Could two contenders to the title knock Rotherham’s country house off the top spot?
Wentworth Woodhouse in Rotherham is known worldwide as the country house with the biggest facade in the UK.
But is it fact – or just one of the many myths that still surround the Grade I listed stately home, which fell into decline in the 20th century?
The Preservation Trust, which took on its regeneration in 2017, had heard that two other magnificent houses believed they have claim to the title.
Hopetoun House in Queensferry, widely considered to be Scotland’s finest stately home and still lived in by members of the Hope Family which built it in the 1600s, has long thought its West Front Facade is 675 feet long.
It had even received what could be seen as the ultimate validation back in 1985 – an entry for the UK’s longest facade in the Guinness Book of Records.
Meanwhile, urban legend had described 400-room architectural masterpiece Stowe House in Buckinghamshire as having the longest facade in the country. Though whether this was its South Facade, or its equally spectacular North Facade, and whether an array of adjoining buildings could be counted, no one knew.
If either Hopetoun or Stowe was correct, where did that leave Wentworth Woodhouse? Its East Front Palladian facade, which contains its State Rooms, a bachelor wing and service wing, was thought to total 606 feet.
Though the rivalry was genteel and no ‘battle of the stately homes’ was about to break out, Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust decided it was time to discover whether its really did have the right to the title – and the Fact Or Facade project was launched.
As no definitive measurements comparing all three country houses had ever been made, the Trust called in help from Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland and conservation architect Tony Barton, chairman of Donald Insall Associates, the nationwide architectural practice currently on its third major project at Wentworth Woodhouse. Tony was to walk each building’s facade with a surveyor’s trundle wheel.
It also summoned its volunteer Digital Team, which has been checking out the accuracy of alleged Wentworth Woodhouse facts for the Trust’s YouTube channel.
Its video crew would record the process and produce a series explaining why each house was built on such a grand scale, and how they had survived and prospered while over 2,000 country houses were lost during changes to 20th century Britain’s economic, social and political landscape.
But before Tony could get to work, there was an important issue. What, exactly, was he going to measure?
Said Tony: “I thought it would be a simple task of trundling along the three buildings and giving an answer, but it was not that simple.
“Hopetoun, Stowe and Wentworth are two-faced; they don’t have a back door, they each have two front doors.
“I had to set some rules. Firstly, I settled on the definition of a Principal Facade as the structure designed to be the house’s main face. Then I decided which of Stowe’s Wentworth’s and Hopetoun’s fronts was, in my opinion, the Principal Facade – and then decided whether all the elements in them could be counted as the’ principal face’.
“It was a long and complicated process to say the least. Wentworth Woodhouse is definitely the country house with the longest Principal Facade – and what’s more, by my measurements it’s actually 12 feet longer than the Trust thought it was, coming in at 618 feet.
“But by my reckoning, the other two houses have important titles of their own. Hopetoun has what I have decided is the longest garden frontage at 657 feet (this included some garden walls, so they are not classed as part of a facade).
Stowe, in my opinion, is the longest building at 638 feet, but this includes outbuildings at either end, which again are not part of the principal designed face of the building.
“Fact Or Facade has given me the joy and privilege of getting to know these three wonderful buildings a little better. Everyone should make the effort to visit them and support the amazing people looking after such historically important buildings, so they continue to thrive.
Sarah McLeod, CEO of Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust commented: “We are delighted, and very proud, to learn that Wentworth Woodhouse still holds the title for the longest Principal Facade in the UK – and is actually 12 feet longer than we thought!
“But we are even prouder that, while the Fact Or Facade project may have started out as gentle rivalry, it has brought three of the country’s grandest stately homes together.
“We’ve learned so much about each other during this process and will be supporting each other as we protect our historically important buildings so they can continue to exist and ‘earn their keep’ for centuries to come.
“I’m also very proud of the stunning films created by our Digital Team Volunteers to tell the story of each house. They can be viewed on our YouTube channel and we’ve gifted them to Stowe and Hopetoun’s marketing teams.”
Wentworth Woodhouse has the longest Principal Facade – 618 feet.
Said Tony: Wentworth Woodhouse’s East Front, with its central building, two-storey flanks, three-storey porticoed wings and lanterns on the pavilions at each end, was designed and built as an imposing, symmetrical piece. Architect Henry Flitcroft was given the brief to show off and this was achieved.
“Without doubt it is the Principal Façade and all of the structures along the East Front are important components of the overall design.”
Sarah McLeod, CEO of Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust commented:
“The claim that Wentworth Woodhouse’s Palladian East Front ‘Facade was, at 606 feet long, the longest principal facade in the UK had long existed when the Preservation Trust bought the site in 2017 and began its regeneration.
