Whilst Wentworth Castle is perhaps one of the finest historic houses in the country not open to the public, the beautiful formal gardens and landscaped grounds that surround it very much are. In fact, Wentworth Castle Gardens is becoming one of the most popular attractions in Yorkshire following its takeover by the National Trust in June 2018.
The story that comes with this colossal English Country House and it’s Grade 1 Listed gardens, is one of family rivalry, jealousy, and a deep sense of entitlement. When I visited Wentworth Castle Gardens with my daughter in Late February I hadn’t known what to expect. What I discovered however, was a captivating fairytale landscape just oozing with history and political statements. This is a story I absolutely have to share with you.
The history of Wentworth Castle and Gardens
The ancient Stainborough estate
Like many other vast estates in England, the Stainborough Estate can be traced back to the Norman Invasion. Forming part of the historic honour or Pontefract, Stainborough was held by the powerful de Lacy family. Rewarded with vast swathes of land in England by William the Conqueror, the de Lacys became significant landowners in the North of England. At some point in the Thirteenth Century, the estate was seemingly inherited by the Yorkshire based Everingham family, and when they later fell on hard times the estate was purchased by Thomas Cutler.
The Cutler family and Stainborough Hall
There is very little written about the Cutler family, but what is clear is that they were keen Royalists and staunch supporters of King Charles I. It is noteworthy for example, that Thomas’s son Sir Gervase Cutler had raised huge funds in support of the Royalist defence of Pontefract Castle, where he actually died of flu in 1645. It was his son – another Gervase – who was responsible for building Stainborough Hall in 1670 – 72. This served as the foundations to the colossal house we see today. Unfortunately for the Cutlers however, like the Everinghams they also fell on hard times and in 1708 sold up to Thomas Wentworth.
Thomas Wentworth and the great rivalry
Thomas Wentworth was a senior member of the wealthy Wentworth family. His Great Uncle had been none other than Thomas Wentworth 1st Earl of Stafford, and his successor William Wentworth, was Thomas’s cousin. Veteran solider, occasional diplomat, and apparent heir to the Wentworth fortune, Thomas had fully expected to inherit his cousin’s Earldom and vast fortune when he died childless in 1695. Although Thomas did inherit the family title ‘Baron Raby’, what left him absolutely seething was the unexpected fact that the Earl had bequeathed his entire estate to the son of his sister – Thomas Watson. Of course this included the monumental family seat of Wentworth Woodhouse.
How to seek revenge – Building Wentworth Castle
Thomas Wentworth was absolutely mortified and vowed to make amends by doing everything in his power to outshine his unworthy cousin. Desperate to revive the now extinct Earldom of Stafford and create a monumental home capable of rivalling the family seat of Wentworth Woodhouse, in 1708 Thomas purchased Stainborough Hall and Estate and set about on an incredibly ambitious program of expansion.
A Baroque masterpiece
Thomas vastly remodelled the house between 1710 – 1714 in the Baroque style and was responsible for creating an entirely new and stunning Eastern Wing. In 1711, and to the dismay of his Wentworth-Watson cousins, he was rewarded for his services and loyalty to the queen when the family Earldom was revived and he was created the 1st Earl Stafford (second Creation).
Developing the fairytale grounds
In addition to creating a grand house complete with a magnificent art collection, Thomas also set about landscaping his vast grounds. He planting rows upon rows of trees, and created unique and beautiful formal gardens such as the Union Jack Garden, for his family and friends to enjoy. Of particular note is the beautiful castle folly which he constructed in 1726 for his children. He even named the four towers after them.
Like father like son
Thomas Wentworth died in 1739 but the family feud that had fuelled his ambitions lived on. His son and successor, William Wentworth 2nd Earl Stafford, continued to develop his fathers estate, and is attributed with adding a further wing to the mansion. The new South wing was designed in the fashionable Palladian style and greatly increased the size of the house. The Earl did not stop there however, and by enlisting the services of legendary landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, he began completely remodelling the grounds.
Although the Stafford title again became extinct in 1802, the estate had largely remained in the hands of the Wentworth family until it was sold to Barnsley Council in 1948. Prior to selling up however the Wentworths were responsible for adding a Victorian wing to the house, along with a beautiful Victorian conservatory. Under Barnsley Council the Castle initially became a teacher training college, and later The Northern College of Residential Adult Education – which it remains to this day.
