You are here: Home > Visit Us > The Gardens > The Woodland Garden > Discovering Ray Wood
Translate Website:

Discovering Ray Wood

Ray Wood's Collection Manager, Jonathan Burton, takes a fresh look at the woods history and splendour...


For three hundred years Ray Wood, situated immediately east of Castle Howard, has changed its form and purpose, from ancient woodland to botanical collection. If rusticated ten foot rocks and caves spilling water through a landscape of great Italian sculpture sound exciting then transport yourself back to Ray Wood in the early 18th century. At that time the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, Nicholas Hawksmoor and other landscape architects were plotting the woodland’s labyrinthine layout. In a recent paper, Sally Jeffery has highlighted beautiful sketches of such ideas attributed to Hawksmoor in order to discuss Ray Wood’s early and ambitious design.

Spending years working in Ray Wood with the Yorkshire Arboretum volunteers has made me well aware that you will never know all the secrets that the woodland holds. Reading Jeffery’s paper has highlighted to me that Apollo on his ornately carved plinth, currently on the Lime Walk alongside the walled garden, used to stand proudly where the reservoir now is. Guests visiting in the early 18th century reported a series of cascades and pools descending the North West woodland slope to a final pool complete with a fountain and statue of Neptune or Triton. Even the current reservoir’s plinth was likely repurposed by the Fifth Earl of Carlisle, having previously supported a magnificent gilt vase whose whereabouts are now unknown. In time, walls, statues and waterworks have all been removed; part of Ray Wood’s changing nature that continues to this day.

Near the erstwhile location of the final pools the volunteer team have renovated Ray Wood’s NW entrance, closest to the boat house. During early spring this is an ideal route to enter the woodland to view the camellia collection winding up the hill, or to be struck by the scale and beauty of some original Pieris ‘Forest Flame´ draped in miniature translucent white flowers. Elsewhere in the woodland our priorities are returning to the next phase of thinning the canopy trees to increase the light levels in the understory. This light will allow the collection plants and ground flora to thrive, conserving rare and unusual plants for the future. As you visit, take time to observe the difference in bird song, and on warm days butterflies on the wing, in the sunlit glades. Taking a spring walk will now allow you to see, hear, and even feel the benefits of the thinning in the woodland garden.

During spring as the buds break, Ray Wood is a site for a rejuvenating walk to bid farewell to the long frosty nights of winter. As the warmth returns, the sunlight streams through the layers of new foliage whose translucent forms glow with hues of red through to spring green. Spectacular blooms begin to arrive early on rhododendrons, and will usually continue to a crescendo from late April to mid-May. In 2018 blooms entered into RHS Harlow Carr’s Rhododendron Show won the show overall and their Centenary Cup! In synchrony, ferns unfurl their fronds and our handkerchief trees show just why explorers spent years hunting these spectacular trees. It’s well worth a visit.