“If you lay out your money in improving your seat, lands, gardens, etc., you beautify the country and do the work ordered by God himself.” These were the words of the 1st Marquess of Rockingham in the letter of advice he left for his son, the future Prime Minister, shortly before his death in 1750.
He had been good as his word, by his own reckoning he had spent £82,500 improving his house and grounds at Wentworth, providing it with one of the longest fronts of any English country house.
We are talking about Wentworth Woodhouse, situated within Rotherham borough, but within a stone throw of the Sheffield border, up the road from Chapeltown.
This remains one of South Yorkshire’s hidden secrets, only emerging from years of obscurity within the past few years.
Few people realise that behind the 600ft Palladian front is a second house with a grand baroque front. The difference between the two houses is blatant, but they formed a single building programme between 1724 to 1749.
The family made their fortune from coal mining, and the Fitzwilliams, descended from the Rockinghams, became well-known in Sheffield circles.
However, the 20th century wasn’t kind to the family and certainly not to Wentworth Woodhouse.
After World War Two, Manny Shimwell, Minister of Fuel and Power, told Peter Fitzwilliam, “I am going to mine right up to your bloody front door.” And he did.
Years of open-cast mining devastated the gardens and parkland and did lasting damage to the old house itself.
Unable to be maintained properly, Wentworth Woodhouse survived due to the efforts of Lady Mabel Fitzwilliam, sister of the 7th Earl, who negotiated a deal with West Riding County Council in 1949 to use it as a training college for physical education teachers. The family retained the Baroque wing.
Lady Mabel College later merged with Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University) and remained at Wentworth Woodhouse until 1988.
The house was put up for sale and bought by Wensley Haydon-Baillie, a millionaire, who, after a bad business investment in 1998, admitted debts of £13million, and the property was repossessed by the bank.
Its saviour was Clifford Newbold, a London architect, who, far from being the recluse he was originally made out to be, did what he could to save Wentworth Woodhouse.
After his death in 2015, Wentworth Woodhouse was put on the market and eventually sold to Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust for £7million in 2017.
This is undoubtedly the renaissance for Wentworth Woodhouse, with £7.2million of repairs to the roof almost complete.
In normal circumstances, the state rooms are open to the public, with plans to use parts of the house as a hotel and business centre.
Subsidence and age have contributed to its unstable condition, underlined by the recent discovery that Georgian cornices, 18 metres above the ground, were crumbling away.
The good news is that Historic England has stepped in with a grant of £224,000 to replace more than 90metres of the ornate sandstone and limestone cornice, which runs around the roofline of the mansion’s Palladian East front.