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I visited Raby Castle for the first time in July this year. As is often the case when an attraction is on your doorstep, you don't visit until guests arrive who need to be entertained, (although I suppose Durham can boast an embarrassment of riches for visitors so perhaps it's not surprising that it took so long for me to get around to Raby). Raby is in Staindrop, near Darlington, County Durham and will be a familiar site to many in the North. It's a picture postcard site, herds of deer roaming freely in the grounds to a dramatic castle backdrop. This was about all I knew of it until recently.
The site has a long history and is first mentioned in the reign of King Cnut (Canute II). The castle is a grade 1 listed building and dates from mediaeval Britain. It was built by the Neville family, the Neville's were Lords of Raby from the early thirteenth century. It has been home to Lord Barnard's family since 1626. Hearing about the history of Raby castle made a lot of things about Durham click into place for me, although I've lived here for many years, there were lots of 'ah' moments as amongst other things, place and street names began to make sense.
We visited by car, drove up to the payment hut and presented a couple of 2 for 1 vouchers found on the thisisdurham website, (a website well worth checking out before visiting anywhere in Durham). You can buy tickets for the castle, park and gardens, or just for the park and gardens.
~First, A Cup of Tea~
There is a children's adventure playground near the entrance, which we decided to leave until the end of our visit and we headed first, as is always the case with certain relatives of mine, to the teashop. The tea rooms are located in the old stables, with eating booths in what were once stalls with horse troughs at the end, (obviously these are now painted over and don't contain any hay). Between five of us we partook of sandwiches, quiche and chips, teas and biscuits. The sandwiches were on very thick cut bread, the chips were nice and in general the food was fine. The prices were a little more than they could have been perhaps, without being extortionate.
I was more impressed by some of the gift shop prices. (My family always do things back to front - cafe and gift shop before actually going to see the attraction). A selection of items including jigsaws, mugs and stationery were all priced at £1 each. There were several sale items in the gift shop and we purchased a handful of items between us.
We then took a wander around the stables to see the exhibition of various carts, old fire engines, tack room and photographs. Just across from the stables are the gardens. The first thing to stand out here for me were the impressive shaped Yew hedges. There are various ornamental features, in these rows of walled gardens which lead at the end to more practical fruit growing plots. There were lots of colourful butterflies and general buzzery going on on the day of our visit. The gardens slope down with the view across the grounds to the castle being quite special.
Although they are, just, accessible, the garden's gravel paths are hard going for wheelchair users. I notice the website says "strong companions are advisable." I'll say.
~On To the Castle~
It's a bit of a stroll down to the castle from the garden, but a pleasant one - obviously if you've got the weather. This is the parkland area, the only place where dogs are allowed on site. It's where the red and fallow deer roam, there are ponds and other wildlife. We didn't have time to take in much of this area, if I visited again I would make more time for this bit, maybe take a picnic. I think the best part of a day could probably be taken to appreciate the whole site.
At the entrance to the castle is a ticket booth, you can pay a top up fee here if you haven't paid the full price at the gate. I was surprised at the ticket arrangements, but I understand it could be a good way for the site to make extra money, firstly by allowing those who've visited the castle before simply to take a stroll around the grounds, gardens and see the deer without having to pay the full entry price. Also it may take longer than expected to get around, so visitors could choose to leave the castle viewing until another day. Time was getting on when we got there, and we were a bit rushed by the time we looked at the last few rooms.
The member of staff at the gate explained that there were a few steps on the ground floor area, which our family member was able to manage, but there are a lot of steps to see the upstairs. There was at least a film downstairs which showed the inaccessible parts. No photographs are allowed to be taken inside. You can take part in a guided tour of the castle or take the visit at your own pace which is what we did. In any case, there were staff members in every room who volunteered plenty of information and answered any questions we had. The staff we spoke to seemed to take quite a pride in their work and were very pleasant and professional.
It's certainly a very opulent place, huge rooms with impressive chandeliers and antique furniture and paintings. The vaulted entrance hall was very grand, bizarre really that a family would live somewhere like this, not sure whether to be impressed or disgusted at the grandeur when taken in it's context, probably a bit of both. It tends to be the quirkier things that interest me though; I was fascinated, if not a little repulsed by a certain rug which had been fashioned from the remains of a much loved spaniel. My daughter reached across to stroke it but was quickly cautioned, the two hundred years old nose looked worn enough. In those days the taxidermy of pets wasn't unusual among the privileged classes, but I did find something creepy in the thought that the little dog had once ran around these rooms and still looked quite life like on display all these years later. The guide knew it's name and the name of the woman who's pet it had been, it really brought them to life for me, more than anything else I saw on display.
I asked the guide if some the rooms were ever used and apparently Lord Barnard does still entertain private parties in such grand rooms as The Octagon Drawing Room. How the one per cent live, eh? There's also a private chapel in the house, which is used for family ceremonies, weddings and so on. Alongside bedrooms upstairs was the Baron's Hall, apparently once a meeting place for over 700 knights who plotted the overthrow of Elizabeth I in the unsuccessful Northern Rebellion. There were lots of interesting details about the building, many of which I no doubt lacked the time to appreciate, but it was an educational visit and I would consider another visit at some point in the future.
It was around 4.30 by the time we left the castle and we were ready to spend twenty minutes or so at the woodland adventure playground as promised to my little one. Unfortunately as the sky darkened hordes of horrid little flies attacked and we didn't dare risk a trip into the woods, (the flies were really quite persistent and swarmed over the car doors and mirrors), so, there ended our day.
In conclusion I would recommend Raby Castle for anyone interested in history, architecture and gardens, or just as a picturesque venue for a stroll on a nice day.
Further Details (from the website):
Castle, Park & Gardens: Adult £10.00. Child (5-15) £4.50, Over 60 & Student £9.00, Family Ticket (up to 2 adults and 3 children) £27.00.
Park and Gardens: Adult £6.00 Child £2.50,Over 60 & Student £5.00 Family Ticket £15.00
Under 5s: free.
Park and Gardens: 11.00 to 17.30
Castle: 13.00 to 16.30
Raby Castle is open to visitors on the Easter weekend, from May until the end of September, and during December, check the website for exact dates and times, (www.rabycastle.com). there are various events during the year such as outdoor theatre, vehicle rallies and flower shows so it's advisable to check the website or telephone before visiting.
Raby Castle, Staindrop, Darlington, Co. Durham, DL2 3AH Tel: 01833 660202