Protecting rare blooms a vital task for heritage specialists transforming Wentworth Woodhouse’s Grade II* Camellia House: Year-long £5m project will create a stunning tea house and 22 jobs

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Exterior of the Grade II* Listed Camellia House at Wentworth Woodhouse with lawns in the foreground and trees to the rear.

The transformation of Wentworth Woodhouse’s historic Camellia House from derelict wreck to destination tea house begins next month, with award-winning heritage specialists at the helm.

The Grade II* building, which houses some of the oldest camellias in the Western world, is currently a roofless shell on the Heritage at Risk Register.

Restoring it and giving it a new life, Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust’s first full regeneration project, will cost £5million.

Construction specialists William Birch & Sons Ltd will carry out the year-long task after winning an exacting tendering process.

The York-based company was selected for its expertise in the heritage sector, having delivered the award-winning restoration of Hylton Castle, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and most recently the restoration of the Old Deanery and Exchequergate Arch at Lincoln Cathedral.

Gemma Shahjahan, Business Development Director, said: “We are in awe of the incredible architecture of Wentworth Woodhouse and its impact on the local community. It is an absolute pleasure to be selected to work at the Camellia House, on the next phase of the Trust’s journey.”

Its team arrives on site on August 15 to erect scaffolding and put measures in place to protect the building’s inhabitants: camellias dating back to the early 1800s.

“Our sensitive approach to working on some of the region’s most treasured buildings ideally places us to restore the building, but also carefully safeguard the rare collection of camellias at the heart of the project,” said Gemma.

“They will be protected by a scaffolding framework wrapped in a fine netting, which will allow daylight through but mitigate dust and debris around the trees. The planting area will also be protected to prevent lime plaster dust entering the soil.

“We will be working closely with the Trust’s Head Gardener, who will be monitoring the camellias daily and carry out a programme of feeding and propagation during the construction phase.”

The building’s extensive refurbishment will include repairing or renewing roof timbers, stonework, windows and doors, walls and ceilings. A new roof, toilets and a kitchen will be created at the historic front of the Camellia House, and a new glass roof will be re-introduced at the back, where the camellias are housed in historic troughs, and where visitors will enjoy sampling teas from around the globe

The building has no water or electricity supply; bringing in services and drainage facilities will be a complex task.

The contract also includes the creation of a new visitors’ car park near the Stables, on the site of a 1960s swimming pool block erected while the mansion was home to the Lady Mabel College of Physical Education.

In addition, the scope of works will reduce the Trust’s environmental impact with the addition of ground-source heat pumps, which will provide heating for the Camellia House and part of the Stables.

The process will be led by UK-wide specialist conservation architects Donald Insall Associates, which opened a York studio in 2021.

The award-winning practice and historic buildings consultancy is known for conservation work at some of Britain’s most significant stately homes. It has worked extensively at Wentworth Woodhouse during recent phases of restoration work and emergency repairs at the mansion and stables, which cost £9.7 million.

In 2021 it was chosen to develop designs for the Camellia House and gain Rotherham Borough Council planning approvals.

Dorian Proudfoot, architect and Associate Director, commented: “Following on from our practice’s experience of noteworthy glazed garden buildings at Kew Gardens, we were delighted to be involved in shaping the future of this rare and impressive 18th century Camellia House at Wentworth Woodhouse.

“It has been particularly interesting to combine the accurate restoration of the roofless ruin with sensitive adaptation of the building for its new use as a tea house and events venue.

“All through the design we have been conscious to protect and provide a safe future for the extremely special and rare camellia plants that have called this Grade II* listed building home for the last two centuries.

“Its redevelopment is the next stage in securing a sustainable future for Wentworth Woodhouse, one of England’s finest country houses.”

Sarah McLeod, CEO of Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust commented: “This is a very exciting time for us – the transformation of the Camellia House is the first project we are undertaking which will bring an entirely derelict area of the site back into full use.

“We are delighted that it is in such safe hands. Donald Insall Associates and William Birch & Sons have extensive heritage sector experience and will be undertaking the project with great sensitivity – not least towards our camellias, some of which have survived for 200 years and will have pride of place in our beautiful tea house.

“Of course none of this would be possible without the support of National Lottery players and Historic England, and we are very grateful.”

Situated close to the site of a menagerie where the 1st Marquess of Rockingham’s famed collection of exotic animals lived, the glass-fronted structure was originally named the Menagerie Greenhouse.

Its oldest parts, at the back of the building, date back to 1738 and were a tea house where Lady Rockingham, wife of the 1st Marquess, entertained guests with the fashionable new drink of the day.

Eventually the glazed area became home to highly prized camellias from the Far East. It’s believed the 2nd Marquess could have begun the collection and the 4th Earl Fitswilliam took up the hobby.

Up to 22 new local hospitality jobs will be created when the tea house opens in summer 2023. A tea menu will embrace tea-drinking ceremonies and cultures from across the globe and the Camellia House will also serve as an evening events space.

Its restoration and repurposing is thanks to a number of grants, including £4m from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, £250,000 from Historic England and £364,622 from The Hamish Ogston Foundation, via Historic England.

David Renwick, Director, England, North, at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “We have been delighted to support Wentworth Woodhouse over the last six years. Our latest grant means the Trust can embark on restoring the beautiful Camellia House for the public, and especially the local community, to enjoy and explore its fascinating heritage.”

Giles Proctor, Historic England Heritage at Risk Architect, said: “We have been working closely with Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust on the first phase of the restoration of the mansion and our £250,000 grant to the Camellia House project, along with the award from the Hamish Ogston Foundation, acts as a vital catalyst to attract greater amounts of funding.

“It will help rejuvenate this wonderful building, provide a lifeline for the skilled crafts people who help keep historic places alive, and give their trainees the opportunity to gain hands-on experience.”

WWPT’s own funds and grant applications will contribute £136,536, the Garfield Weston Foundation has donated £118,257, the Ian Addison Charitable Trust £7,500, in-kind donations total £19,270 and volunteer time £33,400.

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