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Castle Howard: Yorkshire's Second Eden

by John Ravenscroft

There are literally hundreds of fascinating places to see when you visit the history-rich county of Yorkshire, so why should you make a point of putting Castle Howard on your itinerary?

Castle Howard

Well, there are so many reasons it's hard to know where to start. For one thing, Castle Howard sits in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty and offers the visitor extensive grounds that are second to none. In 1732 John Atkyns, clearly delighted by what he found there, wrote: "If our first parents, after being turned out of the Garden of Eden, had been immediately placed upon this spot of ground, they would have concluded that they had only exchanged one Paradise for another."

Mr Atkyns may have overstated slightly, but his enthusiasm is understandable. Following in his footsteps nearly 300 years later, I very much enjoyed my own tour of the gardens, temples, follies and lakes that surround this wonderful building -- which despite its name is an 18th-century palace and a lived-in family home rather than a castle. An additional, unexpected pleasure was provided by the free-ranging peacocks that followed me as I explored Ray Wood.

I'll return to the delights of the grounds later. First let's take a brief look at the history of the house, and sample a taster of what it has to offer.

The Third Earl

Castle HowardThe man behind the building of Castle Howard was Charles, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle (1669-1738). He was a member of the famous Kit-Cat Club, a group of wealthy individuals who were at the centre of London's social life around 1700. A fellow member of the club was the dramatist John Vanbrugh, and although Vanbrugh had no architectural experience whatsoever, Charles chose him to design and build the house that was to become his lasting monument.

It took more than a hundred years to complete Castle Howard, but the bulk of the work was done between 1700 and 1710. The most dramatic feature was the central dome, a bold structure that had never been used to crown a private dwelling in England before. It attracted a great deal of interest, and many of the 3rd Earl's fashionable friends were more than a little envious of his new home.

John Vanbrugh died in 1726, and the third Earl followed him twelve years later. At that point the house was still unfinished, and although the fourth Earl continued to work on it, when he died in 1777 there was still much to do. Finally, with the decoration of the Long Gallery by Tatham in 1811, the construction of Castle Howard could be said to be completed, although further improvements and additions such as the 7th Earl's Monument continued to be made until about 1870.

The Great Fire of 1940

On the 9th November 1940, disaster struck. The southeast Wing of Castle Howard caught fire, the blaze spread into the Great Hall, and many rooms were destroyed, as was the central dome. If it hadn't been for the determination of George Howard, who inherited the house following the deaths of his two brothers in WWII, it is unlikely there would be much left for the visitor to see today.

However, under George Howard's guiding hand the dome was rebuilt in 1962. As time and money allowed he continued to repair and restore, and in 1981 the Garden Hall was also rebuilt.

In the year 2000 Castle Howard was 300 years old, and an estimated ten million people had been to visit it since 1950. Every year an additional 200,000 members of the public arrive to swell that number, each visit being a testament to the popularity of the 3rd Earl's great project.

A Tour of the House

Castle HowardVisitors enter Castle Howard via the West Wing, and are free to explore the rooms at their own pace, although there are guides scattered here and there who are more than happy to answer questions.

The West Wing entrance leads directly into the Chapel, and an aptly named Grand Staircase, built in the 1870s, lies ahead. Here you'll find a marble altar from the Temple of the Oracle at Delphi, which Nelson took from the French at Naples. Portraits of the first six Earls of Carlisle hang on the walls, and at the top of the Grand Staircase is a bust of the 7th Earl.

In 1850 Queen Victoria visited the house. The bed in which she slept still stands in the Dressing-Room, surrounded by paintings of landscapes by the Venetian artist Marco Ricci, all of them produced between 1709 and 1710.

When the 4th Earl toured Italy in 1738, he brought back many of the statues, busts, and urns that caught his eye. These treasures are now displayed in the Antique Passage. There are in fact two such passages -- twin corridors that run the length of the house from east to west. Their draught-free nature was clearly a matter of some pride to John Vanbrugh, for in the winter of 1713 he wrote: "Though we have now had as bitter storms as rain and wind can well compose, every room in the house is like an oven, and in corridors 200 feet long there is not air enough in motion to stir the flame of a candle."

