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House party

When it comes to decorations you can’t get more ornate than Castle Howard’s. Current lord of the manor Nick Howard tells us why he’s more than happy to share his Christmas with a steady stream of visitors.

N icholas Howard is on the hunt for balloons. He has drawn a blank in his own office and is now scouting unsuccessfully around the rest of Castle Howard, the country pile he calls home.

“I need them so I can fill them with water,” he says obliquely. “I am hoping I will be able to replicate the sound of a cow being milked. That’s my job for this afternoon.”

A little earlier he spent a good few hours scouring the internet for a sound effect of swans which didn’t sound too aggressive and when he’s finally sourced those fake udders there’s just some pipe music to find.

“This year we are decorating the house along the theme of the Twelve Days of Christmas,” he adds by way of explanation. “While I leave the design to the experts I like to be involved in some way, hence why I am helping out with the background noises.

“I love it. I can already feel the anticipation building.”

Christmas has always been a special time at Castle Howard, but in the last two years there has been an even bigger injection of festive spirit at the North Yorkshire property, best known for providing the backdrop for the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

It was photographer Nick and his wife Victoria, formerly chief executive of HarperCollins, who had the idea of bringing in theatre designers Charlotte Lloyd Webber and Bretta Gerecke to mastermind Christmas and the pair are again up to their knees in wreaths, garlands and lavish decorations. 

As well as the 25ft gravity defying Christmas tree in the Great Hall, adorned with 3,000 baubles, this year there is a dress made from what looks like branches of Norwegian Spruce, a whole room decked out in brightly coloured feathers and an unashamedly large helping of festive bling.

“Last year, I think all the team were surprised by the scale of the rooms,” says Nick. “You think big, really big, but then you start decorating and you realise that actually you need to think even bigger.

“I try not to meddle too much and I do stand by that old adage that a client shouldn’t be shown any plans too early, because it’s far too easy to be negative. It’s important to step back and let their vision take shape and it’s a very special moment when the last of the baubles are hung.”

Traditionally Castle Howard closed on the evening of December 24th not reopening to the public until the new year. However, Nick and Victoria are embracing a much more open-door policy with the house reopening from Boxing Day onwards.

“We all know that feeling when you have been cooped up with the family for a few days,” says Nick. “There’s a moment when you all start to go a little stir crazy and you need a break from that old uncle who may have drunk a little too much.

“It struck us that this beautiful estate was the perfect escape. It looks particularly beautiful at Christmas and it just seemed right that we remained open throughout the holidays.”

The move wasn’t entirely altruistic. The cost of maintaining Castle Howard with its never-ending to do list is astronomical and like most stately homes, visitor revenue is the main income stream.

“Every penny we get goes straight back into the house and grounds,” says Nick. “It has to. It is an old cliché that we are just brief custodians of this place, but it’s true and it’s our job to hand it onto the next generation in the best possible state we can.”

When Nick returned from London to take charge of the estate in 2014, younger brother Simon who had been at the helm for the previous 30 years announced he was stepping down. At the time rumours abounded about sibling rivalry and family feuds, but the Howards have always kept a dignified silence as to what really went on behind the scenes.

However, Nick, who has admitted to initially being slightly overwhelmed by the scale of the task in front of him, has already put his own mark on the house and the 10,000 acres of grounds in which it stands. 

Quite quickly, the couple appointed a head groundsman, initiated a programme of landscaping and identified a list of urgent structural work. At the top is saving Castle Howard’s famous mausoleum from crumbling into history.

“That’s where I am going to end up, so I have a vested interest in ensuring the whole place doesn’t fall on my head,” he laughs. “I realise most people don’t get up every morning to be confronted with a view of their final resting place, but it does mean you approach life with a certain equanimity.”

Work on the mausoleum is still being finalised and before then there is the small matter of the Howard family’s own plans for Christmas.

“It will be a quiet one, after all of this we will all need a little down time.”

And with that he’s off, a man on a mission in search of those balloons.

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