Brideshead Visited

The backdoor of Castle Howard, the stately home forever associated with the fictional ‘Brideshead’.

21 August 2017

Tim Koch recalls a HTBS post from 2013.

Mark Twain once allegedly said that ‘The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.’ It is not quite such a pithy remark, but I can now say that one of the wettest days that I have experienced was during a summer in North Yorkshire, a place where I recently took a short holiday. However, the rain meant that I finally visited somewhere that I had long wanted to see: Castle Howard. The magnificent Baroque stately home (it was never a castle) is still the private residence of the Howard family, as it has been for ten generations over 300 years. You can take the two-minute tour here.

Castle Howard is familiar to television and film audiences as Brideshead, the home of the fictional aristocratic Marchmain family of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, and was featured in Granada Television’s faithful and much acclaimed 1981 adaptation (and in an expensive but uninspired two-hour 2008 remake for the cinema). In 2015, The Daily Telegraph stated that ‘Brideshead Revisited is television’s greatest literary adaptation, bar none. It’s utterly faithful to Evelyn Waugh’s novel yet it’s somehow more than that, too.’

A ‘selfie’ in the Great Hall.

Usually, I object when people associate places with literary fiction: I am from Cornwall, not ‘Poldark Country’, whatever the souvenir boxes of fudge may say. Even worse for the West Yorkshire Pennines, it became ‘Brontë Country’ (in fact, if not in name) very soon after the last sister, Charlotte, died in 1855, resulting in Haworth becoming the tearoom capital of England.

Against my normal objections, however, I do not mind that Castle Howard is synonymous with Evelyn Waugh’s iconic novel. Waugh visited the place in 1937, while he was in retreat at nearby Ampleforth Abbey, and so it is likely that it was at least in part the inspiration for the Marchmain’s family home. Further, the hauntingly beautiful stately pile was as much the star of the 1981 television series as was Laurence Olivier, John Guilgud, Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews. Indeed, when the 2008 film version was made, the producers decided no other house would or could do, and so Castle Howard was cast as Brideshead for a new generation.

The Atlas Fountain at the rear of the house. Though it was my first visit, I had viewed the 1981 production so often, it had the slight feeling of a return.

In 2013, I wrote a post on the book and the TV production, saying that ‘Using an old HTBS trick, I will… justify my self-indulgent ramblings by pointing out the rowing references (in Brideshead Revisited)’. Read it here.

The scene from YouTube in my 2013 post with the flamboyant Anthony Blanche character serenading rowers on the way to the river (‘All b-boatmen are Grace Darlings to me’) has a commentary over the wonderful dialogue. However, the video above is the same, but without the vocal intrusion.


  1. Although the brilliant television series was shot at Castle Howard, which people associate with the fictional Brideshead Castle, the actual inspiration lay in Madresfield Court ( Madresfield has been owned for 29 generations by the Lygon family; Waugh was familiar with some of the family’s daughters in his youth, and was a frequent visitor. Waugh’s association with the family and the house is documented in “Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead” by Paula Byrne.

    Sadly, Waugh misspent his time at Oxford and did not row, although Charles Ryder’s cousin Jasper is described in Brideshead Revisited as “[having] come within appreciable distance of getting his rowing blue; he was secretary of the Canning and president of the J.C.R.; a considerable person in College.”

    In fact, Waugh was somewhat leary of the rowing and rugby set. In the novel, he wrote:

    “The Gardener’s Arms, and the Nag’s Head, the Druid’s Head near the Theatre, and the Turf in Hell’s Passage knew is well; but in the last fo these we were liable to meet other undergraduates – pub-crawling hearties from BNC….”

    During Waugh’s time at Oxford, there was something of an undeclared civil war between the asthetes (mainly artistic, social, and frequently homosexual), and the hearties, who embraced sport and heavy drinking. Brasenose College, known colloquially as BNC, was perhaps the heartiest of Oxford’s colleges, and lay on the opposite side of Radcliffe Square from Waugh’s Hertford College.

    During Waugh’s time at Oxford, the Vice-Principal of BNC, the legendary Stallybrass, sought to encourage sport at the College in an effort to restore normality to the university after the First World War. It would not have been uncommon, therefore for Waugh and his aesthete friend to have come across BNC hearties prowling about the Turf, a tavern in a narrow passage wedged between Hertford College and New College, and within a very short drunken stagger from BNC.

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