Restoration and public opening
The beautiful grounds of Wentworth Castle received some significant investment in the twenty first Century with the Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust being formed in 2002. After much effort the grounds eventually opening to the public in 2007, and although proving very popular with the public, closed due to a funding crisis just 10 year later. This however served as the catalyst for the rejuvenation of the Castle Gardens, with the National Trust entering a partnership with Barnsley Council and the Northern College and reopening the site in the summer of 2018. The National Trust’s newest attraction is thus very much a ‘work in progress’, and is a very exciting and fascinating new venture for them.
The Wentworth Legacy
The feud that engulfed the Wentworth and Watson families resulted in two of the most striking English Country Houses being created, and one of the most fantastic eighteenth Century landscapes being left for us to enjoy today. Wentworth Castle would not have existed had Thomas Wentworth inherited the family estates as expected in 1695, and the Watsons may never have had need to expand the Wentworth Woodhouse – making it one of the largest historic houses of its type anywhere in the world! Today, Wentworth Castle Gardens is home to 26 listed monuments and buildings. This is testament to the vision, ambition and unrelenting desire for revenge, that drove one man to create a phenomenal legacy that we will all enjoy for years to come.
Visiting Wentworth Castle Gardens
In search of Wentworth Castle Gardens
It took roughly 1 hour and 10 minutes to get from my house in Ryedale to Wentworth Castle Gardens. It wasn’t a bad journey by any means. Heading straight down the A64 and onto the A1(M), we arrived on schedule and in good time. The place was fairly well signposted, although I mostly followed Google Maps which took us pretty much straight into the venue’s gravel car park.
It was a cold day for sure, with the Met Office predicting wintry showers and cold winds. After getting my two year old daughter Oaklie out of the car, we got well wrapped up and made our way into the wooden National Trust entrance hall. We were welcomed warmly by the lovely staff, given a map and a guide book, and sent off up the hill towards the play park and the main visitors centre.
The visitors centre and shop
As you make your way up behind the ticket hall and up a small hill, the main visitors centre opens up in front of you with the play park to your right. I had promised Oaklie a visit to the latter, but I was a bit disappointed to see this was shut. This hadn’t been publicised on the National Trust app or website and I was told this was due to the recent bad weather. This did however look like a very good play area, and I will be keen to allow Oaklie to explore it when we next visit.
Anyway, the visitor’s Centre is large and newly refurbished. This contains a nice cafe/restaurant, toilets and a small shop. I had hoped to purchase a guide book but as the site was so new, no such thing existed and I had to revert to asking unfortunate staff members a plethora of questions about the site’s history. Having used the toilets we excitedly made our way back outside and continued around the building towards the main grounds.
Admiring the stunning Wentworth Castle
As you skirt around the side of the visitors centre, Wentworth Castle jumps right out and punches you in the nose. I had no idea this house was so close to the main entrance, and it is absolutely magnificent. You approach from the East and the path takes you right passed the Eastern Wing and through a little Parterre/garden where you can sit and admire the grandeur of the mansion if you wish. As you continue past the house you can truly appreciate the extent of the parkland which today is home to a wandering herd of deer (although we didn’t see any).
The views from Wentworth Castle over the Yorkshire countryside are absolutely spectacular. In fact, the entire estate is situated upon a sloping hill, and you can really appreciate the positioning of the house. Whilst admiring the incredible views, we followed the path around the mansion and up the hill towards the South West overlook. From here you enter the first formal part of the gardens and get another spectacular view of the mansion’s Palladian South Wing.
Exploring the vast gardens
Having taken some time photographing the South Wing and the lovely Corinthian Temple, I noticed Oaklie had shot off down the hill and I had all on not slipping over on the ice whilst chasing after her. She was clearly much faster and less risk averse than I was! Incidentally there doesn’t seem to be any sort of boundary or barrier so it theory you could walk right up to the mansion and touch it if you wanted to!
I was keen to explore the gardens, so we made our way back up the hill and into the Union Jack Garden. I imagine as the summer months start to roll in this will be an incredible garden space to explore and play hide and seek! It is very lovely.
The beautiful Victorian Conservatory
I was very much following my daughter at this point, and she led us out onto a grass terrace which offered more spectacular views over the house and countryside. From here we also found the beautiful looking Victorian Conservatory. I had wanted to venture inside and examine the exotic plants, however I could sense bad weather was approaching and was keen to explore the rest of the gardens.
