Restoring the historic Camellia House at Rotherham stately home Wentworth Woodhouse is a lengthy challenge – but it has already led to the creation of three new jobs.
The decaying Grade II*-listed building on Historic England’s Buildings at Risk Register houses some of the oldest camellias in the Western world.
It is being transformed into a stunning tea house and events venue by Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, which took ownership of the Grade I listed mansion and gardens in 2017.
The £5m renovation is due to finish later this year with support from a number of grants, including £4m from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
A number of new hospitality jobs will be created. But already the Heritage Fund grant, made possible by the UK’s National Lottery players, has enabled the Trust to employ specialists in outreach, community engagement and education.
They are delivering a two-year-funded Camellia House Activity Plan which will reach out to people across South Yorkshire, particularly those from low income households, disability and ethnic groups.
Community Engagement and Inclusion Officer Becky Downton, Skills Development and Learning Officer Jen Wall and Assistant Gardener Helen Kelly are onboard and the project will be managed by longstanding Trust employee Keeley Stephenson.
“The Camellia House Activity Plan is so important to our aim of making Wentworth Woodhouse a place where all are welcome,” Keeley, of Thorpe Hesley.
“Since we opened the gardens in 2020, we have seen the role we can play in supporting people’s health and wellbeing and we want to do more of this, especially by making the gardens more accessible for people with disabilities.
“The Activity Plan is packed with exciting events and experiences – from artwork people can help to create, a new natural play area in our Forest of Bewilderment, sculpture and activity trails to sensory garden experiences designed for people with sight and hearing issues, autism and dementia and activities which boost mental and physical health,” said Keeley.
“Our woodland trails and activity stations will be wheelchair-accessible and we are creating a Changing Places room and toilets next to the Camellia House.”
Keeley, the Trust’s Office Manager, previously worked for South Yorkshire Police and developed skills in the leisure, travel and tourism sectors. She has led Girlguiding in Thorpe Hesley for 15 years and has been a Scouts leader for two years.
Gardener Helen Kelly is already hands-on, developing woodland area the Forest of Bewilderment in time for Easter with natural play and activity areas – from plank walks and tunnels to children’s potting sheds, wormery workshops and mud play huts – and an educational Forest Trail which will lead to the Camellia House.
The job brought Helen back to South Yorkshire from Northern Ireland, her home of 12 years.
“I am originally from Hoyland, so I knew about Wentworth Woodhouse and this was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss,” she said.
Helen has previously developed and delivered a BTEC Horticulture course for Penistone Grammar School and delivered educational programmes and landscape conservation workshops for the National Trust and National Lottery Heritage Fund project Sperrin’s Gateway Landscape Partnership,
She most recently helped develop a Northern Ireland plant nursery specialising in bee and butterfly-friendly perennials.
Becky Downton, Community Engagement and Inclusion Officer, lives in Kimberworth Park. She studied Youth and Community Work at Sheffield Hallam and has been involved in Girlguiding leadership for 12 years and Cub leadership since 2019.
“We listened to the needs and ideas of local communities when we were creating the Camellia House Activity Plan. It will move the Trust closer to its aspiration to be the UK’s most accessible heritage attraction,” she said.
“It will bring many more community groups to the house and give them a new outlook on how accessible and inclusive it is.
“It is so rewarding when people who think stately homes aren’t for them come and see all the wonders of this house and its gardens and leave thinking: that is a place for me,”
Education specialist Jen Wall will be engaging Wentworth Woodhouse with local schools and university students.
A teacher at Wath Academy for 10 years, Jen taught English to refugees and asylum seekers in Rotherham before moving into educational research.
“My desire to put my research into practice and enrich mainstream education through live learning experiences led me to the house,” said Jen, who lives in Aston.
“I love being able to help young people from primary school level upwards to develop their skills and passions in such a beautiful place – and help them see the opportunities there for them in Rotherham.”
Helen Featherstone, Director of England, North at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “We’re delighted that thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, we can support the creation of these new roles. It’s wonderful to see the restoration of this historic building not only bringing an amazing venue to life but also providing opportunities for employment and an engagement programme that will connect communities with the heritage of Camellia House while increasing people’s health and wellbeing.”