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Christmas angels at Yorkshire’s Castle Howard

Nicholas Howard  in the Garden Hall with an elaborately decorated tree. PIC: Charlotte Graham
Nicholas Howard in the Garden Hall with an elaborately decorated tree. PIC: Charlotte Graham
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In 2014 Nick Howard returned to Castle Howard in a storm of publicity. Now, three years on, he talks to Sarah Freeman about adjusting to life on the country estate.

Nick Howard is having a mid-morning coffee in his study at Castle Howard and reflecting on the early years of the estate being open to the public.

“When my parents first opened up the house in the 1950s it was all pretty amateur, but in a charming way. They would both be at the entrance selling the tickets, one of their friends would be on the stairs flogging guide books and I would be giving pony rides for 6p a go.

“Gradually though it became more professional. A lot has changed, it has had to.”

Not least in the last three years.

In November 2014, Simon Howard, who had been in charge of the estate for the previous 30, years confirmed rumours he was stepping down from its day-to-day running with elder brother Nick and wife Victoria moving into the role instead. Given Castle Howard had become internationally famous in the 1980s when it provided the backdrop for the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the news was greeted with talk of a real life family drama being played out behind the 17th century pile.

Nick doesn’t want to talk about the recent past. The headlines which accused him of evicting his younger brother are perhaps still a little raw, but what he does want to talk about is the future.

“When I came back there wasn’t a head gardener here,” says the 67-year-old. “There is now. An estate like this needs someone in charge of the grounds because they have to sing with the house.

“You see over there,” he adds pointing to the grounds beyond Castle Howard’s famous fountain. “There were a couple of hornbeam trees which had become quite overgrown. We have had them removed and we have also re-grassed some of the fields so it creates a much better panorama. Making any major change is daunting, but sometimes you just have to grasp the nettle.”

There are other things too. The mausoleum is in need of a major restoration and every time there is a period of extreme rain or wind, Nick, who had a career in photography before returning to the family home, knows it will likely result in another few jobs to add to the never-ending list.

“I am starting to get to grips with what needs doing. You could allow it to overwhelm you, but you quickly learn to just deal with whatever new problem you face in a methodical fashion. Take the mausoleum. I went down there and realised some of the stone catacombes were coming away from the surrounds. Like everything on the estate, it’s a case of, ‘Ok, what’s the problem and who can we get to solve it?’. The one advantage of needing something fixed or restored here is that craftsmen are keen to work with you because if they do it right it can really build their reputation.”

With 145 rooms and 10,000 acres, running Castle Howard does not come cheap. It is why two years ago the brothers put various treasures up for sale. It’s also why the family is investing more than ever into its Christmas opening programme.

Nick has drafted in theatre designers Charlotte Lloyd Webber and Bretta Gerecke to mastermind this year’s decorations and when we speak a small army of tradesmen is suspending festive wreaths and artfully arranging piles of presents. “I can understand why whenever we put our prices up people think that we are just out to line our own pockets,” admits Nick. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. No one who runs a stately home like this can ever make money, the upkeep costs too much. Everything we make goes back into the house and every year, the house requires more and more.

“A few years ago when we started opening for Christmas it was very small scale. We used to put a tree in the hallway, decorate it ourselves and that was about it. Now it is like we have an entire elfin workshop. I popped in the other day and they were busy working on the great arch which will sit over the main stone steps.

“We have really pushed the boat out this year. We decided we wanted to really theme the decorations, but we were all aware that if you labour it too much it can become a little twee. In the end we decided on an Angels on High theme, because angels and cherubs are everywhere at Castle Howard so it felt as though we were developing something which was already in the fabric of the place.

“Everything about this house means you have to do it big if it’s going to work. However, when you do get it right it is very satisfying. We’ve obviously kept a close eye on the plans, but it’s only in the last few weeks as the decorations have gone up that you really see what Charlotte and Bretta were trying to achieve and I suspect neither of them would approve of my happy-go-lucky approach to hanging baubles.”

One of Nick’s other aims is to boost the Friends of Castle Howard scheme with the hope of increasing membership by offering more exclusive, one-off events.

“We want to give them more so being a Friend of Castle Howard really means something. This year, our pastry chef Vanessa Wade has already organised a Christmas wreath-making session and in December there will be a carols by candlelight in the chapel.”

Nick and Victoria, who in a previous life was chief executive of the publishing company HarperCollins, are also looking to extend the general events programme as a way of increasing return visitors to the estate.

“We are going to have a magic show in the stables for that period between Christmas and New Year when families are looking for something to do after being cooped up together for days. I know we are blessed in Yorkshire when it comes to attractions, but there is something really special about the estate at that time of year, it feels like a real festive escape.”

As for his own Christmas, it will be quite a family affair. The day will begin with the former Bishop of Liverpool James Jones, who now lives in Malton, conducting a morning service in the family chapel and afterwards there will be a long lunch. Nick isn’t sure of the exact numbers, but at some point both he and his son George, who recently got married on the estate, will be in the kitchen.

“We are both keen cooks and I much prefer it when cooking is a communal effort, particularly at Christmas as it means you don’t get one person marooned in the kitchen feeling all the pressure.

“In many ways Christmas at Castle Howard is just like it was when I was growing up. Lots of people, lots of food and lots of fun. The only difference is that 50 years ago there was definitely a lot more snow in the winter. I know everyone says that, but it’s true.”

Come the New Year, it will be back to business as usual. While the house doesn’t reopen until spring, the weeks in between are devoted to the annual big clean and it will also be a chance for Nick to draw breath and think about the year ahead.

“Often when I am down at the lake I will start counting the various different species and I have to stop at 102,” he says, only half joking. “This place is so rich in wildlife and it often strikes me that we could do more to promote what we have here.

“This year for the first time I can remember I saw red kites flying over the estate. They didn’t stay, but maybe they will next year. When I’m not in this study, you can often find me outside taking photographs. I don’t think I will ever tire of the place, because even though I think I know every inch of the estate I always find something new to look at and whenever I come through the archway I still get a shiver.”

And while he has only been at the helm for three years, Nick says that returning to Castle Howard felt like slipping on a familiar pair of slippers.

“People always ask whether I find it strange sharing my home with other people. Victoria probably finds it more difficult, because it’s completely new to her. For me, this is the way that it has always been.”

The house is open for Christmas until December 23 with the grounds open all year. For details go to castlehoward.co.uk