As anyone who has ever visited Castle Howard knows, when you arrive at the estate you are greeted by a giant obelisk. What fewer arguably are aware of, however, is what is inscribed upon it.
The column bears the words of the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, who began work on creating the estate in 1699, and who wanted to share his hopes.
Faint to read now, it says: “If to perfection these plantations rise, If they agreeably my heirs surprise, This faithful pillar will their age declare, As long as time these characters shall spare.”
While the language is antiquated and does not quite trip off the tongue, it sums up just how much the building of Castle Howard represented a leap of faith at the time.
The whole project was a calculated gamble that the 3rd Earl hoped would deliver a lasting home and identity for his family for generations to come.
Today the estate welcomes more than a quarter of a million people each year. Its grounds are a magnet for television producers, with everything from Brideshead Revisited to Bridgerton to an Arctic Monkeys music video having been filmed in the grounds.
However, more than 300 years after the 3rd Earl made that inscription, the Howard family are set to embark on a fresh leap of faith that they hope will provide a long-term masterplan not just for them but for the wider community that lies within the estate.
In short, the family want to make Castle Howard futureproof, whether that’s the state of the estate’s buildings, its impact on the environment or the viability of the communities that reside there.
The wide-ranging plan encompasses everything from preserving its architectural heritage to solving a range of environmental and sustainability challenges and providing housing, services and local employment opportunities so that the residents of the surrounding villages are able to work and live in the area for generations to come.
The man charged with executing the 15-year masterplan is Jasper Hasell, who was appointed estate chief executive in September last year. He describes the programme of work he is about to undertake as a “watershed moment” for the estate, and makes it clear that he and the wider team intend to make Castle Howard viable for a further 300 years.
“It is a really ambitious plan but it has to be as we need to meet a fairly ambitious challenge at the same time,” he tells The Yorkshire Post Magazine in his office on the estate. “Some companies strive to find a sense of purpose but for us it is really easy because you just drive down the drive, look at the building and landscape and think ‘that is the purpose’.”
The most immediate area that will be looked at is the state of the myriad historic buildings on the sprawling 9,000-acre estate. One in five Grade I-listed buildings in Ryedale is at Castle Howard and conservative estimates put the cost of the renovations necessary to prevent them from falling into disrepair at £50m, although Mr Hasell makes no secret of the fact that he believes the actual cost will be more than this. The bill is set to be eye-watering, with the mansion house alone estimated to need circa £10m in restoration spending.
The masterplan points to a solution that will involve a complex strategy that extends to virtually every aspect of the estate.
“We need to generate additional revenue and capital receipts, both of which go back into that pot of reinvestment that then supplies further investment money for future years,”adds Mr Hasell.
“But it is not solved by selling a load of assets, having a one-off capital receipt and then ploughing it into restoration. Restoration is a cycle. When you repair a roof, 50 years later it needs repairing again.”
A large part of this will involve looking at increasing what Castle Howard currently does.
Mr Hasell wants to grow the number of overnight stays on the estate. He and his team are looking at converting the Gatehouse building, potentially for accommodation purposes or as a wedding and events venue.
Elsewhere, the possibility of accommodation pods remains an active consideration. “We have 270,000 visitors a year,” says Mr Hasell. “There is a limit to how many more we can attract but if a visitor stays overnight, the ratio of earnings is tenfold.
“And it is not just us benefiting, it would be shops, hotels and restaurants. If we can capture that off the same visitor base, you can capture so much more revenue, not just for us but the whole local area.”
Elsewhere Castle Howard wants to become more accessible digitally, with plans for augmented reality to be used to give personalised guides on people’s phones.
Similarly educational and architectural safaris, photography courses, partnerships with universities at home and abroad for art history, and architectural students to come and learn on the job, are all being looked at.
“There are a lot of opportunities, it is just about unlocking them really,” adds Mr Hasell. “I look at them as opportunities not challenges. That’s why the strategy has to be quite bold, but when I cast my mind back to the 3rd Earl he was pretty ambitious. You don’t build a place like this if you don’t have a vision.”
The new vision for the 21st century and beyond will see the Castle Howard team widen their lens far beyond the house and gardens, in a plan which they intend will make the area environmentally sound but also help reverse the decline of the vitality of the surrounding villages.
“We are looking at what a sustainable community looks like,” Mr Hasell says. “Housing is the catalyst and then we can add the schools and services. We can be the starter motor to that. If we can create those houses, we can then support local services and enterprises to thrive.
“We are not the only area that has lost that traditional village sustainability. Our ambition is to reverse that snowball effect. We will be reviving the surrounding villages by creating housing and affordable housing which is a real problem for us.”
Castle Howard has 150 houses in its portfolio, which on the face of it sounds a lot until one learns that as a landlord its waiting list runs to 180 people. The issue is so acute that it had to put a notice on its website asking people not to contact it with enquiries, advising them to monitor the site for any vacancies.
The housing plans have been submitted into Ryedale’s local plan and the team worked with Historic England and Natural England to bring forth the most viable sites, spread across the five estate villages.
There are no plans to use speculative developers and the project will be estate led, as Castle Howard seeks to partner with developers through to construction and sale, with the estate having control over architecture, quality and design. Mr Hasell and his team want any new housing to not only be environmentally efficient but in keeping with the estate’s character, a vision he shares with Nicholas and Victoria Howard, the estate’s current operators and residents.
“The family has been here for 300 years,” says Mr Hasell. “Whatever they build will become their neighbours.”
His journey to Castle Howard is, as he himself acknowledges, not what one might expect. Prior to joining, he worked at Dyson as its global estates director and before that he was at NBC Universal, responsible for both developing and managing its theme parks.
However, as a farmer’s son, he sees his background as complementary to his new job. “Rural areas and farming are in my blood,” he says. “When you dig underneath the service, it is not so strange.”
With a track record of high-level delivery, it is now on his watch that the estate embarks on a pivotal chapter in its history.
It is one that Mr Hasell has respect for but one he feels is achievable. “I am an optimist,” he says as we drive across the estate. “The people who built Castle Howard had to be optimistic.
“When people understand what we are doing here, they will get behind it. We are solving a number of issues, whether it is heritage, conservation, rural housing, jobs or services.
“My ambition is that in 15 years time people from other estates will come here and embark on a similar journey.”