The Castle that was almost gone

After the Second World War, more than 2000 stately homes in Britain were destroyed. Castle Howard was on a path to becoming one of them, so today we are fortunate to be able to visit this magnificent grand house.

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The name tells you all you need to know about its owners: The Howard family are the most prestigious non-royal family in the country (they married into royalty twice – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – and both marriages ended badly…). The Howards who currently live in this estate are not the senior branch of the family, who are of course the Duke of Norfolk who resides in Arundel Castle.

Castle Howard was the home of the Earl of Carlisle, a branch of the family that evolved in the days of the 4th Duke, or, as I like to call him, “The marrying Duke”. This duke was a sort of a serial groom.. He focused on finding rich heiresses, marrying them and a few years later burying them.  He did it three times, and that is how he acquired Arundel Castle.  His third marriage was with to a wealthy widow, Elizabeth Dacre. She had three daughters all of whome had already received their inheritance from their father. The Duke knew he could not marry all of them including their mother, so he did the next best thing and married them with three of his sons, and this is how the estate fell into the hands of the Howards.

This branch of the family was elevated to the peerage in 1661 and subsequently acquired the Earldom of Carlisle.  It was the 3rd Earl, Charles Howard that began building this house in 1699. Charles was one of the top politicians at that time, and he was appointed First Lord of the Treasury 1701, which is the equivalent of Prime Minister.

With all this power he needed to build a house in order to show off, and of course to entertain King William III. Unfortunately, the King died before the house was finished, and the next monarch, Anne, hated Howard, so she never popped over for a visit… Awkward!

The 3rd Earl used John Vanbrugh as his architect, although he was not really an architect and was more famous for being a playwright.  He had no experience but a lot of “great ideas” and this was probably one of the reasons that it took more than 100 years to complete the castle, and that is the reason the structure is not symmetric. It did not stop Vanbrugh from taking up a new, smaller project with a little dwelling called Blenheim Palace…

The reason this house is called a castle is probably because it was built on the spot where an actual castle had previously existed. This was Henderskelfe Castle and it was burned down sixteen years before the new house was built. The lack of experience of Vanbrugh caused the building process to take much longer than anticipated, and the west wing had to wait for a new Earl and a new architect before it was built.

By 1725 the Earl had spent all the money he had planned to spend on the house (about £11M in today’s currency) but only half of the house was completed. William III, surprisingly, died in 1702, and that was the end of the 3rd Earl’s political career.  The Earl needed a new project, so he started developing the landscape around the house, dotting it with numerous of crazy follies. This process almost bankrupted him (like many others).  Castle Howard had to wait until the accession  of the 4th Earl to get the west wing completed (the architect contracted to do the work even suggested pulling down the house and rebuilding it from scratch, but the Earl refused).

It was only in 1811 during the days of the 7th Earl that the house was finally completed. In 1940, a fire broke out in the upper floor of the house. The beautiful dome collapsed and twenty rooms were destroyed. During that period, all the heirs of the house were fighting in WWII, they died one by one… the trustees of the house thought none of them would return and so they planned to sell all the valuables and demolish what was left of the house. Luckily, one of the Howards, George, did manage to survive the war and he returned from Burma in time to stop the sale of the valuables. He also insisted on saving the house, partly by opening it to the public in 1952.

Funnily enough, the fact that the fire destroyed the rooms on the upper floor meant that they were now empty shells. This was to the great advantage of producers from Granada TV  who decided to use it to shoot their TV hit series “Brideshead Revisited”, which was aired in 1981. (It was later used in the film of the same name, produced in 2008). Today this TV series is one of the reasons almost 250,000 people visit the house every year.

Castle Howard is still held in private hands and is open to the public. It is associated with the HHA. for more information: Castle Howard official Website

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Chasing Castles Review

We visited Castle Howard mid-week, during a summer holiday. We had already experience visiting grand houses before, so we knew seven hours would not be enough to explore the place extensively. The house itself is enormous; two-thirds of it is open to the public which means that there is a huge amount to see, but it is not as spacious as Blenheim palace for example. Castle Howard, with its lakes, woods and gardens is a grand estate that will engage and entertain you endlessly.

It is a place that understands its importance as a visitor attraction; the layout of rooms is tasteful, and the staff is extremely professional. As soon as we arrived, I looked for a guided tour. Such a tour was on offer, but at two specific times slots only – 15:30 and 16:00. My wife and I decided to explore the house in turns while the kids enjoyed the adventure playground and the outside surroundings.

Although the playground was within a walking distance, we  decided to use the courtesy shuttle, a wagon drawn by a tractor -hugely popular with the kids. I had already reserved a space in one of the guided tours, but was not sure how long it would last or how interesting it would be, so I decided to see the house by myself first, and have a chat with the guides who were stationed in almost every room. The guided tour was actually delightful and even better still, when it started, the house was closed to the rest of the visitors, so we had it all to ourselves!

This was the only time I had visited a house that I’d first explored by myself, followed by a guided tour and it was an extraordinarily interesting experience (I usually do the opposite, ie. start the day with an “early bird” tour and then visit again by myself). After exploring the house by myself and then by guided tour, I can tell you that the tour was enough.  The only part of the house you should really explore by yourself is the World War One exhibition, so if you are visiting the estate for the first time, you can spend more time exploring the grounds and let the tour cover the rest.

To sum up: Castle Howard tells a fascinating story. It embraces its past, as well as delivering well on “popular heritage”. It bears its scars proudly, making the visit particularly rich and rewarding. The wonderful tour, the guides and the facilities make this a house to explore in great depth. If Castle Howard was a restaurant, it would go into the Michelin guide, and I would award it 2 stars.

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