Hail, Castle Howard! Hail, Vanbrugh’s noble dome
Where Yorkshire in her splendour rivals Rome!
Thus wrote John Betjeman in a poem composed for Bird’s-Eye View: The Englishman’s Home, a documentary scripted and mellifluously-narrated by Betjeman, which was first shown on BBC2 in April 1969. Many great houses are featured in the film, but a highlight for the Folly Flâneuse is Castle Howard, in North Yorkshire.
The ‘bird’s-eye view’ was from a helicopter, an Alouette 3, which the BBC had rented for three years for use by programme makers. The first flight didn’t get off to a good start: it was misty, and the intercom failed, leaving the team unable to communicate. Betjeman soon found he was not at all keen on being airborne. Ever resourceful, he passed producer Edward Mirzoeff a note which said ‘Please can we go home now?’ He remained largely desk-bound from then on.
Mirzoeff worked with editor Ted Roberts to create the films (there was a whole series of Bird’s Eye Views), which Betjeman then watched before writing the commentary, often in verse. When he needed peace and quiet to write he retreated to a glorified cupboard, used for making tea, which he called his ‘composition cell’. It was in this spartan space that the mock-heroic ode ‘Castle Howard’ was written.
In the film, the helicopter swoops over the rooftops of the mansion before lingering over the magnificent mausoleum, built to a design by Hawksmoor in the early 18th century, whilst Betjeman drawls in his inimitable sombre style:
But what are wealth and pomp of worldly state?
To yonder mausoleum soon or late,
Up those broad steps will go great Howard’s dust –
A journey no man makes before he must.
‘Castle Howard’ was first published in The Listener, 2 June 1977. It was recently republished in a Betjeman anthology, Harvest Bells: New and Uncollected Poems, edited by Kevin J. Gardner, Bloomsbury, 2019.
Thanks to the wonderful BBC iplayer you can watch Bird’s-Eye View, and hear the poem in full. Castle Howard is about 17 minutes in, but watch the whole film for glimpses of Stowe and Hadlow Castles, Stourhead, Blenheim, Portmeirion and much more https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p013ypx0/birds-eye-view-the-englishmans-home
The house and landscape at Castle Howard need little introduction, but you can read more on the website, which gives the latest information on visiting. There is also some more recent stunning aerial footage of the house and mausoleum https://www.castlehoward.co.uk
Mirzoeff’s recollections of working with Betjeman were published in Standpoint magazine. You can read the whole article here https://standpointmag.co.uk/issues/january-february-2015/text-january-february-2015-travels-with-john-betjeman-edward-mirzoeff-metro-land/