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Visitors can now take tea where the ladies of the House did in 1738, beside some of the oldest camellias in the Western World.

From derelict shell on the Heritage At Risk Register to beautifully restored global Tea House… A new life has dawned for the Grade II* listed Camellia House at Wentworth Woodhouse. Set in a secluded spot in the gardens of the prestigious stately home, the building served as a peaceful retreat for its aristocratic owners from 1738.

The Camellia House After Restoration

It was originally built as a Tea House where the Marchioness of Rockingham, Lady Mary Finch, and her wealthy friends would sip the most fashionable drink of the day. It later became home to some of Britain’s first camellias to arrive from China, each of which reputedly cost keen collector the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam the equivalent of a housemaid’s annual wage.    

In the 20th century, it was still a beloved family haunt; Lt Col Burton ‘Bertie’ Gething chose the Camellia House as the idyllic setting to propose to Lady Donatia, third daughter of Billy and Maud Fitzwilliam. But after the family departed in the 1980s, the Camellia House fell into decline and its blooms were forgotten.

The Camellia House Before Restoration

When Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust bought the mansion for £7 million in 2017, it was one of many buildings close to dereliction. Listed as Grade II*, it was on Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register – only the once-pampered camellias had thrived; exposed to the elements, they had trunks the width of trees and were 30 feet tall.

The Camellia House Interiors Before Restoration

In 2019, a discovery by Head Gardener Scott Jamieson gave the Trust even more reason to act swiftly. Many of the 19 camellias existing from a collection once numbering up to 30 were originals, likely dating from the early 1800s. They were deemed some of the oldest surviving in the Western world by the International Camellia Society.

Now, thanks to a year-long, £5 million restoration funded primarily with £4m from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and just over £614,000 from Historic England, the Camellia House has been saved and its precious plants protected.

Officially launched on Friday 22nd March, the Camellia House opens on Tuesday 2nd April as a Tea House, where people can take tea among camellias still thriving after 200 years.

International Small Plates from the New Camellia House Menu

The menu features teas from across the globe and the food offer includes international small plates. In the evenings, the venue will serve as an events space. Mondays are reserved exclusively for charities and community groups. Partnering with Home Instead, monthly Memory Cafes will run for people living with dementia. 

With the support of architects Donald Insall Associates and York-based construction specialists, William Birch Ltd, the restoration has set a new benchmark for sustainable design in heritage and listed buildings, winning best Innovation in Environmental Improvement in the Green Apple Environmental Awards 2023 and shortlisted for the RICS Award 2024.

Numerous heritage conservation challenges, not least the protection of the historic camellias, were overcome. Wherever possible, original materials and features were retained – including some of the country’s largest Georgian sash windows.

Energy-conserving methods introduced include carbon-neutral heating and a rainwater harvesting system, which irrigates the camellia plants and provides water for the WCs.

Sarah McLeod, the Preservation Trust’s CEO, commented: “Saving the Camellia House, removing it from the Heritage At Risk Register and giving it a new life is a huge achievement for us.

“It’s a significant step in our mission to build a financially sustainable long-term solution for Wentworth Woodhouse, so it can be enjoyed and used by local people for many years to come.

“We prioritised the Camellia House because it was in the most urgent need and it was vital that we protected our historic camellia collection. It now provides much-needed facilities for the gardens and means visitors can enjoy tea among the camellias, as the Marchioness did in the 1800s.”

WWPT Chair Dame Julie Kenny DBE DL, CEO Sarah McLeod, Heather Featherstone, Director, England North at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Claudia Kenyatta, Director of Regions at Historic England

Helen Featherstone, Director, England North at The National Lottery Heritage Fund said: “It is incredibly exciting to see the wonderful Camellia House now open to the public. We’re very proud that, thanks to National Lottery players, we have been able to support this restoration project that has not only breathed new life into a beautiful venue steeped in the history of tea, one of the globe’s most popular drinks, but also safeguarded it for future generations. 

“This element of the important work being undertaken by Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust is a great example of the role heritage can play in creating a sense of pride in place, and the positive impact it can have on boosting the economy.”

Claudia Kenyatta, Director of Regions at Historic England, said: “It’s wonderful to see this important part of the Wentworth Woodhouse site brought back to life through strong partnership working. I’m proud that Historic England has played a role in transforming what was a derelict, roofless building into this stunning new public tearoom, complete with historic blooms.” 

Over 200 guests attended the official launch on Friday 22nd March. After speeches and performances by South Asian dance group, SuNrit Culture, the ribbon was cut by garden volunteer Harvey Hopkinson, a member of ArtWorks South Yorkshire, which supports adults with learning difficulties.

The building’s camellias were undoubtedly the stars of the event. Five of them have now been identified as varieties first on sale in Britain between 1806 and 1822. The size of their trunks classes them as from that period and their great age requires great diligence from the gardening team, especially as the plants are in an indoor climate once again.

Trust Chair Dame Julie Kenny DBE DL with Head Gardener Scott Jamieson and CEO Sarah McLeod in the Restored Camellia House

Head Gardener Scott Jamieson said: “The camellias are robust, having been feral for the best part of a century, but they are now in a rarified atmosphere again and that puts us on a steep learning curve, just as the gardeners of 1810 would have been when the camellias first arrived.

“We are looking out for pests and diseases, which will become more prevalent in an enclosed environment, and are closely monitoring the plants for 12 months, which will then set a pattern for their care.”