Raby Castle, The North's Hidden Treasure | Living North

Raby Castle, The North's Hidden Treasure


image of Raby Castle
Built in the 14th century for the mighty dynasty of the Nevills, the great fortress of Raby Castle still stands proud and defiant – but hidden behind its walls is a modern family attraction
‘Raby is very much a family home and it feels like one – there’s a warm welcome here. It’s not a museum, it’s a place where you can really see how people lived’
Raby Castle interior

On the approach to Raby Castle, you are greeted by the medieval turrets of this magnificent fortress rising up from the trees. Landscaped ornamental gardens and lakes echo forgotten Georgian pastimes, and the herds of wild deer grazing in the parkland conjure a sense of calm splendour – preempting the sumptuous historic interiors of the castle

The thrilling, nigh on 1,000-year history of Raby Estate stretches back to its time as the Viking settlement of King Cnut, from which little but the castle’s name survives (‘Rabi’, as it was known then, originating from the Danish ‘Ra’, meaning ‘boundary’, and ‘Bi’, a settlement or dwelling). Originally moated and accessed via a drawbridge, the castle was restructured as a medieval palace fortress by the Nevills, once one of the most powerful families in the North. During their occupation, the castle was home to Cecily Nevill, the mother of two kings of England, and provided the setting for the plotting of the Rising of the North in 1569 – a significant, if unsuccessful, attempt to depose Elizabeth I and replace her on the throne with Mary, Queen of Scots. 

Having co-led the failed rebellion, Charles Nevill, 6th Earl of Westmorland, fled and Raby Castle and its lands were forfeited to the Crown. In 1626, Sir Henry Vane the Elder, Member of Parliament and important member of King Charles I’s household, purchased the estate. It has remained in the Vane family ever since, and is currently the home of the 12th Lord Barnard.

It is Lord Barnard who, over the last year, has made the decision to make Raby Castle and its surrounding parkland more accessible to the public. Now, as well as its rich history, visitors of all ages will find walking and cycling routes aplenty, an adventure playground among the estate’s vast woodlands (complete with a rustic obstacle course that includes an army-style zip wire) and the Stables Café and Shop which, with its newly-extended, fully-licensed outdoor seating area, proves the perfect spot to sip a glass of wine while watching the activity in the Coach Yard. All this, in addition to an annual programme of events that includes school holiday trails, family fun days, outdoor theatre productions and seasonal markets. 

‘Raby Castle used to be run quite traditionally, opened seasonally and in quite a limited fashion,’ explains Claire Jones, Head of Tourism and Leisure on the Estate. ‘We took the decision this time last year to open Raby up much more widely, so that there’s always something for people to enjoy, even without them having to pay for a ticket. The castle still opens seasonally, but the season has been extended, and all year round you can drop in for a cup of coffee in our café, the kids can go and play in the playground, and you can have a look in the shop – there’s no need to commit to buying a ticket for the castle or gardens. We just want to encourage more people to come in and see what Raby is all about.’ 

Behind its powerful fortifications, Raby Castle is still a family home, and an important part of its rejuvenated outreach strategy is to broaden its appeal to visitors of all ages. Now more than ever before, the estate promises to entertain, educate and enthral with a range of new attractions that appeal particularly to the younger generation. As well as the adventure playground and the free activity sheets that lead children around the rooms in the castle, the history of Raby is also brought to life through the popular children’s tours. 

‘We really wanted to reach out to families and make sure that there were lots of activities for children,’ says Claire. ‘The children’s tours are popular because the castle is fantastic but it needs a different level of engagement if you’re five years old compared to if you’re 50. One of our guides, Mike, dresses up as a footman and takes the children on a really engaging tour, which ends with them being knighted! They love it. We’ve also partnered with a local forest school, and they’ve been running some fantastic events for us. We’ve got Zog’s Dragon School coming up, for example, which will be brilliant. It’s a change for Raby because we didn’t used to hold events specifically aimed at children, and they’ve gone down really well. 

‘Families can really make a full day of their visit now. We see lots of families go on a tour of the castle in the morning, come down to the café for lunch, and then head off to the adventure playground in the afternoon. Apart from anything, kids have got 200 acres around the castle that they can just run around in and blow off a bit of energy.’ 

