I love old houses and have been visiting stately homes since I was a child. I celebrate them as a unique part of our English heritage and I am always fascinated to read about the people who lived in them and to gaze upon their portraits. I’m making this clear at the outset, because what I’m about to write may seem a little out of character, not to say controversial.
I read in last Sunday’s Times that Prince Charles is throwing his considerable weight behind the fight to save Wentworth Woodhouse, which requires £100m to be spent on it to conserve the building and reverse subsidence. By a strange coincidence, some years ago, the Prince intervened even more directly to save Dumfries House, by spending £20m from the Prince’s Trust on its renovation. I say coincidence, because for three years I worked in Dumfries and had a flat there, so I’m familiar with and have lived near both the old piles in which he has taken an interest. (If he starts campaigning for any more such buildings near me, I shall begin to think that he is stalking me!)
Wentworth Woodhouse is not so very far away, though I’ve only visited it once, and then only the grounds, because until recently the house wasn’t open to the public. At the time of my visit, about five years ago, it wasn’t possible to get close to it: it had to be viewed from a public footpath on the other side of the boundary fence. I didn’t in fact know of its existence until the publication of Black Diamonds, by Catherine Bailey, which I bought after reading rave reviews when the book came out in 2008 and which is a meticulously-researched account of one of the families that lived in the house – so it doesn’t cover the whole of its history, but I found Bailey’s account gripping and it inspired me to want to see the mansion for myself.
Wentworth Woodhouse has been described as Britain’s finest Georgian house. It is certainly its largest. The main front of the house is 606 feet long, twice the length of Buckingham Palace. It has more than 1,000 windows. The newspaper article says that the nursery was situated an eighth of a mile from the dining room. Guests were given different-coloured confetti so that they could find their rooms again when they retired to bed (I remember reading this in Bailey’s book, as well). Even the stables are huge: in common with many other visitors, I mistook them for the house itself when first I came upon them. In fact, huge is the best word that I can think of to describe Wentworth Woodhouse itself: or gigantic, or enormous, or gargantuan, or outsize. In my view, it is both a monster and a monstrosity. It is gratuitously massive just for the sake of it. It has been symmetrically constructed, with two elongated wings, but is not otherwise architecturally distinguished. It actually gives the impression of being rather squat, even though the main building is three storeys high, because of its preposterous length. If it had been built today, say by an oil sheikh or a Silicon Valley magnate, I’m sure that it would be denounced for its vulgarity. Wentworth Woodhouse is a white elephant. I do not think that it merits the expenditure of £100m to preserve it, especially as I’m sure that this would be just the beginning. Despite the present owner’s ambitious plans to develop several commercial ventures there, I cannot imagine that it could ever be self-sustaining. £100m is a colossal sum of money and would, I feel, be better spent on saving many ‘lesser’ buildings instead.
There is another reason why I hold this view. Wentworth Woodhouse has been one of the most bitterly socially-divisive buildings in our history. I don’t mean the usual upstairs-downstairs disparities illustrated by soap operas like Downton Abbey, about which we probably feel far more uneasy than the people who lived and worked in such houses at the time. Wentworth Woodhouse was built on coal – both literally and metaphorically. The house sits on what was once a rich coal seam. Generations of its owners met the massive expenses of its upkeep by selling the mining rights to the coal that lay deep below its lands. The nearby village of Elsecar was a coal-mining village. Its inhabitants either mined the coal or worked at the house itself. It is still a pleasant but modest village that contains no large properties; the only large property for miles around was Wentworth Woodhouse itself.
The Fitzwilliam family, which owned the house for most of its history and whose story Catherine Bailey tells, were on the whole kind employers, even though the sons sometimes exerted droit de seigneur and fathered a few bastards on the local girls. By the time of the Second World War, its glory days were long over. After the war, it fell victim to what can only be described as an act of vandalism fuelled by class hatred. In 1946, Emmanuel Shinwell, the ruling Labour Party’s Minister of Fuel and Power and a man of extreme proletarian views, insisted that open cast mining should take place on the estate, even though the richest of the coal seams were not close to the surface. He stopped short at demolishing the house itself, but the debris from the mining was actually banked up against its windows. The grounds and gardens were completely wrecked.
Wentworth Woodhouse is now owned by one Clifford Newbold, who bought it for £1.5m some years ago and has since spent more than £5m on carrying out as much repair work as he says he can afford. He is now seeking to sue the Coal Authority for £100m for the depredations to the house and estate that resulted from Shinwell’s instructions. This is the initiative that Prince Charles is supporting. To me, it seems like an invidious and depressing resurrection of a vengeful class war that played itself out almost seventy years ago and from which I should prefer to believe that we have learned and moved on. In addition to this, whether or not the lawsuit is successful or funds are raised to restore the house by some other means – for example, via the National Lottery – it will be the nation itself that pays. One way or another, that £100m will ‘belong’ to us. Do we want to spend it on Wentworth Woodhouse? I suggest that we don’t. This not-so-old, not-so-beautiful, enormous house has been the scene of many past crimes on both sides of the class divide: generations have toiled below the ground there in inhuman conditions, and many miners lost their lives working the Barnsley coal seam; young girls had their lives ruined by the stigma of bearing illegitimate children to an elite of young men impossible to refuse and the upper class occupants of the house suffered the trauma and indignity of being reviled and trapped in their pile by the evangelical social engineering of a scion of the Glasgow working classes. It has not been a happy place, nor a place where greatness has flourished.
It is my belief that, like other places that have been the scene of great pain and suffering, Wentworth Woodhouse should be allowed to die, not a death by a thousand cuts, as money is successively raised and then exhausted, but in one final burst of theatre, one last grand gesture. I think that Wentworth Woodhouse, like many another ageing building, should make its exit via a blast of dynamite and tumble to the ground with dignity, like a huge beast that has now lived out its natural span.
Controversial, maybe. In some ways, I am surprised at myself. But I do believe this, strongly.