Wentworth Castle – Ghost of a Landscape

Centuries of habitation on what is now known as Stainborough Park, has left behind a historic landscape littered with features from a long bygone era. Nature has reclaimed much of the parkland due to neglect over the majority of the 20th century. What remains now is a valuable combination of nature and history, offering ghostly glimpses of its former grandeur.

People have lived on this site in Stainborough since the Iron Age. The remains of a now much disguised hillfort lies under the 18th century folly on the hilltop. Following the Norman Conquest, the lands were owned by the De Lacey’s. In the mid 13th Century it was owned by the Everingham family, who sold it to the Cutlers in 1610.

Wentworth Castle is an estate born of a bitter family feud. When Thomas Wentworth’s expectations of inheriting nearby Wentworth Woodhouse were dashed in 1695, he bought Stainborough Hall, some seven miles to the north in 1708 and began to create a house and gardens to rival his usurper, changing its name to Wentworth Castle.

In 1711, the title of the Earl of Strafford was recreated for him, but he fell from favour when the House of Hanover succeeded the throne upon the death of his patron, Queen Anne in 1714. A Jacobite supporter of the Stewart dynasty, Thomas Wentworth retired to his estate and put his energies into landscaping his gardens.

His son William inherited the estate in 1739 and carried on his father’s work – and his feud. William was responsible for not only building the Palladian wing of the house (completed in 1765), but also many of the surviving monuments and follies around the estate. I have written previously about the towers built at Worsbrough Common here.

Following the death of the second Earl of Strafford in 1795, the estate passed through several hands in quick succession, until it was inherited in 1804 by Frederick Vernon (later changing his name to Vernon-Wentworth), then aged nine. Frederick carried out a number of changes and improvements to the gardens, passing the estate on to his son Thomas when he died in 1885. Thomas added the conservatory and brought electricity to the estate. He died in Suffolk in 1902 and was succeeded by his son Bruce Canning Vernon-Wentworth.

Despite also making improvements, Bruce seemed to favour the family’s Suffolk estate and moved permanently in Aldeburgh in 1919, abandoning Wentworth Castle completely. The building deteriorated and demolition was considered at one point. The house was sold to Barnsley Corporation in 1948, the gardens and parkland eventually being acquired from the Vernon-Wentworth Trusts by the Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust in 2003. The future of the grounds and parkland now face further uncertainty following the dissolution of the trust and closure of the gardens in 2017.

Years of neglect and decline have seen the landscaped park partially return to nature. The work of the Wentworth Castle Heritage Trust has largely halted the decline, but there are still decaying remnants to be found of the park’s former glory. The Serpentine area of the estate, now woodland inhabited by deer was once a series of ponds, overlooked by the neo-classical rotunda based on the Temple of Tivoli, completed in 1742. The ruins of retaining walls and sluice gates can still be found and in wet winters, the ponds still hold a little water.

On a summer evening, when the warm air is full of the sound of deer fawns playing in the long grass, Stainborough Park is a magical place. If you can zone-out from the background thrum of the distant M1, it is possible to be transported to a place apart from the modern world, to a timeless haven of trees intruding on the carefully landscaped former pleasure grounds of the rich. Although in the mind’s eye, their period costumed ghosts still glide along the planted avenues and elegant gardens, their landscape has been reclaimed.

The Rich Man and the Needle’s Eye

The Needle's Eye, from the north

The Needle’s Eye, from the north

Up on the ridge, overlooking the old stately home of Wentworth Woodhouse, in a clearing in Lee Wood, stands one of the four follies of the Wentworth estate. A curious, stone built gateway, known as the Needle’s Eye.

The pyramid measures approximately 38 feet in height, with a base of almost 20 feet on each side. The passageway is a little under nine feet wide and contains stone benches on each side, with wheel-stops inside each corner. It is topped by a stone carved funerary urn, rather than a pyramidion.

Surprisingly little is known of its construction date or purpose. Its design is attributed to architect, John Carr. Local legend tells that it was built by Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782), to win a wager that he could drive a coach and horses through the eye of a needle. Various dates are given for the date of construction, all of which fall within the life-span of the 2nd Marquess, ranging from mid-century to 1780. However, its English Heritage listing states that it is clearly visible on an engraving dating from circa 1730.

Charles Watson-Wentworth is an interesting character. Twice Whig Prime Minister (1765-66 and again from March 1782 until his death in July of that year), and a descendant of Thomas Wentworth, MP for Pontefract and the first Earl of Strafford, executed at the Tower of London by Charles I in 1641 to appease parliament*. At the age of fifteen Charles’ father made him Colonel in charge of a volunteer defense force, against the Jacobite uprising of 1745.  He rode from Wentworth to Carlisle, to join the Duke of Cumberland in his pursuit of Charles Stuart. The nearby Hoober Stand was constructed to celebrate the victory over the ‘Young Pretender’. Charles was responsible for much of the building at the great house and among the grounds. He was buried in the Earl of Strafford’s vault in York Minster and a mausoleum built in Wentworth’s grounds to commemorate him.

There has been a house at Wentworth since Saxon times, the wealth of the subsequent landowners being built on the coal measures of the estate. The pyramid stands at the crossroads of two old (now disused) coaching roads, on the boundary between Wentworth and Rainborough. Near the gate that leads from Coley Lane onto the track, is an ancient stone that looks a little like a miniature cross base. Local lore supposes that it was used as a vinegar stone (in which coins were left in exchange for food by those infected with the plague) and although it looks too small to have once held a wayside cross, due to its position, it could have held a boundary marker of some description. It is possible that the Needle’s Eye was also constructed as a boundary marker, in a grander style befitting the status of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate.

The Needle's Eye, from the south east

The Needle’s Eye, from the south east

The fact that the structure is topped by an urn, rather than the more accustomary pyramidion, could possibly indicate that it was built as a memorial. If the pyramid dates from before 1730, it could be a memorial to Lewis Watson (1655-1724), the MP for Canterbury and confusingly, the third Baron and first Earl of Rockingham.

One other odd feature, which could possibly reveal some of the pyramid’s history, is that on the eastern side there are what appear to be a number of musket ball holes. It has been suggested that these could be the result of an incident of execution by firing squad (possibly of Jacobite rebels). How much truth there is in this I am not sure, as some of the holes look too big to have been caused by musket shot, while others are way above where you would expect fire concentrated on the heart to be. A few similar marks can also be seen on the western face too.

Although the past of this wonderful folly is rather murky, on a stormy evening, with the wind whisking the tree branches, it is easy to imagine the sound of approaching hooves and the rattle of a coach along the ridge. And if another folk tale is to be believed, the possibility of coming face to face with the local padfoot that inhabits the quiet lanes around here, adds a further air of apprehension to this lonely hillside.


*Another story for another day!