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'Where the Wild Things Are' - Secrets of Ray Wood
Chris Ridgway
By Dr Chris Ridgway  //  Fri 10th April 2020
Curatorial, History, Collection, Estate
Ray Wood is one of Castle Howard’s hidden glories. An ancient woodland that was first recorded in the Domesday Book, it has played host to a number of adventures in past centuries. Today it still retains an air of mystery as Dr Ridgway explains.

One of the strangest stories associated with Castle Howard dates from 1709 when a Dutch painter was staying at the house. Jacob Weyerman had been commissioned to produce a series of flower paintings for the interiors of the Earl of Carlisle’s new home, and in his memoirs he recalled how late one afternoon he was returning to the house through Ray Wood.

Known as something of an eccentric, Weyerman described this ancient wooded hilltop to the east of the house as a ‘mountain’, but he also accurately remarked on its mature beech trees and cedars, as well as noting that the wood was populated by squirrels ‘of thousands of colours’. By the light of the moon he spotted a strange animal amongst the trees, he loaded his gun and fired at it. On approaching the creature, which was only wounded, it jumped up to attack him. There was a fierce struggle as the animal tore at Weyerman’s clothes and ripped his wig; eventually he stunned the creature and killed it with a dagger. He picked up the carcass and staggered out of the wood where he met Lord Carlisle. On showing him the creature the Earl exclaimed it was a wild forest cat, considered so dangerous that Weyerman might easily have been killed by it. Not longer afterwards the artist left Yorkshire, but travelling through the capital he claimed to have seen similar specimens of ‘this British tiger’ at the Tower of London.

What is so strange about this story is that only a few years earlier as the 3rd Earl left London to begin his great building project in Yorkshire he and his wife were the subject of some witty verses at the Kit Cat Club.

                                                                             At once the Sun and Carlisle took their way,
                                                                              To warm the frozen north, and kindle day;
                                                                            The flowers to both their glad creation owed,
                                                                           Their virtues he, their beauties she bestowed.

This image of Carlisle as a sun-god who, with his wife, ushers in the dawn of a golden age in the frozen north may have sat comfortably in the urbane milieu of a London social club, but clearly the reality in Yorkshire was rather different. The idea that the couple were in some way civilising and taming the wild north is at odds with Weyerman’s adventure in Ray Wood just a few years later. The landscape remained wild, and even accounting for the painter’s sense of exaggeration Ray Wood was filled with feral creatures. The squirrels of many colours were of course red squirrels, now sadly displaced by their grey competitors, which were introduced from abroad in the late 19th century. The wild cat was in all likelihood the European wild cat, known as felis silvestris, a creature that was once found all over Britain but which today is confined the Scottish Highlands. Looking similar to a domestic tabby cat, but slightly larger, it has stripes, which may be why Weyerman called his creature a ‘British tiger’.

 

Over the years as Castle Howard took shape, and the 3rd Earl also turned his attention to designing the surrounding landscape, it could be said that he was indeed taming this corner of Yorkshire. But Ray Wood was not without other dangers, although these were of an imaginary and poetic kind. In 1732 the 3rd Earl’s daughter composed a poem in memory of her father and his building achievements, and invented a fable as to the origins of Ray Wood. In ancient times it was home to Diana, goddess of hunting and chastity, and populated with her followers. One day the maidens were attacked by a band of hunters and they cried out to Diana for help. She intervened and turned them into trees thereby preserving their chastity, and giving the wood a mythical origin. Later in the century the 5th Earl playfully subverted this story in his own verses on the pedestal at the entrance to the wood, which now hosted two temples on the eastern side, one dedicated to Diana and one to Venus. Ray Wood was therefore shared by these deities and became contested ground between chastity and love. After dark Venus ruled the wood, which was too dangerous for maidens to enter for fear they would be deceived by ‘perfidious vows’ made by amorous youths.