Castle Howard is one of the finest stately homes in England and the UK, and is a truly world class historic House. Living just up the road from Castle Howard, I’d like to say that I visit often. Unfortunately this isn’t the case, and I suppose the reason is that it’s not the cheapest place to enjoy a family day out.
That said, with acres upon acres of spectacular grounds to explore, and one of the best adventure play parks i’ve ever seen, Castle Howard actually makes for one of the best historical days out to be had.
I visited with my daughter in late summer 2019 and we had a spectacular time. Stick with this review of Castle Howard, to find out why it makes for one of the best family days out in Yorkshire, and perhaps England.
Getting to Castle Howard
The castle Howard estate is absolutely huge, and there is a heck of a lot to see and do. We only really had a few hours one afternoon, but you could easily spend a full day or more exploring the site.
The great thing though, is that it’s very easy to find. Situated just 18 miles north of York, and 6 miles west of Malton, the castle Howard estate is easily accessible by the A64 which runs between Leeds and Scarborough.
Whichever way you come into Castle Howard, the journey is staggeringly beautiful. As you begin to get close to the site, you will me mesmerised by the elaborate approach, which passes through mock castle walls and impressive gatehouses. This gives an early impression of what to expect, and these stunning landscapes were cleverly designed to woo visitors and impress upon them the magnificence of the owners.
A Short history of Castle Howard
Castle Howard is particularly well known as the backdrop to the popular TV adaptation of the Brideshead Revisited. It has also featured in the the TV drama ‘Victoria’, and more recently, the Downton Abbey movie. Castle Howard also played host to BBC’s Countryfile Live in August 2019. But, did you know that Castle Howard has a history spanning over 300 years?
The history of the current house, can be traced back to the end of the seventeenth century, and was the vision of Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle. Carlisle was a rich and seemingly vain man, who required a magnificent house to raise him up in society and impress those around him. Carlisle required a spectacular house befitting of his wealth and status, and thus commissioned his fellow kit-cat club member, and mate, John Vambrugh to build him his palace.
Vambrugh was an exceptionally successful and much loved dramatist of the time, but building magnificent houses was something entirely new to him. This may come as some surprise, but Carlisle wasn’t interested in hiring a standard architect – he wanted someone who understood his flamboyant vision and was capable of making it a reality.
Construction of the house started in 1699, and whilst much of the work was concluded within 10 years, it took over a hundred years for the house and gardens to be considered complete. The impressive West wing for example, was not completed until 1756, with its interiors taking a further 50 years to complete. Interestingly, the house’s most distinctive feature – the domed roof, was an afterthought and not added until construction had already begun.
The design of Castle Howard, has thus evolved, under a succession of owners. The result, is a slightly asymmetrical appearance, where Vanburgh’s original Baroque design, merges with the later Palladian design of the West Wing. It’s absolutely magnificent!
Before you even get into the main complex you find yourself within the old stable block. Today this serves as a lovely little courtyard area, which contains a shop selling a selection of souvenirs, a coffee shop, and a cafe. The ticket hall is situated at the back of the block and you have to pass through this to enter the main complex.
From the stable block, a path takes you down past the walled gardens to your right, and towards the western wing of the house. If you haven’t been before, then nothing quite prepares you for the size and magnificence of the house. Its absolutely incredible as you approach!
The main gardens sit opposite the South front of the house, with the bulk of the accessible grounds running off to the East. To the North of the house is the show ground which overlooks the Great Lake.
The magnificent house and interiors
You enter the house via a small doorway set within the southern edge of the West Wing. A small door takes you down some steps to the reception desk where you need to present your house ticket. How on earth was I supposed to get down there with the buggy I thought?
After several minutes of scratching my head, and thinking that I must be stupid, I took the executive decision to leave the buggy at the top of the steps and take Oaklie down with me to the reception desk. Ideally, I wanted to keep oaklie in the buggy, to prevent her from running off and breaking stuff, but when I asked how I got inside with the pushchair, it appeared I was the first person to have ever asked this question.
