Hot Seat: the Harrogate man with ambitious plans for Castle Howard
Last updated Sep 30, 2022
Rod Findlay with one of his three cockapoos, Sundance, in front of Castle Howard.

Harrogate man Rod Findlay takes a minute out of each day to take stock of where he is — working with one of the best views of one of Britain’s finest stately homes, Castle Howard.

Breathtaking as the estate is, with more than 200 listed buildings and monuments set over around 8,800 acres, there is much to do to ensure Castle Howard retains its prestigious reputation for generations to come.

The estate, 15 miles north of York, has been home to the Howard family for 300 years and is rich in history. The Great Fire of 1940 devastated the building decades ago and, more recently, covid has proved hugely disruptive.

Castle Howard’s worldwide reputation, enhanced by its many screen appearances in films such as Brideshead Revisited, meant it relied heavily on international visitors, mainly from China, so covid restrictions hit visitor numbers dramatically.

With every cloud comes a silver lining, though. Covid also made people want to seek out local places of beauty they had previously taken for granted, and the challenge now is to capitalise on that.

Mr Findlay started his career in law before moving into leadership roles in sports such as rugby league, golf and cycling. His current role as chief operating officer and company secretary at Castle Howard presents numerous challenges. He said:

Rod Findlay enjoys nothing more than a walk with his dogs.

“It’s really varied. You know, one day you are talking about Santa Claus and the next day you are talking about the long-term strategic vision for Castle Howard.

“That is interesting to me. We have a really ambitious plan to turn the house around. In the last few years we have done some work to look at the heritage deficit here.

“To look at Castle Howard, it’s a beautiful house but it needs investment.

“The mausoleum on the outskirts of the estate needs £18 million, the house needs £50 million, the gatehouse needs £15 million.

“It is a 300-year-old house so it needs continual investment. This is a long-term vision and requires a major change in our approach as we won’t get that money by putting up the price of scones.”

More than a house

Profit from the estate is invested in areas such as reports, conservation and restoration.

Castle Howard posted a loss of £2.1 million in its 2020 financial year, but recorded a profit the following year of £5.7 million.

A major reason for that quick turnaround was £7.5 million in upwards property revaluation on Castle Howard’s investment property portfolio, which is made up of the estate, residential accommodation and the holiday park.

So if an opportunity arose to expand its property portfolio in areas identified for development in the Ryedale Local Plan, Castle Howard would be keen to get involved.

The estate has bid to develop four areas of its 8,800 acres, which is made up largely of farmland and woodland.

There is, Mr Findlay says, a severe need for housing in the area surrounding the estate:

“We have a waiting list to get into our properties of 180 people. So it’s clear there are a lot of people who want to live and work in the area but they can’t find those opportunities.

“So if we increase the housing stock there’s another benefit as we can invest that money back into the estate, which also benefits the local economy.

“The first job is to get these properties included in the local plan, as it is currently listed as farmland. Then we can start work with a developer to bring them to life.

“We are keen to keep some control over the look and feel of these properties while the developments need to be responsible and sustainable.”

Can Harrogate improve its events?

Mr Findlay, who is originally from Newcastle, moved to Harrogate in 2014.

He has always enjoyed living in the town but the open spaces of Valley Gardens, Crimple Valley and the Stray enhanced his appreciation during covid lockdowns.

Castle Howard is embracing new kinds of events.

Mr Findlay believes the town should embrace more larger events. He said:

“I do think those large events will drive people.

“We certainly have seen that at Castle Howard where, we have attracted visitors we perhaps otherwise wouldn’t get with events like Cafe Mambo, Duran Duran and the Chemical Brothers.

“This attracts a demographic we’re not necessarily seeing. Harrogate shouldn’t shy away from those events, even if the town had a mixed experience like with the UCI.

“People should remember the positive benefits of those large scale events and I feel we should be using our incredible public spaces to that end all year round, weather depending.”

What next for Castle Howard?

Building work began at Castle Howard in 1699 but it took more than 100 years to complete, spanning the lives of three earls.

The estate has seen a lot in that time. While Castle Howard works well as a visitor attraction with around 250,000 expected annually, it’s clear the leadership will not rest on its laurels.

Mr Findlay and his team work for the Howard family, specifically Nicholas Howard and Victoria Barnsley, who are heavily involved in the business and its direction. He said:

“The family wants to make sure this is a place welcoming visitors for many years to come. It’s that long term vision which is important, we are talking about developments we will never see.”

Christmas is coming to Castle Howard.

There are lots of reasons to visit Castle Howard this year with Stately Superstitions: Eerie Encounters at the Castle from October 21 to 31 and Into the Woods: A Fairytale Christmas from November 12 to January 2.

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