I was lucky to recently visit Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, and found the treasure house decorated for Christmas. Normally, I don’t like visiting houses when special events are on because I’m one of those people who visit for the ‘pure history’. However, Christmas at Castle Howard is something different.
The theme for this year is the popular festive song The Twelve Days of Christmas. The people in charge of Christmas at Castle Howard have done an amazing job and have really gone that extra mile. As well as the creative and opulent decorations, the themed rooms are complete with light and sound installations to provide a truly immersive festive experience.
My favourite room was the ‘Seven Swans A-Swimming Room’ (normally called the Crimson Dining Room). As well as the gorgeous swan-themed decorations atop the dining table, music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake plays in the background and special effects make light dance across the ceiling, mirroring the effects of reflected water.
Other favourites included the ‘Eight Maids A-Milking Room’ which was installed in the Turquoise Dining Room (and totally overshadowed the impressive collections of Gainsborough and Reynolds portraits!), and the ‘Two Turtle Doves Room’ in Lady Georgiana’s Bedroom.
A Bit of History
Castle Howard has been home to the Carlisle branch of the Howard family for 300 years. If you have studied British history it is 99.9% probable that you have come across the Howard family at some point (especially if you love your Early Modern history – remember Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard?).
Castle Howard was built by Charles Howard, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle. He commissioned the building in 1699, and it took over 100 years to complete (mainly because half way through the Earl got bored and turned his attention to the park).
Charles commissioned young playwright John Vanburgh as architect for the project, despite Vanburgh having never built anything in his life at this point. Luckily Vanburgh was ably assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Like Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard is a masterpiece of the shortlived English Baroque architectural style. The layout is centered on a dome (which wasn’t actually included in the initial plans), with two wings enclosing a courtyard. The dome was also the first of its kind to crown a private residence in England.
The Great Hall
The Great Hall ‘is one of England’s grandest rooms’ (according to Simon Jenkins – and me!) and the heart of Castle Howard. It is so grand it is more like a stage than a hall.
The room is currently decorated with as a grand 25ft Christmas tree decorated with over 3000 baubles. In a normal room this tree would would probably be too large for the space. However, in the Grand Hall Castle Howard’s iconic dome rises 70ft and the tree almost looks in proportion.
The Chapel at Castle Howard is unlike any other I have seen. It is a triumph of Pre-Raphaelite design, with embroidery by William Morris, windows by Edward Byrne-Jones based on a Morris design and murals by Charles Eamer Kemp.
The 9th Earl and Countess of Carlisle were close personal friends with the leading lights of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Burne-Jones and Morris were regular visitors at Castle Howard.
Castle Howard is a picture perfect English landscape park. There’s woodlands, formal gardens, and terraces – you name it! There’s also the obligatory temples, follies and lakes.
The Howard Mausoleum, designed by Hawksmoor, lies in the extensive estate grounds but unfortunately is not open to the public. It is widely regarded as the finest mausoleum in England.
Also keep an eye out for the Pyramid and the Temple of the Four Winds!
Don’t worry! There’s still time to visit Christmas at Castle Howard. Christmas opening will run until New Year’s Eve.