A day at Castle Howard

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:58 am

Castle Howard, Atlas Fountain, visit YorkshireYorkshire’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.”

Atlas Fountain, Castle Howard, stately homes in EnglandThe 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.

Castle Howard, Borghese gladiator, Silenus and the infant Bacchus, Wild BoarBack 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.

Temple of the Four Winds, Castle HowardOf 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, dining room, turquoise drawing roomLady Georgiana's bedroom, Castle HowardCastle 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.

Castle Howard, stately homes to visit, EnglandCastle Howard, MausoleumNow, 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.

Castle Howard, the China LandingGoddess Fortuna, Castle HowardAntique passage, Castle HowardAntique passage, Castle HowardIt 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.

Brideshead, Castle HowardThe 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 Great Hall, Castle Howard, YorkshireDome, Castle Howard The Great Hall, Castle Howard The Great Hall, Castle HowardThe 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…

Castle Howard, dining roomIt 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.

Long Gallery, Castle HowardAnother 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.

The Chapel, Castle HowardAnd 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.

Obelisk, Castle HowardSo, 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…

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52 thoughts on “A day at Castle Howard”

  1. You mentioned one thing that I wondered about when I started reading your post. That was how long it took to cobble this gem into its grandeur. I don’t think I’d start building a house that I was most certain to never see completed. However, It’s rather similar on the selfless scale of mankind to someone who plunks an acorn into the ground.

    I don’t covet any of that silver because I know owning that would involve hours of polishing; however, I’ll take the bed any day.

    1. Simply because it is so ornate – much more than your common, or garden Church of England..! I wasn’t being critical – it is a beautiful chapel. I think it was used in the Brideshead film and the fictional Marchmain family was Roman Catholic.

  2. I find your reaction to this place more interesting than the place itself, Mike! To me, even the photographs of the vast interiors are quite overwhelming. If I was actually there in person, I would probably have to have a little lie-down.
    But a thousand acres to wander about in, did you say? Ahhhh. Now you’re talking 😉

  3. Just watched the Master Chef contestants preparing a meal at Carlton Towers, home to another branch of the Howards. Only about 15 miles from where I lived from 1991 to 2006. I recall attending various craft fairs and such like events there. I don’t think it’s open to the public – or, if so, only on special occasions.

  4. Thanks for this, Mike. And for clearing up the Howards (Carlisle vs. Norfolk, Catherine Howard and all that!). I remember being enthralled with the original Brideshead, not least of which was the beautiful setting. Your photos and the history are especially beautiful and helpful here. (And a stand in for K-Pal, how cool!).

    I need to search your site to see if you have ever done anything on Madresfield, the original inspiration for Brideshead and the family. Jane Muddaugh (spelling, sorry — bad memory) did a fascinating book on them and its influence on Waugh. I am curious as to how it stacks up to Castle Howard — it would have to be quite something to top it!

  5. Another very interesting story about a beautiful castle and home…wow fancy living there. I wonder if I am a far distant relative. I was born in Yorkshire and one of my middle names is Howard (even though I’m female) when I asked my mum about it she told me she had promised her mother to name one of her children Howard because it was her mother’s maiden name. When my brother was born 5 years before me mum forgot about the promise so that’s how I ended up with the name. I wonder if my grandmother was related to this wealthy family.

  6. I was wrong about one thing – Lord Waterford is not the only incumbent still in the original family home. I should have remember that less than a mile from me is Cosby Hall – originally built and occupied by a family from the Nottinghamshire town of that name and still occupied by a member of the Cosby family. It plays host every summer to Ireland’s biggest music festival, Electric Picnic.

  7. It is a long time since I visited Castle Howard and it is on my list of potential places to visit on our upcoming visit to York.

    Your photos are enticing me to include this on my definite place to visit list 🙂

  8. artandarchitecturemainly

    The long galleries are the most beautiful parts of the home. Those galleries are all flooded with natural light; lined with sculptures, books, art and musical instruments; and not cluttered with fussily decorated textiles, wall papers, furniture and family memorabilia. And in winter, there was somewhere to walk inside the home.

  9. Hi Mike -well that brought nostalgia for England back to this lady … wonderful telling about Castle Howard and I’d love to visit – must make a plan on my return. Excellent – I did so enjoy this read – thanks – Hilary

  10. Men! OK, let’s ask a few friends to build me a castle…doesn’t matter if they haven’t a clue…will work it out as we go along!
    They did quite well! I remember Brideshead.
    Reminds me of our gang of young intrepid non-builders, but engineers, who managed to construct a small log cabin with stone chimney/fireplace large enough to cook on. Took them around ten years, and then it was burned down by the government…long story.

