have been restored are truly dazzling with marble and plaster work. A copy of Stubbs' huge 1760 painting of Whistlejacket, the Marquis of Rockingham's favourite racehorse, hangs in the room named after him. (The original was bought in 1997 with £11 million Lottery money by the National Gallery) Much of the original furniture is held by the family, and it is hoped to return some to the house when it is finally restored to its full glory. It has not always been in private hands. Death duties have taken their toll, and it had to be sold. After the second world war, both Wentworth Woodhouse and Wentworth Castle became teacher training colleges, and the latter is still a residential adult education college, so only its gardens are open to the public. Former students of the Lady Mabel Physical Education college, located for many years at Wentworth Woodhouse have donated for the chapel a lovely stained glass window depicting among other things, energetic females exercising in their red uniforms, one of which, complete with dashing cloak is on display. The guide pointed out a curtain rail round a beautiful balcony in the marble salon, used by the college as a badminton court – forty-foot long curtains protected the valuable plaster work on the walls!
The present owner of Wentworth Woodhouse has made a start, and we were shown a fireplace found at auction and replaced in its original location, and rare wooden "curtains and pelmets". But subsidence from deep coal mining has affected the building, and until current litigation is resolved, further work is on hold.
This is what makes Wentworth Woodhouse so interesting: it not only has a fascinating past, but you feel you must return in the future to find what progress has been made.