Having lived in and around York for a good five years now, it’s somewhat surprising that I’d never properly visited Castle Howard or really looked into what it had to offer. However, being in the area thanks to a recent stay at the beautiful Old Forge Sand Hutton’s The Garden Shed (blog post coming soon!) meant that now felt the right time to finally explore the historic and world-famous Castle Howard grounds… power-chair and all.
Having boarded the convenient yet somewhat unreliable CastleLine bus from our accommodation and enjoyed a scenic ride into the North Yorkshire countryside, we arrived at the Castle Howard entrance and headed straight inside to collect our tickets. Although even the entryway to the estate was visually stunning, it was here we were met with our first challenge: the courtyard, lined with… brace yourself… cobbles. Cobbles everywhere. Admittedly some cobbles down the centre of the courtyard were ‘less-cobbly’ than the rest, but even so, taking this route was still a bone-shakingly uncomfortable beginning to the day, and I was already having premonitions of Janice the power-chair having one of her infamous meltdowns in protest.
However, once we’d successfully navigated the cobbles of doom, I’m pleased to report that the expanse of pathways opening up around the grounds and leading up to the beautiful stately home were flat, wide and very easy to navigate. As a power-chair user, the sometimes sloping hills and dips were no issue for me, however I’d err caution to those self-propelling or being pushed by others: some of those uphill inclines looked like they could make for a tough journey. It’s also worth noting here, though, that there is an operating train system to ferry visitors to different areas of the grounds: this could well be a useful option for ambulatory or transit wheelchair users.
We enjoyed an initial scoot around past the majestic house itself (having a good nosey at some filming that was going on inside), and around the beautiful green outdoor space, with plenty of sights to appreciate. Tours operated by Castle Howard are available to join free of charge, which would be ideal for those looking to learn even more about the history of the grounds, however on this occasion we opted to explore things for ourselves, at our own pace.
As food is always at the forefront of our minds and very much defines who we are as people, our next port of call was to head down to the riverside and The Boathouse Café. This is a gorgeously located establishment with indoor and outdoor seats overlooking the river, with an incredible children’s adventure playground just to the right of it. The weather wasn’t particularly on our side at this point, however with the indoor space and counter-service café itself being very tight and difficult to navigate space-wise, especially during this peak lunchtime slot, we opted for one of many free benches outside instead.
We were pleasantly surprised with the low prices of the quick and easy lunches on offer: sandwiches, soup, wraps, jacket potatoes, children’s packed lunchboxes and more. Their allergy book was decipherable (which is always a plus, right?) and although there was only one safe choice for me, I wasn’t particularly het up about it. What was disappointing, however, was the bizarre service that seemed to be going on by the staff. Even though we were giving them the benefit of the doubt – the two staff were both young and it may well have been that they were training – there was an almost comical lack of urgency in the way they were serving customers, leading to ever-increasing delays. Despite the rapidly expanding queue of guests, relaxed would be a generous word for the oblivious way they were ambling about. I was genuinely concerned that my best pal Izzy, a former superhuman waitress herself, was going to actually combust in anguish as our heads whipped back and forth between them and the antsy queue of customers like it was the final day of Wimbledon.
That said, the staff were polite and attentive, even whilst informing me that my one safe food option had sold out and asking me to somehow manoeuvre around the small space packed with people and fetch my own last-resort crisps (which were in closer proximity to them) to scan. I mean, I did almost take out two small children in the process, but at least we got there in the end. And they do get bonus points for having soya milk, which meant that after the debacle, I could still enjoy a well-earned cup of tea.
Lunch consumed, off we went again to continue our adventures. We enjoyed riverside walkways and paths that were easy to navigate, however I was disappointed to discover that a good deal of the grounds’ features were inaccessible for wheelchairs. Not one to be easily defeated, I decided Janice the power-chair was in fact capable of navigating up the steep-ish Polar Bear Walk, towards the Ray Wood. Reader, I was mistaken.
Fortunately, my situation meant that once I’d admitted defeat in climbing this grassy hill in Janice the power-chair, I could hop out and slowly walk alongside her, navigating up the trickier parts of the hill, but it’s not certainly something I would recommend doing. I was so broken by the time I reached the top that I felt at the very least I deserved a flagpole to stick into the ground to mark this momentous occasion. With that not being the case, and with the neighbouring woods also being inaccessible, we simply turned around and headed back down again.
It was a shame not to be able to enjoy this surrounding woodland, which form such an iconic part of the grounds and which I’ve seen such stunning images of online, however our next discovery of the Walled Garden thankfully made up for this. Although tricky to enter, through doorways with those frustrating not-quite-dropped-curb-type ledges that aren’t easy for mobility aids to tackle, the grassy gardens themselves were well-kept and surprisingly easy to manoeuvre around.
We enjoyed making our way up and down the carefully curated displays of the Rose Gardens, dedicated to the memory of Lady Cecilia Howard, marvelling at what could only be described as a haven for lifestyle blogger photos. Spending a good hour or so sat enjoying the tranquillity of the Rose Gardens in the sunshine (for unfathomable reasons, talking about Area 51 conspiracy theories, why are we like this?) was definitely one of my favourite parts of the day.
Once we were suitably relaxed and renewed, we headed back towards the central cobbled courtyard and rattled our way across to the gift and farm shop. We’re both suckers for a good farm shop, and even surrounded by packed aisles of goodies, I found these indoor establishments relatively easy to drive around. After picking up some treats and a spontaneous quiche for Izzy, we headed off for yet another tea break, thus cementing our transition into middle-aged precious ladies of culture.
The Courtyard Café, our final stop of the day, was once again wheelchair-friendly within both the indoor and outdoor seating, and a gently sloped ramp saw us able to take a gorgeously-located table outdoors, looking over the courtyard in the prime spot for people watching and reflecting on the day’s adventures.
So, would I recommend Castle Howard for fellow wheelchair users? I’m rather on the fence about this one. If you’re simply looking for a nice trip outdoors to enjoy with family or friends, it may well be that there are other more inclusive and cost-effective venues for you to enjoy.
If, however, you have a specific interest in the history of the estate or would like to accompany others to Castle Howard, you’ll still find plenty to appreciate and enjoy, and I do think it’s worth visiting these gorgeous gardens at least once. Personally, even despite the issues I faced, I’d still be keen to come back and visit again: I’d love to see how the gorgeous scenery looked in the Autumn and Winter months too.
My advice would be to come prepared in knowing that there may be some things you have to miss, but that the stunning views will make it worthwhile regardless. And if you can survive the cobbles, a well-deserved afternoon tea in the gorgeous surroundings is an absolute necessity.