      1. Ha! How much time do you have.
        So, a young 18-yo bride spends honeymoon with 24-yo hubby and Best Man and his wife (yeah, I know) in a rugged camp in the middle of a mountainous bush setting on Crown land in the middle of nowhere called Gippsland, just outside a ghost goldmining town called Walhalla, and that even the wallabies wouldn’t be able to find without GPS help. Won’t tell you what the bride thought of this arrangement. Let’s just say, she was not impressed.
        Anyhoo, the makings of a log cabin had been started, and the accommodations were in the origins of the structure, being a one-room in an old car-case (in which imported cars were shipped to Australia in those days). Two very rough bunk beds, all in together. A hanging coolgardie safe as the fridge (yes, they do work very well), and a hinged section of the wall acting as a flap one opens as a window to get fresh air, to see the beautiful view, and which lets in the State’s faunal emblem, a regular visitor (so cute) to nibble on whatever food they can find. Cooking in a Dutch oven took place on the open fireplace in a not quite finished stone chimney of the just-completed floor of the yet-to-be log cabin. It was very smart of hubby to have asked the best man’s wife along, as the new bride certainly had no clue about campfire cooking, or that one doesn’t, really, learn to chop wood whilst wearing fluffy useless slippers in the bush! LOL.
        To be continued…

  11. Well Mike, this post and visit was just so interesting!! Your photography just keeps getting better (and unlike the gushing journalist, I don’t mean that in a patronizing way). I love the first and last pictures!

    What a beautiful home, and it doesn’t look anything like a castle. I’m pretty sure that Hal and I saw a few episodes of “Antiques Roadshow Britain” filmed at Castle Howard. Not a place one would quickly forget. This reminds me of our Biltmore House here in North Carolina — very ostentatious and a place I couldn’t imagine living in. 😀 However, that doesn’t stop us from enjoying a visit (or two or three). The whole package is kind of what makes it, isn’t it? The beautiful grounds, follies, shops, views, and of course the house with all its gorgeous artwork.

    We grew up in “shoeboxes” over here, but I don’t think it hurt us at all. 😉 Thanks so much for the wonderful tour and the history, Mike! Hope you have a lovely weekend!!



  12. Thanks for the tour and your wit! Don’t know when we will return to UK. Someday. There are places on my list yet to see including Yorkshire. This week though we’re off on another river cruise – this time on the Rhine.

  13. If Queen Victoria’s train were 150yrs late then we could have waved at her from our house as she crossed the A64. More memories! I think the Cafe used to have a connection with Bettys and Fat Rascles were available, another plus.

      1. A bit like the Smiley Face! They are large, spicey, fruity, scone type things with nut/candied peel for the face. Great warm or cold with or without butter.

  14. During my annual Yorkshire Holiday in 2015, I managed to visit Castle Howard for the first – but hopefully not the last – time. I loved every minute of it, and turned it into several posts on my blog. Would love for you to pop over and have a look! There is one about the grounds, one about the inside of the house (with, I think, some rather good pictures of unusual perspectives) and one about the Temple of the Four Winds, which was probably my favourite part of the grounds.
    Like you, we found the Courtyard Café excellent and the shop full of nice things, and everyone we met of the staff was friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.

  15. Born in a shoe box in the middle of the road?….You were lucky!
    Castle Howard *is* beautiful. I remember the one time we visited it in 1997 so clearly. Time for a re-visit I think. Thank-you so much for this wonderful post, Mike.

  16. I have been enjoying your previous posts but could not, for some reason unknown to me, leave a comment…so let’s hope this works.
    I had thought it would be a cold, rather forbidding place…but from what you say it has a pleasant atmosphere despite all th grandeur.
    Isn’t there some family feud on at the moment…one brother turfing out another brother who has been running the place for years.

    1. Sorry you’ve been having problems – drop me an email and tell me what happens. Yes, you’re right – one brother turned the other one out a few years ago; little tinkers, these aristocrats, eh?!

  17. It’s all kind of mind-boggling that this was and IS someone’s home. I’d never find my way back from the bathroom in the middle of the night. And that table setting with the pineapples … certainly has nothing in common with our dining room table even when it’s decked out for holiday guests! I was a loyal watcher of Masterpiece Theater and Brideshead Revisited in the 1980s and remember the opening with the fountain in the lawn, castle behind.

  18. Being married to a Yorkshireman, we stopped at Castle Howard on one of our visits to that part of the world, I think it was 1983. I had just watched Brideshead Revisited and loved it so was eager to see the place where it had been filmed. I was not dissapointed. My eight-year-old daughter was also quite impressed. Your pictures brought back great memories! Thanks.

  19. Gorgeous! I wonder how the acoustics in the Long Gallery are for that grand piano, and if the staff mind visitors checking it out…;) It IS amazing to think of all of that being a private home. I can hardly keep up with the dusting in our little ‘shoebox,’ though I suppose their staff is more extensive! 😉 Thanks for another beautiful tour!

  20. Thank you for another fascinating piece of history, Mike. You should be on English Heritage’s pay-roll (or is it The National Trust?).
    Ireland is still littered with such edifices, mostly built by the same aristocratic English families as those who built the likes of Castle Howard in the 17th and 18th centuries. After 1922 many of them became schools or other public buildings. More recently they have passed back into private hands as country house hotels. Others remain in the control of the Office of Public Works who maintain them as tourist attractions. A few are private residences – a businessman called David Davis (No, not THAT one!) – owns one near here. To the best of my knowledge only one aristocratic family still occupies the dwelling built by his ancestors, Lord Waterford aka Henry de la Poer Beresford, at Curraghmore. Spent a pleasant day there a year and a half ago. It has a shell-lined grotto in the garden constructed by one of the female ancestors, as well as all the other acoutrements.

    1. Thanks, Frank. There is an almost embarrassing number of heritage properties in Britain, so the ABAB project has no end – though of course I’m open to offers! Maybe you should write some more about the properties in Ireland – there are some wonderful places there too, of course.

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