Lady Lucy’s Walk
As I mentioned, the entire estate is situated within a sloping landscape. As such, if you want to explore further, an uphill walk is expected. This is far from a difficult climb however, and is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. We took the path up through Lady Lucy’s Walk; a lime tree pathway planted by Thomas Wentworth and named after his daughter. This lovely walk takes you up through the woods until you eventually emerge at the incredible Stainborough Castle.
A fairytale castle folly to explore
Stainborough Castle is incredible. Nothing really prepares you for how amazing this castle folly is until you actually experience it. With a mighty gatehouse, four imposing towers and an encircling stone wall, the castle folly makes for a truly unique experience. The castle’s keep is surprisingly large, and the gatehouse has a very Disneyesque feel to it. What is amazing is that you can still go inside and climb right up to the top.
It was at the point of exploring Stainborough Castle, that we found ourselves engulfed in a freak snow storm. This was the first snow I had seen all year, and although not quite on the same level as the ‘beast from the east’, it did mean we had to barricade ourselves inside and wait for it to pass.
We also took the opportunity to head up to the top of of the tower and admired the superb views accross the surrounding landscape. Stainborough Castle is absolutely magical and will be a fantastic hit with the kids (and the adults!). I cant wait to get back in summer and spend a bit more time exploring with my daughter.
Avoiding more bad weather
Having made our way back down the hill away from the castle, I carried Oaklie the rest of the way to the main gardens, and back down towards the visitors centre. I was very conscious I didn’t want us to get caught in another storm so I took the decision to call it a day and get us back to the warmth of my car. We had food and coffee (I had coffee) in the car so it was definitely a good call!
Falling in love with Wentworth Castle Gardens
Wentworth Castle Gardens is one of those places you instantly fall in love with when you visit. I really had no idea what to expect before my visit, and I was absolutely blown away with the scale and magnificence of the place. We only managed to explore the gardens which form such a tiny part of the estate, and didn’t even touch on the vast parkland which houses numerous other listed buildings including the ‘ha ha bridge’ and the beautiful Rotunda.
The grounds are absolutely stunning and have a very fairytale feel to them. It is clear that what you see is very much inspired by the Wentworth rivalry, and the cleverly placed structures and monuments dotted around the site were deliberately designed to show off the wealth and importance of its owners.
About that lovely house…..
It is a bit of a shame that visitors cannot ordinarily enter and explore the wonderful Wentworth Castle House. Clearly this is one of the most stunning country houses ever constructed in England, and the fact it currently houses an educational institution is not in my opinion befitting of its incredible history. Places like this should be preserved for all to enjoy, and the fact that it is not accessible to the public is a little bit frustrating. This monumental house is part of our heritage and I would love to see it opened up to the public.
That said, this is no fault of the National Trust, who have done an exceptional job of reinvigorating the grounds and gardens and making them accessible to a new generation. I just hope that in the future the house itself is vacated and lovingly restored to its former glory.
Worth a visit?
Wentworth Castle Gardens represent an incredible historic day out, and this is likely to become one of my favourite national Trust properties. I am excited to see how the Trust develops the site in the future, and cant wait to get back in the summer. This will be a regular haunt of mine I am sure!
Whilst it is a shame you can’t enter the house, you should not let this put you off. You can still get fantastic views of the exterior, and the gardens and parkland are so vast that you could easily spend the whole day exploring them. There is so much to see and do and even the most impatient toddlers will be completely captivated by this incredible landscape.
For families looking for great days out, or history enthusiasts looking to learn more about the Wentworth family, Wentworth Castle gardens serves as one of the best days out in Yorkshire, and we should all absolutely lend our support in keeping this fantastic venue open for future generations to explore and enjoy.
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References/ further reading
For more information on the history of Wentworth Castle/Stainborough Hall and the Everingham Family, check out the Everingham Family History Archives here.
Historic England have a good article on the history of Wentworth Castle here.
The Penistone History Archive gives a good run down of the history and also contains some old photographs. Check this out here.
Wentworth Castle Gardens is currently under the management of the National Trust. To find out more about their excellent work and up and coming events at Wentworth Castle Gardens, be sure to check out their website here.