The family appeal continues with Raby Castle’s summer outdoor theatre programme which, this year, will see David Walliams’ much-loved story Gangster Granny reimagined for the stage, as well as the charmingly chaotic thespians-on-wheels, Handlebards, returning with some sensational Shakespeare, and a high-spirited production of Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners, Private Lives. All this set within the walled gardens, against the magnificent backdrop of Raby Castle. 

‘The outdoor theatre is in the East Garden and the views of the castle are just tremendous,’ says Claire. ‘A lot of walled gardens are hidden, whereas Raby is really unique in that it’s on a south-facing slope, so on a sunny night (which, fingers crossed, we’ll get!) you can see right out over the walls towards the castle. And we’ll have our pop-up Champagne tents and picnics, so it really is an idyllic setting.’

The 200 acres of rolling parkland, originally landscaped in the mid-18th century, are as much a part of the attraction of Raby Estate as its castle. Now registered as a park and garden of special interest, and home to wild herds of red and fallow deer, within the grounds’ verdant splendour you’ll find unique period structures: including a bath house, follies, a temple, an ice house, and even a model farm. The historic routes to each of these structures, as well as the deliberate planting of commemorative trees, meticulously-designed viewpoints and ancient horticultural features, all provide a fascinating insight into how the estate was used in the past. 

Part of Raby Castle’s outdoor attraction even includes an historic cricket pitch – the site of the first officially recorded game of cricket ever played in Durham back in 1751, and one of the earliest recorded cricket games in the world, contested by the Duke of Northumberland XI and Lord Barnard XI.

‘The cricket pitch is something that the family are incredibly proud of,’ says Claire. ‘We were lucky enough to host the Cricket World Cup Trophy a few weeks ago on its tour of the UK, and it was fantastic for it to come to such an historic ground. The Raby Cricket Club play regularly, and so it really creates that quintessentially English scene: cricketers in their whites playing in front of a historic building. It’s fantastic.’

While Raby Castle has been eager to bring itself into modernity with the development of its visitor attractions, its fascinating history remains at the core of the estate’s appeal. A significant set of 18th and 19th century coaches and carriages reside in the Coach House and Stables – designed by prolific Georgian architect John Carr – and inside the castle walls, visitors can see sumptuous Medieval, Regency and Victorian interiors, lavishly decorated with an impressive collection of British and European art, textiles and furnishings that date from the 17th to the 20th century. Porcelain and sculpture, ranging from Victorian copper cooking utensils to The Raby Tapestry on the floor of the Barons’ Hall, are showcased with pride, and family portraits, 18th and 19th century sporting paintings and important pieces, such as ‘The Circumcision of Christ’ and ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ by Luca Giodano, can also be admired as you wander through the castle’s halls. 

‘All of the art here is really special,’ says Julie Biddlecombe-Brown, Raby Castle’s Curator. ‘Look out for the portraits of the people who have lived here – the history and magnificence of Raby Castle is all down to them and their vision for how it has developed over the years. The fact that you can come face-to-face with them in the portrait collection is spectacular.’

‘The castle has only changed hands once in 900 years,’ Claire says. ‘There’s nothing contrived about Raby whatsoever; everything here tells the story of the Vane family, and the collections are intact. We often run behind-the-scenes tours, where people get to see those areas of the castle that aren’t usually open to the public. It’s like a time capsule. For one particular generation of the family, everything is still in place – you open a wardrobe and the clothes are still hanging there! Raby really offers visitors that snapshot into a forgotten time.

‘More than anything, Raby is very much a family home and it feels like one – there’s a warm welcome here. It’s not a museum, it’s a place where you can really see how people lived, and still live, and I think that makes for a really positive experience. It’s one of those places, whether you spend time in the park, the gardens or the castle, where you feel truly privileged to have been.’

One of the finest and best-preserved medieval castles in the North, with a thriving cultural offer that only promises to improve with time, Raby Castle is truly a hidden treasure – with a wealth of secrets, stories and spectacles just waiting to be discovered.  


To learn more about Raby Castle, and for details of their full summer events programme, visit www.raby.co.uk

Published in: August 2019

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