Never mind the stately pile, it was Castle Howard’s grounds that stole the show during our day out. While the grandiose house is worth a look, notwithstanding a hefty entrance charge, the gardens and a genuinely excellent adventure playground were the standout attractions of our visit.
Located about 15 miles north of York, Howard is in fact not a castle at all but a stately home built by the Earls of Carlisle over more than a century, culminating in 1811. It is known to those of a certain vintage as Brideshead from the 1981 Revisited TV series and to their children, perhaps, as one of the locations in Netflix drama Bridgerton. Garfield II: A Tale of Two Kitties was also filmed here in 2006, but presumably few beyond any Howard family members who happened to be looking out of the window during the shoot have witnessed that particular pleasure.
In any case, the house itself is suitably fancy and well-staffed with knowledgeable, friendly guides as well as with classical statues and paintings by Reynolds and Gainsborough. Visitors can only tour a portion of the building, partly because the Howards still live here and partly because restoration work is still going on after a massive fire in 1940. However, the tour is a pleasant enough hour or so as long as you can manage steep steps. Despite a stairlift at the main entrance, this isn’t the easiest place to get around if you’re not particularly mobile.
Christmas, we were informed, is when the castle itself really puts on a show. If the weather is decent – though the restoration fund won’t thank me for saying it – you could probably save yourself a few quid and buy tickets to the gardens only. For Castle Howard is not cheap. Unless you live locally enough to justify an annual membership, house and gardens tickets for two adults and two children will set you back up to £89 in high season, whereas the grounds cost up to £56 (both versions are cheaper at other times of year). All this makes you realise what good value memberships like the National Trust and English Heritage are compared to this privately owned offer, but the grounds do provide a full day out as well as access to what is quite honestly the best view of Castle Howard, namely the spectacular exterior.
The walled gardens, particularly the dahlia and lily-dense space outside the gardener’s house, were charming. There is a pleasant wood (complete with pigs) and a beautiful lake on which one can go boating (for an extra fee), but it was the Skelf Island playground that earned our group’s entrance fee. This network of treetop nests and platforms, connected by rope bridges, walkways and slides, had our children (aged 4 to 10) running off steam and creating imaginary worlds for hours. Out of breath yet full of fresh air, they then bundled happily onto the ‘Kelly train’ – a tractor-pulled land train that transports visitors around the sizeable estate during peak season – back to the main entrance before promptly zonking out in the car home. Combine this with a picnic (or perhaps some fantastic Scotch eggs at £3.20 each from the courtyard farm shop) rather than the pricier café fare and that surely means that Castle Howard is well worth a day of a Yorkshire family holiday.
All photos by Simon Broadhead
For more information about Castle Howard, click here.