“We are delighted, and very proud, to learn that our house still holds the title – and is actually 12 feet longer than we thought!”
Hopetoun House has the longest garden frontage – 657 feet.
At Hopetoun House, Tony decided that the later Robert Adam West Front is the building’s main face, as it was designed to be seen by everyone approaching Hopetoun’s driveway up to the front door.
Said Tony: “This is what you see as you approach. It was designed for show and, in my opinion, is its principal frontage.
“But I decided that its curved quadrants and the ancillary accommodation buildings which link them could not be counted as part of the principal architecture of the building, so they were not included. Therefore, its Principal Facade measures around 206 feet.
However, there is an equally fine, earlier face by Sir William Bruce to the East and onto the gardens, which measures 657 feet. Therefore, my decision is that Hopetoun has the longest garden facade.”
Lord Hopetoun commented: “We were delighted to take part in the Fact or Façade project as it gave us the opportunity to involve our team, our volunteers and many of the groups with whom Hopetoun works on a regular basis in a fun project with a serious purpose.
“Houses like Wentworth, Stowe and Hopetoun only exist because of the hard work and dedication of a huge number of people, as true today as in the eighteenth century.”
Fiona Wall, Head Guide and Head of Education at Hopetoun House, commented: “We congratulate Wentworth Woodhouse for having the Longest Facade.
“We are not at all disappointed to be named as having the longest garden frontage and assume the original measuring of our West Front by the Guinness Book of Records was dependent on a different definition of the country house Principal Facade.
“A conversation between Wentworth Woodhouse and Hopetoun about their facades prompted the debate which led to this fascinating project becoming so much bigger than we ever thought.
“It became an opportunity to explain how these three houses diversified and survived in the 20th century – and an endorsement of how important volunteers and staff are to their continuation.
“Fact Or Facade forged links between three very different stately homes. We now have a strong working partnership which will continue.”
Stowe House is the longest building – 638 feet
Stowe is one of the most important country houses in Europe and also the birthplace of English landscape gardening.
Said Tony: “It has two faces and while its North Front measures almost 886 feet, in my opinion the South Front is Stowe’s principal frontage
“Its renowned gardens south of the house are where Capability Brown earned his name and Robert Adam created a south-facing frontage worthy of the gardens. This became the showpiece of the house.
“Its central building with portico, the seven bay wings either side and the higher end pavilions of three wide bays are design components and therefore needed to be included in the measurement for the Principal Facade. This came in at 460 feet, much shorter than that of Wentworth Woodhouse.
The two-storey structures to the north and south are not elements of the facade, but they do take the total length of the building to around 638 feet, making Stowe the longest of the three houses,” said Tony.
Simon Wales, CEO of Stowe House Preservation Trust commented:
“The longest façade in the UK debate had long been talked about at Stowe and had become urban legend. It could have originated from the fact that the interior of the house has the UK’s longest enfilade (a suite of rooms with doorways in line with each other).
“We were delighted to be part of this friendly competition and felt this would be a fun way of finding out, once and for all, who has the longest facade, as well as giving us an opportunity to showcase our beautiful building as both an independent school and popular heritage attraction.
“We greatly enjoyed being part of this project and building a new relationship with our colleagues at Wentworth Woodhouse and Hopetoun.
These buildings survive and thrive because of the people who love them and share them with our communities, and that’s something we all have in common.
“It has been a very positive experience and I think we have all learned a lot from architect Tony Barton’s definition of a principal facade.
“We look forward to welcoming even more visitors to Stowe House, and we will proudly share the news that we are the longest frontage, even if we don’t quite have the longest facade!”
Historic England’s consultant architect Giles Proctor explains why grand country houses were built on a huge scale, and the importance of the facade:
“During the 18th century there seems to have been a degree of competition between the aristocratic owners of the greater houses.
They were required to own houses which matched the grandeur of their titles – and sometimes, by building a grand house it was even possible to acquire a grand title to match.
A façade, usually the principal elevation of a building, was intended to create an instantly favourable impression on the onlooker.
To avoid monotony and to focus attention on the centre, the architect would embellish the façade with columns, pilasters, curving wings and pavilions.
But facades weren’t built purely for vanity – they served an important political purpose. Stately home owners staged vote-influencing events at their homes.
The bigger and grander their venue, the more people they could hope to influence. These gatherings were the Georgian equivalent of today’s Party Political Broadcasts.
Wentworth Woodhouse, Stowe and Hopetoun were all built to impress. They had to be not only big, but also superlative examples of architectural design and craftsmanship and they succeeded in projecting their owners’ power and influence.
Although their original purpose has passed, their beauty continues to inspire and have a positive impact on those who live and work within them and their communities.”