Ever since I first saw that glorious series of Brideshead Revisited many years ago I have wanted to visit Castle Howard. Somehow in my mind I imagined arriving in an open-top car, with a big wicker hamper, with the music gradually increasing in crescendo as we chugged down the drive (how slow the cinematography of that series now seems), before feasting on a sumptuous picnic in sight of the house - with sunshine streaming down on our straw boaters…. Reality of course is so different. We parked and wandered through a packaged-culture visitor centre, outside which was a mini-railway shuttle bus, just as the heavens opened and the hailstones began (flaming June?) forcing us to run into the house. It set me thinking about ‘the spirit of place’, expectations of what one gets at a ‘visitor attraction’ and how it is delivered. Most visitors will also want the Brideshead experience - and that is delivered in spades: there are several rooms whose original decoration was destroyed by fire in the 1940s that are now left as the sets from the most recent film. It is a reminder of course that so many country houses are about a sense of theatre, of stage sets that one peers into from behind a rope cordon. And yet I didn’t believe in the theatre at Castle Howard. In virtually every room there were recent smiling photographs of the present occupant and his family, but surely far too many (no one can have that many photographs of themselves on display, even if they live in a castle, can they?), and there was an air of general contrivance. The interiors seem to say as much, if not more, about 1980s and 1990s interior decoration (with a country house twist) as they did about the historic objects they contained (apricot paint in the picture gallery and lampstands made c.1986?). Of course there is much to enjoy: Vanburgh’s glorious architecture, wonderful Roman statuary which I had not expected to see, and the usual country house paintings by the likes of Ricci, Lely, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Perhaps one should not be critical of somewhere that was nearly destroyed by fire and subsequently recreated in part, but in many ways it was in the grounds that the remarkable sense of place remains, and a theatre that is convincing. And luckily for us the clouds parted to reveal blue skies, and the sun shone down on the Atlas fountain. For a moment it seemed like summer had arrived, but then I didn’t have a straw boater, or a huge film-crew to capture the moment.