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Yorkshire’s Castle Howard has no dastardly legends to keep you awake at night; there is no obvious sign of blood seeping out of its mellow stonework. It sits, in innocent splendour, a stately home in English Baroque and Palladian style, created for the vanity of its owners, a palatial celebrity famous for – well, being famous. As well as the grand house, there are lakes, fountains, follies, temples, statues, gardens, woodland and a programme of events to allure and entrap the visitor to one of England’s best aristocratic anachronisms. “The North will never be dull,” gushed journalist and former head of the National Trust, Simon Jenkins, (a trifle patronisingly, I think), “As long as it has Castle Howard.”
The builder of Castle Howard was Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle (1669-1738) who was something of a statesman and member of the Whig Kit-Cat Club. The Whigs were a political group in favour of the power of Parliament and a constitutional monarchy; and the club used to meet in the London house of a pastry-cook, Christopher Cat, after whom it was named. Charles’ grandfather, the 1st Earl of Carlisle (1629-1685) had been a successful commander in the Parliamentary Army during the Civil War and, subsequently, a politician and ambassador in the reign of Charles II. The Howards themselves are one of the oldest aristocratic families in England with roots going back to the 13th century, at least, and who claim the legendary English resistance fighter Hereward the Wake as an ancestor. The senior line of the family has at its head the Duke of Norfolk, the premier duke of England, with his principal seat at Arundel Castle.
Back to the less exalted 3rd Earl of Carlisle: in 1699, he commissioned the playwright and fellow Kit-Cat Club member Sir John Vanburgh to build him his dream pile in the frozen north and Vanburgh, who had never assembled anything bigger than a rabbit hutch, set off with his side-kick Nicholas Hawksmoor to realise the Earl’s dreams. Hawksmoor, at least, had worked with Christopher Wren. Vanburgh famously went on to other projects, not least Blenheim Palace. But neither the 3rd Earl nor his architects would see the finished Castle Howard, because it took about a hundred years to complete.
Of course, there is no question of Castle Howard being a castle. But it is built on the site of one, Henderskelfe Castle, which dated back to the reign of Edward III, came into the possession of the Howards in the 16th century and which burnt down in 1693. The village of Henderskelfe, mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, was even older and probably Scandinavian in origin. However, in a classic example of emparkment, the village, along with its church and castle, was levelled to make way for the 3rd Earl’s plans and, as Richard Muir puts it in The Lost Villages of Britain, “Castle Howard can be seen rearing over its corpse like a beast above its prey.” No one knows what happened to the villagers; there is no evidence they were re-housed. There are plans of the old village and the TV programme Time Team did try to find its remains, but there is certainly nothing visible; so our pretty baroque mansion may have some dark history, after all.
Castle Howard’s other claim to fame is as a TV and film location, particularly for the starring role it had in the hugely successful 1981 TV production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and its less celebrated 2008 film version. You can sense the fictional, troubled, guilt-ridden Flyte family at Castle Howard almost as much as the real-life owners; or was that just me, having my poor, young, impressionable head turned by the story of the fantastically rich and beautiful, these curious people who seemed to struggle so much with sex, booze, sin in general, their religion and themselves? Was that Charles Ryder I saw painting the Garden Hall? It was certainly money from the filming that allowed its restoration. Anyway, don’t be surprised if you feel Sebastian, Julia, Sebastian’s preposterous teddy-bear, Aloysius, and Lord and Lady Marchmain gliding along in your wake, or peering over your shoulder in the shop.
Now, although some of A Bit About Britain’s observations need to be taken well salted – and without wanting this to sound like a page from ‘what we did on our holidays’ – I can honestly say that we had a fabulous day at Castle Howard. Kicking off with a very pleasant eggs Benedict and coffee in the courtyard café, it didn’t matter that the weather could have been brighter, or that the gardens were in that nondescript, slightly brown, post-daffodil stage. The grounds – almost 1,000 acres of them – are great for meandering, with nice little surprises here and there – though the highlights have to be the views over the Howardian Hills to the east, and the fabulous Atlas Fountain south of the house. From the Temple of the Four Winds, a pavilion designed by Vanbrugh for entertaining and relaxation, with cellars underneath for storage and food preparation, you can look toward the somewhat alarming Mausoleum, rising 90 feet into the air. The Temple was inspired by Andrea Palladio’s 16th century Villa Rotunda in Vicenza. The Mausoleum, initially designed by Hawksmoor for the 3rd Earl and his family, is as theatrical a mortuary house as can be imagined and is still the burial place of the Howard family. I understand it has space for 63; why 63, I do not know. The Atlas Fountain sits surrounded by neat lawns and tightly trimmed hedges and is probably the most photographed feature at Castle Howard. It was commissioned by the 7th Earl in 1850 from the landscape gardener William Andrews Nesfield. The sea gods that surround Atlas were carved by the sculptor John Thomas and transported from London by rail.