It was thus established, that I had to go round the other side, speak to the staff member in the shop (it was busy so I had to wait ages), and get them to take me through a secret door through to the main entrance hall. Here I found out that buggies were not allowed, so after relocating the secret door and navigating a small maze, I managed to relocate the reception desk where I was instructed to leave the buggy. I then reemerged in the main hall, daughter in hands, and fully deserving of an award.
Anyway, Crystal Maze aside, the first area you enter is the main hall. This is absolutely stunning and clearly designed to impress. Built in stone, the hall features a grand staircase which sits beneath an incredible skylight. The walls of the hall are adorned with family paintings, and at the foot of the stairs sit romanesque sculptures. Fortunately there is a stair lift for any disabled guests who made it through!
The tour of the house is largely self guided, with friendly and knowledgable guides in each main room, to answer any questions. From the hallway the tour takes you through the bulk of the accessible parts of the house. Here you will find beautifully preserved bedrooms and dressing rooms, followed by the ‘Antique Passage’. This is basically a vaulted corridor which is lined with wonderful statues, busts, marble tabletops and urns. The Antique Passage is very impressive and leads on to the most incredible feature of the house.
You need to prepare yourself for this, because the Great Hall is beyond words. This incredible open space is utterly breathtaking and I recommend you take some time to absorb it all. The main feature is the Pellegrini painted roof, which depicts the four elements. Sadly this is a reconstruction of the original, which was destroyed in the great fire of 1940. It is still very impressive however. You could write an entire blog post on the Great Hall alone, but sadly I don’t have time here. Take it from me though, the Great Hall is almost worth the entry fee alone!
From the Great Hall, the tour continues upstairs through a suit of apartments, which include the lovely High Saloon. Fans of the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, will be pleased to find a lovely Brideshead exhibition occupying these rooms. The High Saloon had been extensively damaged during the fire, but was carefully and beautifully reconstructed for the popular TV series.
The tour then takes you back downstairs where you will find a further selection of stunning rooms, including the ‘Garden Room’, ‘Music Room’, ‘Crimson Dining Room’, ‘Turquoise Drawing Room’ and the ‘Museum Room’. As expected these rooms are beautifully furnished, and clearly no expense has been spared on their decoration.
The tour of the house ends on a very high note, with the ‘Long Gallery’, which is situated within the impressive West Wing. The size and scale of the Long Gallery is difficult to capture in photographs, and really has to be seen in real life. The long gallery is lined with stunning busts and marble tabletops, and stunning landscape paintings hang from the walls. The North and South sections of the Long Gallery are divided by a lovely open space known as the ‘Octagon’. The Long Gallery is very impressive, and you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into some royal palace..
The last indoor area to explore is the incredible private Chapel. This is based on the Royal Chapel at St James’s Palace, and underwent a large scale redesign between 1870- 1875, with the floor being lowered. The result is absolutely breathtaking. The chapel contains a beautiful organ which apparently contains over 7000 parts!
The grounds are huge!
Even though some of the grounds are closed to the public, the areas which are open are pretty extensive, and you could easily spend the day exploring the grounds along. Oaklie and I had a lovely time mooching around, and with a fantastic new play area recently completed, the grounds are great for families with young children.
Moving clockwise around the house then, to the North is what I call the show ground. This is a large sloped field which looks out over the Great Lake. This is where castle Howard hosts shows and concerts and its a really great venue. My wife and I attended a 90’s pop band reunion concert a few years back, and with the field being on a slope, you get excellent views of stage from wherever you sit. Castle Howard is also famous for the proms which are also held here each year. I have yet to go, but it is definitely on my bucket list!
Beyond the show ground is situated the great lake. This was actually a later addition to the grounds and not constructed until the 1790’s. There is a lovely lakeside cafe in the North Eastern part of the estate and this includes an outside terrace overlooking the lake. There are also picnic tables outside so you can sit and eat your own food if you like.
