Amongst the very many blandishments of the County of North Yorkshire is Castle Howard a 300+ year-old stately home and apotheosis of the English Baroque style, built by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, and sited on a 13,000-acre estate dotted with formal gardens and beautiful out buildings. It is one of the grandest stately homes in Britain.
Much more importantly, though… it was the stand-in for, and fictional setting of, the 1981 11-part ITV/Granada adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. (And also of the 2008 one-part remake.) Simply, Castle Howard is Brideshead. And Brideshead is, in my considered view, such an inseparable part of the soul of English character that to visit it is to make a pilgrimage to, perhaps, the very heart of post-war England.
As we passed in front of the imposing south (garden) face, Becky talked pilasters, and arches, and oeils-de-boeuf. She suggested this was the ultimate in English Baroque, though with the Italian influence evident in facade-topping jugs. She talked cornices, and volutes, and flutes. We tried to keep up.
Since the weather was with us and amazing shooting light we decided to explore the gardens and grounds first. I got perhaps rather too keen on this duck. (Anna announced that he was called Norman.) And these fish.
Me: You can't understand this country without reading Brideshead Revisited. It is impossible to overstate its effect on the national psyche the extent to which it is a cultural touchstone.
Anna & Becky: Hmm, hmm.
Me: ‘Just the place to bury a crock of gold. I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember…’ I feel like that today.
Anna: Well, guess what? Whenever we come to Yorkshire, you can come back here again.
Me: But it will never be today again.
Oh, I scribbled some early thoughts on the themes of the book here. Looking back at that now, I find my criticism callow and awkwardly handled; but I do think I nailed what the book is really about from his comments, Waugh seemed not to know, which I think is not actually that unusual and I stand by those claims today.
We trekked out to the Temple of the Four Winds, one of the most notable garden buildings. Becky edified us further about this Palladian structure. She said she thinks that the floor is done in the same marble as part of Westminster Abbey.
Tea, and hi jinks, in the shadow of West Wing.
Around to the north face and, finally, inside.
Instead of audio-guides, they had these lovely human volunteer guides in each room, who would actually chat with you and answer your questions. That was awesome.
One of the early-ish Lord Howards evidently went pillaging around Italy for sculpture. (As the British do.) But he had really good taste, evidently, as the rich often do.
The Great Hall was really something to behold not least the painting of the Fall of Phaeton by Antonio Pellegrini, which was meticulously recreated after the big fire they had in 1940 destroyed the dome. You knew the enormous fireplace actually worked because they had a big box of fresh firewood beside it.
One of the amusing and slightly surreal touches was the large number of contemporary family photos that dotted the tables reminding you that, yes, this actually still is a family home; even if, no, they can't afford to keep it up without your £14.50 entrance fee.
Two entire rooms were given over to exhibits on the adaptation and the filming there. I read every word on the walls with big saucer eyes. I hadn't realized that every scene that took place in Brideshead was actually filmed right inside these walls.
On the way out through the gift shop, I ardently wanted a souvenir. Finally I decided nothing would do but another copy of the book the Waugh Centenary Edition from Penguin. Becky's reading the book now, and it's probably time that I do so again.
Oh, and, yes, we're watching the series again now. (Available for streaming from Lovefilm, but not evidently from Netflix, at least not here…) The chapel, second to last photo above, figures prominently, and we saw it onscreen only a couple of days after having stood in it, which was a very giddy thrill…