About this episode:
We begin this trilogy of episodes at Castle Howard, with Nick Howard himself. Most recognisable to the public from the television show “Brideshead Revisited”, but for Nick the Castle Howard estate was his childhood home, a place where he felt such a distinct sense of freedom roaming around its gardens – at least until the cowbell was rung to call him back in for lunch. Nick now oversees care for its grounds with a desire to better connect the caretaking practises with the will of nature. As he guides you around each of the estate’s stunning features, from The Temple of the Four Winds, to the Mausoleum and Pyramid, Nick gives an insight into the estate’s history, and how it links back to his ancestors who made the castle a reality. Stay tuned for the story of Ferdinand and Imelda, two extremely territorial swans who’ve taken ownership of a large stretch of water in the grounds, who join the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, Lord William Howard, and many others in calling Caste Howard their home.
Episode 2: Nick Cooke
Beneath the boughs with bluebells and brambles
Episode 3: Alastair Gunn
Roses, wildflowers and tending ‘to the manor’s thorn’
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 1: Nick Howard
The estate is privately owned, truly beautiful, and the land encompassing the castle is large enough to encompass a number of villages from the surrounding area. Now having spoken to Nick, Nick and Alastair, I know what a feat it is to uphold – and to be the man for whom the buck stops… well, it’s a tall ask. Subsequently, it is no surprise to me that the responsibility of running the house is handed around the family – down the lineage lines – when one’s time in charge has been exhausted. So, why not hand it over to the National Trust of English Heritage? I’m sure there are many reasons, and I think I can assume one, but I’ll get to that.
To quote David Frost: “Who lives in a house like this?” Waiting in the reception, the staff quarters of Castle Howard, I knew not what to expect. Nick ‘drove’ with purpose into the reception to pick me up. Casually dressed, completely at ease, walking stick in hand. He looked like a suspiciously clean shepherd. It seems obvious now, but whereas I saw a receptionist and a visitor’s ledger to sign, he barely noticed the formality of the room – he was just popping through his house to greet his guest. This has been Nick Howard’s home since cowbells were rung to bring his muddy knees back in from playing with the great swan grandparents of Ferdinand and Imelda.
From the moment Nick and I started talking there was an instant evocation of heritage. He was part of a dynasty; one immortalized by Vanbrugh, one symbolically placed at the centre of the estate by Hawsmoor, one just about fire-proof – as 1940 proved – and, even the car park has a story! (The armada oaks are the first thing you see. Giant oak trees; each some hundred years old. These old men are drizzled through the car park. It would be comic if they weren’t so noble.)
For most of us “Heritage” is something we care little about until retirement, or as a result of one month’s free membership to Ancestry.com, but there is little at Castle Howard that isn’t dripping in the stuff. And this is something that Nick does not treat lightly. Indeed, it is what gives him purpose.
Over the centuries, the Howards have brushed shoulders with “the great and the good” – indeed much of the noise you can hear in the background towards the end of this interview was a team setting up a wedding reception for a very well known pop-star which was to happen the following day. But what truly made me ‘fall into the sky’ was when Nick casually uttered, about his great grandparents:
“They were friends of the pre-raphaelites…”
Add casual mentions of his suffragist great grandmother and you start to see why Nick sees things with an holistic eye, at least temporally speaking: everything is interconnected – “like stalactites”.
Whether Edward Burne Jones, Jeremy Irons or Ellie Goulding, or, better still, the men and women who work the estate, breed the Angus cattle, care for the tree that can be carved into his walking stick, they’re all vital parts of his family. Across time these people have collided on this estate and kept the castle breathing along historical leylines. Everything is interwoven, with one family (possibly two if you include Ferdinand and Imelda) running through the entire thing. The Castle may be the tree that stands tall, but the rhizome that surrounds it is expansive and has diversified over the centuries.
And that is why I think Nick keeps up the estate in the way he does – it is not to show off, it is not some aristocratic arrogance, it’s about what you would do for your family and for your family home, and for the local families, and the local families’ homes. At times like now, when we are being forced to readdress all our social “normalities” in the light of COVID-19, surely it is clear to us all why a man would devote his life to maintain such a large and costly estate. It is home.
Castle Howard – https://www.castlehoward.co.uk/
The History of Castle Howard – https://www.castlehoward.co.uk/visit-us/the-house/history-of-castle-howard
Baden Powell Grave (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baden-Powell_grave
Ash Dieback – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/tree-pests-and-diseases/key-tree-pests-and-diseases/ash-dieback/
RSPB’s “Swift Action” – https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-and-sustainability/safeguarding-species/help-us-help-swifts/
The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Raphaelite_Brotherhood
Pugin’s “The Grange”, Landmark Trust – https://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/search-and-book/properties/grange-8160/#Overview