Christmas at Castle Howard: Simon Howard’s childhood memories

The family when they lived in Castle Howard
25 Nov 2014 @ 3.40 pm
| Family

Simon Howard has announced he is relinquishing control of Castle Howard and may move out of the house. In this interview from 2007, Simon talked to Chris Titley about growing up in a stately home

Simon Howard with his wife Rebecca and 12-year-old twins Octavia and Merlin, pictured on the Castle Howard website

Putting up the Christmas decorations is an elaborate task at the best of times. You’ve got to lug a tree from shop to sitting room, or reassemble the artificial one branch by branch.

Next you’ve to untangle a hundred blinking fairy lights and re-thread countless baubles – that’s assuming you manage to locate all this lot in the loft. Then there are the streamers, stars, candles and assorted sparkly knick-knacks which cause outbreaks of scattered glitter.

It can irritate even the merriest soul. But while you are cursing the tree-top angel for lolling like she’s had too much eggnog, or refastening your collapsed card holder for the fifth time, spare a thought for the Howards.

Your decorations take an afternoon’s work and cover a couple of rooms. Theirs are months in the planning and festoon vast acreages of stately home.

The Baroque mansion is home to the Hon Simon Howard, his wife Rebecca and their young twins Merlin and Octavia.

Rather than leave the festive décor to outsiders who have little feel for the house, the Hon Simon and Mrs Howard have overseen the whole look themselves.

Mr Howard has fond memories of childhood Christmases spent at Castle Howard. In those days, North Yorkshire winters could be harsh, and happy holidays were spent tobogganing in the snow and skating on the frozen lakes.

“I remember we made decorations and put them up ourselves,” he said. “We also hung our own tree.”

castle-howard-christmas-treeEven after the house was opened to the public by Mr Howard’s father George, it would close every November. Until 2006. The idea of opening “Castle Howard at Christmas” was first mooted in 2003 but only carried through in 2006.

“We were really pleased with the first year,” Mr Howard said. “We thought it was an excellent event and the public seemed to be interested so we decided to do it again.”

Some of the decorations are family heirlooms, but as “an awful lot got broken over the years”, most have been bought in.

Mr and Mrs Howard go to Christmas trade fairs in Harrogate and elsewhere in January and February to make their selections.

Of course it helps to have a 10,000 acre estate on your doorstep. The Christmas trees come from Castle Howard’s own woodlands, with the biggest, a 25ft spruce, taking pride of place in the Great Hall. It is covered with about 1,000 baubles.

But that is not the only foliage involved, explains Mr Howard. “We have got trees and we have got “twigs” which are rather different.

“Rather than the standard Christmas tree, we have two of three of these – twigs are actually the tops of trees which have probably fallen down or needed to be taken down.

“You have the crown of the tree and decorate it with candles.”

Lighting hundreds of candles is the job of the caretaking staff every morning during the Christmas season.

A child’s eye view

CBBC news show Newsround were shown around Castle Howard by the twins at the start of 2012. Merlin and Octavia were seen skateboarding down the corridors.

“My family have lived here for over 300 years and that is my daddy,” Merlin tells viewers, pointing to an oil painting of Simon Howard.

And Octavia showed viewers around her bedroom, complete with signed photo of Olly Murs.

Flickering firelight adds to the determinedly period feel: you won’t see any tinsel over the stately home’s many fireplaces. “We just don’t use it. It’s not traditional here.”

It will be magical for children, and two children in particular: twins Merlin and Octavia Howard [they were aged five at the time of the interview: they are now 12].

“They love it,” said their father. “They thoroughly enjoy the whole thing.

“We have letters out from our children to Father Christmas. We have stockings for them, that sort of thing, which is quite special.”

Even after the house will close to the public [at the end of Sunday, December 21 in 2014], “it will still be hectic because there’s still a lot going on: Christmas parties, that sort of thing, in the evening”.

The Howard family finally get the place to themselves on Christmas Eve. “It’s very nice and beautiful,” admits Mr Howard. “We want to relax and chill out.”

What will his Christmas be like? “We have a quiet one. This year it’s just us: just my wife and my children and myself, rather than a huge family event which we tend to have to do occasionally.”

  For more about Christmas At Castle Howard in 2014, go to the website

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