When ‘Black Diamonds’ first hit bookshelves back in 2007, it introduced the country to a beautiful house that had long been forgotten.
The international bestseller put the grade-1 listed Wentworth Woodhouse on the map, and set in motion a chain of events which saw the stunning stately home resurrected from the dead.
But author Catherine Bailey has now revealed how close the book came to being a non-starter.
“Just a few weeks into the research process, when it became clear how little of the home’s documentation had survived, I was on the verge of abandoning the whole project,” says Catherine.
“I met an old guy working on the estate very early on, and he was the one who told me about the bonfire.”
The bonfire Catherine is referring to was set by the tenth Earl Fitzwilliam, in 1972, and saw an estimated 1.6 tonnes of documents and correspondence from the house’s archives - documenting the family’s history at the house for the last two centuries - destroyed. What William Thomas Wentworth-Fitzwilliam was trying to cover up with this drastic action remains a mystery to this day.
“I’d come across the house during my time working as a television producer, scouting locations in Yorkshire,” says Catherine.
“On my first visit, I made the mistake everybody makes, of thinking the stables was the house. Then I saw it, and everything changed.”
So blown away was Catherine by the house that, on her return to London, she couldn’t get it out of her mind.
“It was so big and extraordinary, even in its derelict state,” she recalls.
“I’ve always loved history and found myself doing some initial research in my spare time, where I came across the skeletons of this fascinating family story. I made a big decision. I quit my job to put together an outline of the book that was in my head, which I then pitched to Penguin. They loved it and commissioned me to write it, which was incredible, bearing in mind I’d never written a book. I knew I had to write about this, I felt compelled to write this story.”
But Catherine’s enthusiam was soon dampened when she realised the full scale of the task ahead of her.
“Finding out about the bonfire phased me,” she admits.
“I thought about abandoning the whole thing, but I’d quit my job to write it, and the deal with Penguin was done, so I committed to going ahead.”
And thank goodness she did. Over the next two-and-a-half years, the book came together - an extraordinary tale of family feuds, forbidden love, civil unrest and the downfall of a mining dynasty.
“This book worked because of the contributions of the people still living in the village, those who’d worked themselves, or whose parents or grandparents had worked in the house, or had some connection with it,” she explains.
“The village of Wentworth was a treasure trove of memories, which hadn’t been tapped. I’m hugely grateful to all the people who sat with me and teased out this story. I made so many friends during that time, people I’ve kept in touch with in the years since and who I’ve been back to Yorkshire to visit many times.”
But one place Catherine has spent surprisingly little time, given the insightfullness of the book she created, is the house itself.
“I wrote the whole book without ever having set foot inside - and yet I felt I knew it intimately,” she reveals.
“The owner at that time never responded to my letters asking to visit, so I had to make do with floor plans, photographs and other people’s memories. I know every inch of that building. The day I finally made it inside was so thrilling.”
Recently, Catherine returned to the house for only the second time ever, to attend an interview and book-signing event in the stunning Marible Saloon, alongside two other women whose influence on the house has come to be very important: Julie Kenny and Sarah McLeod.
Julie Kenny CBE is the Rotherham businesswoman who had the vision to save the house for the nation by setting up the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, which raised £7million to buy it, and then persuaded the chancellor of the Exchequer to give £7m for urgent roof repairs in last year’s budget. The total cost of repairs is estimated at £42m.
“As one of the founder members of the Trust, it was such a dream,” smiles Julie.
“Everone thought it was going to be impossible, but what’s happening here in Wentworth is proof that nothing is impossible.
“I was first introduced to the house in 2011. I knew then that it was too beautiful not to share. It’s gone through so much in its life and I feel so lucky to be a part of the team that’s helping to design and develop its future; seeking to restore it to its rightful place.
“The Chancellor’s announcement last year was, of course, the key to unlocking everything. I cheered like a mad thing when I heard the news, as four years of hard work paid off right before our eyes. That was the key to us moving forward - to buying the house, being able to make it watertight, wind and weather-proof, stopping the future decay so that we can raise money in an organised way and begin to restore it. ”
Of course the hard work is still to come, as Sarah McLeod - the Trust’s newly-appointed CEO confirms.
“We have three primary tasks ahead of us now,” says Sarah, who came to the job in July.
“In an ideal world, after the Trust purchased the site, we would create a master plan to establish the vision, roll out the capital works programme, and operate the site. The challenge here is that we’re trying to do all three at the same time. When we bought the house, we inherited a basic, but critical, business that operates out of the house - tours, weddings and events, and film and TV work - and we need to ensure that survives and is running as effectively as possible.
“At the same time, this is such a big site - there are over 365 rooms in the house - and with so many ideas and so much enthusiasm, we’d get lost really quickly without a really strong vision going forwards.
“We’re also straight into the capital works programme, repairing the roof and trying to stabilise the house, spending the autumn statement award of £7.6m which has to be spent by March 2020. Since I came on board it’s been a case of diving headling into recruiting, and contractors, and looking at costs, where the money is coming from, and the order of things to be done.
“We’re so grateful to Catherine and ‘Black Diamonds,’ and the key role the book has played in raising the profile of this wonderful house. I think it was inevitable that, given the sheer size of the house, it would eventually go into the hands of a charitable trust. And I think there’s something really nice about seeing a house that was built with the blood, sweat and tears of the working class, now owned by the nation.”
Catherine adds: “Something that still gets me about this story is that, a couple more generations, and this story would have been lost forever. I don’t even think I could write this book now, as a number of hugely important sources - people who were in their 80s and 90s when I last saw them, and had memories from their parents going all the way back to the turn of the last century - have since sadly died.
“This precious story was captured just in the nick of time.”