Nick Cooke: Beneath the boughs with bluebells and brambles

Apr 15 2020

In this, the second episode of a "Castle Howard Trilogy", David Oakes talks to Nick Cooke, the head of forestry at Castle Howard.

David Oakes

David Oakes


Nick Cooke


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About this episode:

In the second episode of the Castle Howard trilogy, meet the head of forestry, Nick Cooke. Nick has been part of the team looking after the estate since 1975, and over the years has had to figure out how to maintain the extensive forests, all-in-all covering over 60 miles of pathways. Arriving in the ‘70s to take up a placement at the castle’s Ray Wood, Nick stood open-mouthed as he faced the estate’s obelisk and knew that he would be here for a long, long time. On a walking tour through bluebells and briars, Nick points out the oakwoods that call the castle home, the rhododendrons remaining from an ornamental garden, and gestures towards the mixed woodlands where wildflowers are thriving. Of the 816 hectares of land, 550 are designated ancient woodland sites – but they are much more than that now, under Nick’s care, the 300-year old site has been transformed into a stunning botanical collection, a producer of timber, a tree nursery and an area rich with biodiversity. This conversation takes so many paths, from hornbeams, to sowing seeds and contraception for squirrels – you won’t be disappointed!

Episode 1: Nick Howard
Heritage, home and honing the Howard’s way

Episode 3: Alastair Gunn
Roses, wildflowers and tending ‘to the manor’s thorn’

David's thoughts:

In the years I’ve spent making period dramas in stately homes, castles and the like, I’ve never failed to be amused by people’s reaction to filming. Tourists and locals alike flock to a chateaux or schloss to admire the architecture, the parterres and the heritage of a space – but if an actor or camera crew were to galavant across a Capability Brown garden or stand in front of a Louis the XVI Chaise Voyeause veneered with tulipwood, amaranth, holly, and sycamore and upholstered in a moiré silk, then the real wonder is often eclipsed by the artifice forgetting his lines in the foreground.

The Castle Howard estate is truly spectacular. Yet, due to the perversities of large stately homes being opened up to filming, its spectacle may be sidelined by its familiarity. Castle Howard is better known to many as “Brideshead”, but the house, grounds and surrounding forests have far more to offer than Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick – “how on earth can that be possible?!” I hear you ask! Well – I offer up three episodes of Trees A Crowd as supporting evidence, to take a quick look behind what may be to many a very familiar veneer.

EPISODE 2: Nick Cooke

“Sow a seed and watch it grow – nothing can beat it.”

As we would walk around the estate’s forests, Nick would rest his hand against individual trees and tell me when he had planted them, what else was going on at that time, and with great pride look up into their canopies to see how they were progressing through their lives. Occasionally, he would rest his hands against the bark of tree, and despite that same smile of reminiscence seen when he rested upon earlier trees, he would linger and move off without sharing a word. Whether shared or private, there are over 40 years of memories growing in and around the Castle for Nick, and decades more for those that have preceded him in looking after these woodlands. Legacy is not just in the brickwork of Castle Howard; it is growing out of the soil.

I’m obsessed with trees – hence the podcast – but I was particularly struck by how Nick had coped with the downsizing of staff, the mechanism of certain practices and adherence to modern conservation techniques. As well as an innate affinity with the arboreal, Nick seems blessed with an immense adaptability. These woodlands are flourishing not just in a natural sense, but in an ongoing business one too. Whether the point of an individual woodland be producing timber, conservation or biodiversity, “Woodlands have to be managed”. Nick, I believe, takes pride in having learnt how to manifest different goals under one umbrella and that with an open-mindedness to continue an education about how best to serve the trees under his care moving forward.

This is a man who started the job in the 1970s overqualified and underpaid; a man who married and raised his children here. Nick is a man who seems to have taken the words of his predecessor, James Russell, to heart; to lay his own roots like the trees – “Plant them where they land.”

I left feeling that anyone, should they have spent their life creating something so beautiful, be remembered permanently. I jokingly asked whether a wood should take his name at the opening of the interview. I left the interview no longer believing the question to be a joke. But “Cooke Wood” does exist. Standing proud, unnamed and silent; standing for you all to see.


Castle Howard –

Ray Wood –

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