One of the reasons for visiting Castle Howard with my daughter, was so we could check out the new adventure play area. This comes in the form of ‘Skelf Island’ which is basically an extensive tree house play area with large adjoining rope bridges. It really is quite impressive and was extremely busy on our visit. With Oaklie being only 21 months old, she was a bit young to fully make use of this area. I did take her up onto some of the tree platforms and she seemed to enjoy running up and down. I din’t take her onto the rope brides however as her little feet would have got caught in the netting. This fantastic play area is definitely more suited for older kids.
Just next to Skelf Island however is a more traditional play area. This is also a good size and contains the usual swings, climbing frames and slides. The whole area is situated right next to the Boathouse cafe and there are plenty of picnic benches close by.
Below Skelf Island, and to the East of the house, is ‘Ray Wood’. Unfortunately it had been raining pretty heavily so we didn’t venture inside. I didn’t fancy having a mud bath, and oaklie has a thing about jumping in muddy puddles at the minute! You can go through the woods to access the beautiful Temple of the Four Winds, or you can take a grass driveway which climbs uphill from the East of the House. The temple is well worth visiting as the views over the Yorkshire Countryside are incredible.
Unfortunately we were running out of time a bit and we didn’t really get chance to explore the South lake which you pass by on your way down from the temple. The views of the house from across the lake are incredible and it would have been nice to have got a few pictures. The South Lake features a lovely fountain added by the landscape gardener, Nesfield, in the 1850’s. This is coupled with a second, and more substantial fountain, situated in the ‘South Parterre’. These are powered completely by water from a reservoir situated high up in Ray Wood.
The South Parterre sits in front of the South Face of the house, and here can be found the second stunning Atlas fountain by Nesfield. This is absolutely massive and cost a fortune to build and install. The Parterre itself has evolved over the years, and the original Nesfield designed garden was removed in the late 19th Century (due to maintenance costs), and replaced with the grass terraces, and yew hedges we see today. The South Parterre is still absolutely beautiful and a great place to relax or perhaps have a picnic. Oaklie absolutely loved running between the yew hedges, whilst being chased by myself. I did manage to get some nice photographs of the house though.
We actually had our lunch on some benches situated outside the West Wing of the house. This seating area is just outside the Fitzroy Restaurant, a self service eatery which seemed to have a good selection of meals and cakes. There is also a shop next door. We were quite happy sat outside as we had brought our own food and the sun had decided to grace us with its presence. Watch out for the wasps though, there are loads of them!
By this point Oaklie was getting a little tired and grumpy, so I decided to wrap up our visit. We did however visit the rose gardens which are just on you left as you leave.
Castle Howard is one of those places that you absolutely have to visit at least once in your lifetime. The house and gardens are beautifully looked after and there is so much to see and do. Adults and older kids will be awed by the grand interiors of the house, and for younger kids the play areas around Skelf Island will keep them entertained for hours. Castle Howard is a very Special place indeed, and it’s difficult to do it justice without visiting this amazing landmark yourself. I would recommend going on a quieter day if possible, and certainly check the weather forecast as there is a lot to do outside and you will want to get your moneys worth.
As mentioned earlier I had some issues accessing the house with a push chair. You cant take push chairs or prams into the house, and will need to leave these at the house reception (at the bottom of some stairs). There is nobody there to help you, and as such you might need to go in via the shop. People with limited mobility will also need to do the same. This is certainly an area which could do with some improvement.
Access aside, it’s quite easy to recommend Castle Howard as one of the best historical days out to be had anywhere in the country. It would be nice if ticket prices were a little cheaper, but what you get for your investment is one of the finest stately homes in the country, and perhaps the world. Castle Howard makes for a fantastic family day out, and if you are looking for things to do this weekend, or just want to experience the magnificent architecture, then I recommend Castle Howard wholeheartedly.
Castle Howard is privately owned and as such can seem a little expensive. Expect to pay £20 for adults and £11.50 for children aged 4 – 16. If your an English Heritage member, and have your card with you, then an adult ticket will cost £15.
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For more on Castle Howard visit their website here.