Day Trips from York: Selby and Castle Howard

Posted on October 10, 2012 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Solo UK and France by Train

On my last full day in York, I went to two different destinations by train in the same day, which were in opposite directions! But only 20 minutes' ride in both cases. I really enjoyed both, and the weather even cooperated beautifully.

Unfortunately the day began rather stressfully, because just as I was about to leave for the station, I realized I hadn't backed up yesterday's pictures to an external hard drive. And this is crucial - as the saying goes, if you have your data in only place, you don't have it. So I had no choice but to do my copying, which took about 15 minutes, and then half-racewalk, half-run (carrying a backpack full of camera lenses and a laptop) to the train station.

I slowed down long enough to snap this pic of the city wall - the route to the station goes under the arch to the right.

It was over a mile but I made it in 14 minutes, and boarded the 11:00am train with three minutes to spare. I was a sweaty mess by that time, which is not a nice way to start the day. But I freshened up in the train bathroom (helped greatly by a hand dryer that put out cold air!) and was more or less human again before long. I was just glad I made it! Missing that train would have meant having to skip one of the destinations I had planned for the day, and that would have been very sad.

There was some lovely Yorkshire scenery along the way, enhanced by recent flooding in the area (York's river was very high as well):

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My first destination was Selby, which is south of York. It is a small town but has a big abbey church that is considered one of the finest churches in the country. I couldn't miss that! And I'm so glad I didn't. It was absolutely beautiful, and so pleasant to visit.

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Arrival in Selby

The church was very peaceful and welcoming. There were few other visitors and several locals were having coffee and chatting and in the north transept. Photography is welcomed and you can even use a tripod, but I just couldn't bear to carry that thing on both trips - and a good thing, as it turns out - it would have slowed down my morning run to the station!

There are informative signs placed unobtrusively throughout the church, and even helpful little tools to help you see interesting features - such as a little step ladder to peer down the lepers' squint and a flashlight to peer inside a carved capital. At one point a friendly church volunteer came over and mentioned a few highlights, then said he'd "leave me to it" and went away again. He was so nice and I appreciated his information. And to top it all off, the abbey is conveniently located just a short walk from the train station. So, two big thumbs up for Selby Abbey.

The building is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic, and has that lovely white, lacy look of York Minster and Beverly Minster.

Selby Abbey

Selby Abbey: View from Southeast

Selby Abbey: South Exterior

Selby Abbey: West Facade

Selby Abbey: Nave Looking West

Selby Abbey: Norman Arches

Selby Abbey: Choir Looking East

Selby Abbey: High Altar

One particularly interesting feature is a crazy-looking Norman arch at the front of the nave. This is the result of two things: wet ground under the foundations and a very heavy tower. When the tower was built, it pushed the four central pillars down more than two feet, dragging the arch with it. You can see the difference in height in the two front pillars of the nave, under the fallen arch.

Selby Abbey: Crooked Norman Arch

Another notable feature is the "Washington Window," a small stained glass window featuring a coat of arms with red stars and stripes. These are the arms of the Washington family, whose descendent George Washington influenced the design of the American flag. After hearing my American accent, the church volunteer made sure I didn't miss it.

Selby Abbey: Washington Window

After taking my time thoroughly photographing the abbey, I headed into town to have a quick look around and find some lunch. The town wasn't much to speak of, and it didn't have any of my usual lunch favorites, but I did find some decent food.

Selby Abbey

View back to the abbey from town

Yorkshire Curd Tart
Yorkshire curd tart

First I was tempted by a bakery window featuring a Yorkshire curd tart, which is a pie crust filled with custard and raisins. Tasty, but rich - I only managed half. Then I found a tiny Subway and got a sandwich to take on the train. The lady who made my sandwich told me that the man in front of me when I came in was the vicar of Selby Abbey. Unfortunately I hadn't even noticed him.


Sandwich in hand, I walked the short distance back to the train station, and soon was headed back for York.

Castle Howard

At the York train station I bought a set of tickets for Malton, which is the closest station to Castle Howard. There are also buses from York directly to Castle Howard, but I was concerned the last one back wouldn't give me enough time, so I opted for the train and a taxi.