It is hard for those of us born in a shoe-box in the middle of the road to comprehend that places like Castle Howard were – and still are – homes. So of course Castle Howard once had its very own railway station. Queen Victoria arrived by train for a stay in 1850, the Illustrated London News including a description of her carriage drive from the station to the house, “At the most convenient points along the route, the peasantry were collected to see their Queen, who acknowledged very graciously their simple-hearted demonstrations of loyalty.” They knew where to find good simple-hearted peasants back then. Though Castle Howard station closed to regular passengers in 1930, the Howard family apparently reserved the right to flag down random passing locomotives until the station finally closed in the 1950s; these days, you can book accommodation there – and very nice it looks, too.
The area surrounding the Temple of the Four Winds is (or was) troubled by moles. I know this because it is (or was) surrounded by molehills. Whilst trying to peer through the windows of the building, a movement in the ground nearby caught my eye; it was a minute shifting of freshly-dug soil as Mr (or Mrs) Mole burrowed away under the earth. We waited to see if the creature would emerge, blinking, but though the digging went on in short, sudden, bursts, it was obviously in no hurry to brave the daylight and we went on our way, keen to explore the inside of the house.
The east wing of Castle Howard is occupied by the family, but much of the rest is open to the public. Doubtless, it was all designed to impress – and it does – but particular features deserve special mention. The China Landing, which houses more than 300 pieces of china at the top of the Grand Staircase, is a curiously homely artwork-festooned corridor which leads on to the Antique Passage. The Antique Passage is simply astonishing, lined with classical busts and statues, mainly Roman, collected by the 4th Earl during his Grand Tour of 1738-39; these artefacts were hundreds of years old, even then. The Antique Passage leads, like some kind of theatrical introduction, to Vanbrugh’s pièce de résistance, the Great Hall. Here are four enormous arches stretching up to a dome 70 feet above your head. Murals were painted by someone called Pellegrini…
It is at this point we mention the most dramatic event in Castle Howard’s 300-plus-year history, a calamitous fire that broke out on 9 November 1940, destroying the dome of the hall and almost twenty rooms. The schoolgirls of St Margaret’s School, evacuated to Castle Howard during the war, helped retrieve precious paintings and antiques, wrapping them in the red cloaks that were part of their uniform. But many pieces of artwork were lost and the damage to the house was immense; the dome was not able to be repaired until 1962 and the south east wing remains a shell still. The murals in the Great Hall were repainted by Canadian artist Scott Medd and, frankly, most of us wouldn’t know the difference; he’s done a terrific job. The whole space, a riot of vulgar ostentation in marble and plaster, should be a trifle overwhelming. I’m not a huge fan of ultra-fussy, but found it simply beautiful; and curiously relaxing – which made no sense whatsoever. I could imagine a Christmas in it.
Another highlight is the Long Gallery, which stood in for part of Kensington Palace in the TV production Victoria starring Jenna Coleman. The gallery is 160 feet long, lined with books, artwork and musical instruments, with a central dome. Again, this space should be intimidating – but it isn’t; it is warm and welcoming.
And then there’s the chapel. This is so elaborate, I was surprised to discover that it is Anglican. It began life as a dining room, but was adapted in pre-Raphaelite-Arts & Craft styles in the 1870s, with decoration by Morris & Co and exquisite stained-glass windows by Burne-Jones. The gilt ceiling is based on Holbein’s design for the Royal Chapel in St James’ Palace. Astonishing.
So, Castle Howard is not necessarily a place to soak up tales of yesteryear, as such – though there are noteworthy exhibitions on the Howard family and (of course) Brideshead. It is, however, a place of wonder and beauty and I liked it very much indeed. I even enjoyed looking round the shop, which offered a range of interesting quality items, rather than the over-priced kitsch so often found in tourist attractions. We should also say something about the staff, who were polite, friendly, helpful and, in the house, knowledgeable and informative. I particularly remember one guide, pointing to a portrait and explaining some background to a couple of young girls. “That’s XYZ Howard”, he said, “A sly git”. Ah, I thought; that’s the way history should be taught…