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Stately homes may be two a penny in England, but you'll have to try pretty damn hard to find one as breathtakingly stately as Castle Howard, a work of theatrical grandeur and audacity set in the rolling Howardian Hills. This is one of the world's most beautiful buildings, instantly recognisable from its starring role in the 1980s TV series Brideshead Revisited and in the 2008 film of the same name (both based on Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel of nostalgia for the English aristocracy).
When the Earl of Carlisle hired his pal Sir John Vanbrugh to design his new home in 1699, he was hiring a man who had no formal training and was best known as a playwright. Luckily, Vanbrugh hired Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had worked as Christopher Wren's clerk of works on St Paul's Cathedral. Not only did Hawksmoor have a big part to play in the design, bestowing on the house a baroque cupola modelled after St Paul's – the first on a domestic building in England – but he and Vanbrugh would later work wonders with Blenheim Palace. Today the house is still home to the Hon Nicholas Howard and his family and he can often be seen around the place.
If you can, try to visit on a weekday when it's easier to find the space to appreciate this hedonistic marriage of art, architecture, landscaping and natural beauty. As you wander about the peacock-haunted grounds, views open up over Vanbrugh's playful Temple of the Four Winds, Hawksmoor's stately mausoleum and the distant hills. Inside, you'll find the house split into two distinct styles; the east wing, which includes the Great Hall, was built in the 1700s and is extravagantly baroque in style, whereas the west wing wasn't completed until the 1800s, by which time the fashion was for much more classical palladian. The house is full of treasures – the breathtaking Great Hall with its soaring Corinthian pilasters, Pre-Raphaelite stained glass in the chapel, and corridors lined with classical antiquities.
Keep an eye out for talks and tours of the house and gardens, which run on an ad-hoc basis depending on what staff are available. There are also boat tours down at the lake, and the entrance courtyard has a good cafe, a gift shop and a farm shop filled with foodie delights from local producers – you could quite easily spend an entire day at the site.
Castle Howard is 15 miles northeast of York, off the A64. There are several organised tours from York; check with the tourist office for up-to-date schedules. Bus 181 from York goes to Malton via Castle Howard (£10 return, one hour, four times daily Monday to Saturday year-round).