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Literary dreams at last revisited
Antique Passage: Featuring sculptures of the Roman period gathered by the 4th Earl of Carlisle on his many visits to Rome. Picture: Ross Lewis

I have been here before.

Charles Ryder utters this line, drawing readers into one of English literature's greatest 20th-century works, Brideshead Revisited.

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But the place that enlightened and tormented Evelyn Waugh's fictional character existed only in my imagination as a 15-year-old student growing up in WA.

The magnificent UK mansion that was the foundation of the saga had a profound influence on the impressionable teen, just as it did on the scholarly Ryder in Waugh's most famous prose.

Not only did the novel teach a raw Perth youngster and future writer how to tell a story, the saga of Ryder, his relationship with the aristocratic and fiercely Catholic Marchmain family and their stately home also dealt with myriad issues swirling in the mind of an emerging adult who, like the central figure in the tale, was finding his place in a new world.

There is no evidence Waugh had visited Castle Howard in Yorkshire, though he wrote his magnum opus while recovering nearby from a World War II parachuting accident in 1944. Indeed, Waugh set Brideshead in Wiltshire.

Yet for the modern fans of the story the beautiful estate and its baroque-themed building 24km north of York are the physical incarnations of Brideshead because the venue was the stage for the 1981 TV miniseries and the 2008 motion picture based on the book.

Chapters cannot be re-read without visions of the 313-year-old home flashing to mind.

Castle Howard: Construction started in 1699 but it took more than 100 years for the building to be completed. It now attracts 200,000 visitors a year and remains the home of one of the descendants from original owner, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle. Picture: Ross Lewis

So to visit Castle Howard this northern summer was something of a pilgrimage for a 42-year-old still touched by those childhood memories of Waugh's writings. It was also an opportunity to reconsider the inner discussions about religion, love, matriarchal dominance, the divide of the middle and upper classes and dysfunctional families that bothered the young reader in the early 1980s, as it did Ryder five decades earlier.

During the recent visit there were attempts to recreate the scenes in which Ryder travels to Brideshead to see his ill friend from Oxford, Lord Sebastian Flyte, in 1923. Malton train station is expectedly far more modern than the Midland-line depot depicted in the series and the mode of transport provided by Lady Julia Flyte to take Ryder to the mansion was far more salubrious than the almost-new taxi used on a golden late-August afternoon.

The journey features exquisite English countryside filled by green fields and stone houses just as Ryder would have enjoyed. Along the narrow hedge-lined roads there is also the recollection of one of the lines in the book when Ryder lit and passed a cigarette to Lady Flyte, his friend's recently introduced sister who would later be his lover, with the wonderful narrative that he could detect a "thin bat-squeak of sexuality".

But Castle Howard proves to be more than just a trip down memory lane.

The 400ha estate, created at the request of the Third Earl of Carlisle in 1699, has splendour well beyond what featured on screen. And it is enjoyed by 200,000 visitors a year.

The heritage-listed house, which is still a family home for one of the earl's descendants, Simon Howard, has 145 rooms and many are open to the public throughout the year.

It took untried builder Sir John Vanbrugh a decade to oversee construction of much of the house by stone and hard labour - the completed version wasn't achieved for almost 100 years - but the result is an imposing creation with cherubs, gargoyles, urns and statues as beautiful decoration.

Inside is a living museum highlighted by a bevy of antiques, ornaments and paintings. The third, fourth and fifth earls of Carlisle were regular travellers to the continent and there is a strong Italian influence on the Castle Howard collection. Every room opens a door through time, whether it be the furniture of the Turquoise Dining Room, sculptures in the exquisite Antique Passage or the grandeur of the Long Gallery.

The centrepiece of the house is the Great Hall and it was the scene of much action in the two productions of Brideshead Revisited. It was where Ryder, who was disparagingly referred to later in the story as a "painter from Paddington", appeased the Marchmain family with his own art. But Ryder's work could never match the beauty of the hall, which is delightfully illuminated by natural light.

Waugh mentioned Brideshead's dome but it was rare for British homes to feature such architecture in the 18th and 19th century. And Waugh, if he had seen Castle Howard, would not have been able to enjoy the masterpiece of Vanbrugh's design because the dome was destroyed by fire in 1940. If the home wasn't used as a wartime refuge for girls, much of the house and many more of the antiques would have burnt. An anecdote in The Yorkshire Post which features in one of the rooms refers to items being tossed from windows to the safety of the young women.

The revelation of the destruction jolts visitors back to the reality that Castle Howard was not Brideshead because the dome that Ryder recalled on his return to the house as a soldier during World War II would not have been there.

Not only did the distinctive roof disappear but so did the ceiling decoration of the zodiac, the four elements and Apollo, painted by Venetian artist Antonio Pellegrini between 1709 and 1712.

However, the current owner's father, George Howard, was determined to rebuild and in 1960 the complex dome was restored. So, too, the painting, which was reproduced by Canadian Scott Medd working off the sole existing black-and-white photograph.

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Ironically, some rooms remained unrepaired until the production company behind the Brideshead Revisited motion picture restored them as sets for the movie. Another incongruity between the book and its visual reproductions is the chapel at the back of the house.

Although the setting for Ryder's initial curiosity about the Catholic Church, the Castle Howard facility is actually an Anglican place of worship still used today.

The chapel's stained- glass windows allow light from above to filter through to produce a vision that looks as if it came from heaven. It was an awesome sight, even for Protestants like Ryder and an agnostic from Down Under. While both could question the faith, they could only admire its monument.

As much as the house and contents are inspiring, the grounds of Castle Howard are mesmerising.

It is easy to see how Ryder could have been engrossed in deep conversations about life and love during long walks with members of the Marchmain family.

The Atlas fountain in front of the house lures any visitor while the grass path to the gorgeous Temple of the Four Winds, a journey lined by thought-provoking statues, one of the estate's great lakes and the enchanting Ray Wood takes the traveller into a time warp.

So did Castle Howard provide any answers for the lad that still exists within the now middle-aged devotee? It couldn't but it did give an insight into what Ryder might have experienced and a deeper appreciation of the character's aspiration to belong to such an aristocratic family - and such an imposing home.

For one disciple of the story it allowed a boyhood dream to be realised. And as the item is scrubbed off the list of things to do before departing this planet there is the satisfaction of being able to say, Brideshead visited.

FACT FILE


• Castle Howard is 24km north of York and 7km west of Malton. It's open from March 23 to December 16 but not in the low season, which is from November 5 to November 23. The estate can be closed at weekends for private functions. Visiting times are from 10am-4pm (low season), 10am-5.30pm (high season).

• The cost is $19 for full entry to estate and house.

• Journey: Buses run from York and Malton. Taxis are available from Malton train station. By car, it's just off the A64 motorway.