The letters the 4th Earl wrote during the collection of his various antiques (he had a keen eye for a bargain and was not above haggling over prices) tell an interesting story. Snippets of detail such as the rivalry between the Earl's agents and his worries about the possibility of pirates attacking the ships and stealing their cargo make for fascinating reading and give an insight into the daily life and the nature of the man.

Castle HowardThe Antique Passage leads to the Great Hall, which lies directly beneath Castle Howard's spectacular dome, some seventy feet above the visitor's head. There are four massive and highly-decorated columns here which were carved by Samuel Carpenter in 1705 at a cost of £84, and also some fine painted decoration executed by Giovanni Pellegrini between 1709 and 1712.

Like most young men of their class, the 3rd, 4th and 5th Earls all visited Europe on the customary Grand Tour, collecting objects of art as they did so. As a result, Castle Howard once housed a very large collection of paintings, including work by Pannini, Zuccarelli and Canaletto. Some of these pictures were sold: others were destroyed in the fire of 1940. However, it is still possible to see work by Hans Holbein, Gainsborough, George Stubbs and many others as you wander from room to room.

Several of the objects to be found in the Chapel Lobby could be classed as curiosities. There is, for example, a 19th century pedestal bowl made of Siena marble. On its three legs one can see entwined serpents, pine cones and claws, and it has been suggested that this object was in fact used as a bleeding-bowl. After being bled, perhaps the unfortunate patients were allowed to take a drink from one of a pair of glass pigs that function as spirit flasks, the contents pouring out through their hollow, glassy snouts. Here you can also find a decorated wheelbarrow, which was presented to the 7th Earl when he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and a commemorative spade given to him in 1846 when the North Western Railway was opened at Settle.

There are several other rooms and many more treasures to be seen inside the house, but let's finish this brief tour with a closer look at some of the external features to be enjoyed if the weather is kind.

The Rose Gardens and the Fountains

This walled enclosure was, in the early years of the 18th century, a kitchen garden, but it's now primarily devoted to roses. There are in fact three rose gardens here. In 1975, Lady Cecilia's Garden was established, dedicated to the memory of George Howard's much-loved wife. The roses here are traditional varieties, but the Sundial and Venus Gardens, which were laid out later, are just as impressive, and in summer they fill the air with the scent of over 2,000 modern roses of various types.

Castle Howard

In the 1850s the 7th Earl commissioned two fountains: the Atlas Fountain (carved from Portland stone by John Thomas) and the Prince of Wales Fountain in the South Lake. The initial estimate of the cost of these fountains was £2,000 -- but the final figure came to £10,000, which at that time was astonishingly costly. Both fountains are gravity-fed from a reservoir in Ray Woods, some seventy feet above the South Parterre.

The Temple of the Four Winds, inspired by Palladio's Villa Rotonda in Vicenza, was completed in 1738. It was originally known as The Temple of Diana and was in danger of collapse until George Howard restored it in 1955.

The Mausoleum, which stands nearly a mile away from the house, was constructed after the 3rd Earl wrote in his will: "I do design to build a burial place near my seat of Castle Howard, where I desire to be layed..." Building began in 1729, but for various reasons the 3rd Earl's last resting place was not completed until several years after his death in 1738. He was first buried in the local parish church, but eventually was interred in the Mausoleum as he had requested. The Mausoleum remains the burial place of the Howard family to this day.

Castle Howard

For up-to-date information about opening times and events, visit the Castle Howard website at: http://www.castlehoward.co.uk/

John Ravenscroft is a teacher-turned-writer who lives in Lincolnshire, England. He spends much of his time struggling to write fiction and co-editing Cadenza Magazine. His short stories have won prizes in various literary competitions and been published in numerous magazines, and his work has also been broadcast on the BBC. Visit his website at http://www.johnravenscroft.co.uk.
Article © 2006 John Ravenscroft; photos © Astra Ravenscroft


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