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.

Wentworth Old Church and the Earl of Strafford

The ruins of Wentworth Old Church

The ruins of Wentworth Old Church

Wentworth Old Church, in the village of Wentworth near Barnsley, traces its origins back to the 13th century (the first mention being in 1235) and contains the tombs of many of the Wentworth family and the Earls of Strafford. The tower dates to the 14/15th century and in 1548 Thomas Wentworth bequeathed stonework for Monk Breton Priory that he had bought following the dissolution. The remainder of the current church was rebuilt in 1684 for William Wentworth. Although the majority of the church is now in ruins (the north chapel still intact), it is still clear to see what a magnificent building it must have been in it’s prime.  It was replaced by a new church, which stands immediately to the south in 1877 and the old church fell out of use. It now stands sentient over the churchyard, all faded glory and weathered stone.

Thomas Wentworth (1593-1641) was an advisor to Charles I, High Sheriff of Yorkshire, Lord Deputy of Ireland and the first Earl of Strafford. However, he seems to have fallen from favour and in 1641 was imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of treason. Charles I found himself under immense pressure from parliament to sign Wentworth’s death warrant, which he did on 10th May 1641. Wentworth was executed two days later and his body still lies under this church. When Charles I was himself executed eight years later, he seemed to be of the opinion that it was his punishment for allowing the execution of Thomas Wentworth.

Two views of the 14/15th century tower and 17th century doorway

Two views of the 14/15th century tower and 17th century doorway