My taxi driver was great, a big Yorkshire lad with a strong accent who called me "loov." He zipped us quickly through the six rural miles to Castle Howard. Knowing I would stay until closing, I was concerned the visitor's center might close and I wouldn't be able to call a taxi, so I arranged for him to pick me up there at 5:45 and tipped him a bit extra for the risk he'd be taking that I'd show up.

Taxi to Castle Howard

But enough about the practicalities. Castle Howard was marvelous and I spent several happy hours exploring it. It is a beautiful house with beautiful landscaped grounds, and they've made it an excellent visitor experience as well.

First of all, they allow photography inside, which is a bit rare in stately homes for some reason. I expressed my appreciation for this to the nice lady who sold me my ticket, and she said, "Oh yes, people enjoy it." Yes they do! And it means I can share with you the beautiful interior as well.

Also, you can wander around the house at your leisure, but guides are stationed in virtually every room to give you a bit of background and answer any questions. They were all friendly and knowledgable, and added a lot to the experience.

So here's some pictures!

Main Facade

Facade and Fountain

Facade Detail

Hall of Statues
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Overlooking the Great Hall
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One of many cool things about Castle Howard is that the original family still owns it. (Many other stately homes have been sold, because the family can no longer afford to maintain the huge property.) So there are framed photos of the current generation mixed right in with the grand portraits of their ancestors, as you can see in the photo above. They only live in it sometimes, but one guide mentioned that they are having a party in two weeks, and the guests will sleep in the gorgeous old bedrooms that we were viewing like a museum! What a party that will be.

Castle Howard
Such a pretty toilet! (Modern guests don't have to use these.)

Castle Howard
One of the many excellent guides. He tried to get out of my picture, but I insisted I liked him in it, and assured him he was mostly in the shadows anyway. He then quoted this Gilbert and Sullivan song:

"You'll soon get used to her looks," said he,
"And a very nice girl you'll find her!
She may very well pass for 43
In the dusk with a light behind her."


Another highlight for me as a movie lover is that Castle Howard was used as the location for two film adaptations of the novel Brideshead Revisited, the first in 1981 starring Jeremy Irons and the second in 2008 starring Matthew Goode. For the newest one, they decorated what was an empty room just for filming, and the set has been left in place. The murals are very impressive and look properly old, even in person. There were also extensive signboards showing stills from the films and behind-the-scenes photos - great stuff.

Castle Howard
Room used as set

Castle Howard
The room's ceiling - a telltale sign of a set, as I learned on our Warner Brothers studio tour!

View from the House

It was picturesquely cloudy when I arrived (the above exterior shots were taken then), then it poured down rain while I was inside, as seen in this photo. By the time I went outside again, it was mostly sunny. Such a rare considerate gesture on the part of the English weather!

After visiting the house, I still had an hour and a half to explore the grounds. So I took my time wandering around through the gorgeous landscaped gardens, fields, and vistas, and had a wonderful time. I was completely alone and there was absolute silence except for birds singing and the distant rushing of water. The magic of landscape architecture is that just about every view has been carefully planned and arranged to be beautiful. It was like looking at a painting in every direction - a photographer's paradise. The following photos are mostly in the chronological order of my walk, and are only a small sample of the hundreds I took!

Castle Howard

West Facade with Rainbow
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View Across the Grounds

View Across the Grounds

Reflective Landscape
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Finally, I reluctantly made my way back to the entrance at closing time (5:30pm), when the light was particularly lovely.

Castle Howard
Self-portrait - look how tall and skinny I've gotten!

Castle Howard
While I was waiting for my taxi out front, a peacock wandered out through the doorway! I hadn't seen any peacocks anywhere earlier. That was a nice finish to a wonderful visit.

But the fun wasn't over yet - back in York, I took a cab to my B&B, got changed into something a little nicer, took another cab back into town, and met my friend for dinner in the Assembly Rooms as seen in the last post. So although it started a little rough, it was a great day.