It’s definitely started to feel like Spring has sprung over the last week or so. The snowdrops which herald the last throes of winter have faded away to be replaced by bright and beautiful daffodils, new shoots are budding in the garden and hedgerows are a-chatter with the sound of birds busily searching for food and calling for mates. While we are still stuck at home and staying local, the regeneration of all things green has got me reminiscing about my favourite places to visit in summer, both local and further afield. Last summer we capitalised on pre-booking and restricted visitor numbers to visit Castle Howard on a gloriously sunny day. Usually we don’t head over there in high season, as it can be a bit crowded, but the upside of social distancing meant that it was possible to get the best of the weather and enjoy the site without hordes of people flocking for a picnic and a day out.
I have always been rather taken with Castle Howard. My interest was first piqued as a student when I was writing an essay about the architecture of the English Country house, where Castle Howard stood out as a Baroque masterpiece in a sea of Palladianism (I don’t have anything against Palladianism, by the way, it’s just sometimes nice to have a bit of a change). Since then I have returned dozens of times and it never disappoints – it’s one of the few places I am prepared to actually pay an entry fee for! This blog mainly talks about the outside, but inside the house is definitely worth a visit if that’s your kind of thing normally (I tend towards being a philistine: inside one stately home is very similar to another. Cue my History degree being taken away…)
The estate is huge – 8,800 acres to be exact – and is made up of hundreds of buildings, formal gardens, rolling parkland, woodland and farmland. There are many walks to be discovered online (including a selection on the Castle Howard website) but we always prefer to just wander, slightly aimlessly, around the park and gardens (generally in the opposite direction of where we can see other people gathering). We always, without fail, discover a new corner of the estate that we haven’t found before. Last time it was the absolutely beautiful pocket of tranquility sandwiched between the cascade and the bridge to the mausoleum (pictured); the time before, the shady network of paths criss-crossing Ray Wood. People tend to get distracted by the dizzying array of colours in the walled gardens and forget that there is a whole park just waiting to be explored – and sometimes a pretty bridge is better than a well manicured border anyway.
That being said, the walled gardens are a delight, even for the world’s worst hay fever sufferer (take a hay fever tablet before you go – it’s a mistake I won’t make twice!). The spectacular display of colour leaves you slightly directionless: on entering the garden it usually takes me a few seconds to work out where I actually want to go. The gardens are neatly segmented using walls and hedges, giving each compartment a distinct identity, and also creating the illusion that there aren’t anywhere near as many people in the gardens as there might actually be. Benches are dotted around in a number of locations, making this a popular place for people to stop for lunch. Many of the plants in the garden can also be found in the garden centre which has a huge variety of plants on offer, including the best selection of roses I’ve ever come across.
Down by the cascade is my favourite place to sit quietly, but Ray Wood is my favourite place to have a wander. I don’t think I ever truly appreciated the phrase ‘dappled sunlight’ until we walked through Ray Wood on a sunny day. The woods are like something out of a fairytale: a selection box of tree species, dense enough to create the feeling of utter privacy, spacious enough to let beams of sunlight sneak through to light the way. I’m always amazed that we don’t see more people in here: normally we see a few other dog walkers, but never more than five or six other couples. I would say it’s a shame but I love having it all to ourselves!
Dog friendly rating: 4/5. It’s worth noting that this is a country house rating, and Castle Howard has scored highly, as it is very welcoming to dogs compared to other similar places I’ve visited. The courtyard cafe has dog water bowls outside, and dogs are allowed inside the formal gardens, which isn’t always the case. Ray Wood and the parkland footpaths offer plenty of opportunities for offlead walks, although I do recommend putting leads on by the lakes, due to the high number of wetland birds. Ours love it here and always arrive home knackered, ready to sleep for a week, giving us several peaceful evenings while they re-charge ready for next time!
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