Memories – Exploring Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle

I’m a big history fan and love to visit castles, cathedrals and old abbeys, whether ruins or fully restored. Back in 2001, during my visit to England, including stays in London and Manchester, I stopped overnight in Redditch where a good friend of mine lived. I’d spent a week in Essex with some other friends, going into London every day while my friend worked. On the weekend, they drove me up to Redditch for the next leg of my journey.

It was really raining when we got up and loaded the car this morning. The drive to Redditch took about 2 and a half hours plus a bit of time to find CJ’s place. Time to say goodbye! I really enjoyed my week I London and my visit with Dave and Nikki a lot!

I got checked into the B&B where the room turned out to be quite pleasant overall. A large room with a double bed and a single bed, en suite for £50 including breakfast. We dropped the luggage and headed off down the road to Warwick which, surprisingly we found without any trouble. Yes he’s been there before but that really means nothing. CJ’s sense of direction didn’t come out of the box in one piece I don’t think!

A brief history of Warwick Castle: William the Conqueror built a motte and bailey fort in 1068 overlooking the Avon River with a timber stockade. The castellan family became the Earls of Warwick and the castle passed through many generations of the family. The towers began to be built in the 14th C during the dynasty of the Beauchamp family and held fast until the middle of the 15th C when the Neville Family married into the title. Richard Neville was better known as Warwick the Kingmaker for his ability to back the right monarchs during the Wars of the Roses. The Castle was expanded and improved as the centuries went on with the grounds being landscaped in the 18th C. by Capability Brown. Most of the current State Rooms are 18th C. with restoration after a fire in the Victorian years. The Taussaud’s Group bought the Castle in 1978 and several impressive exhibitions featuring their famous wax figures have opened since then. The website is very good and contains a lot of history both of the Castle and of the inhabitants.

We didn’t have too much trouble finding the Castle, there are clear signs leading through the streets and we found a space in the car park guided by one of the attendants.  We bought our tickets but the first order of business was a film for Chris and lunch for the pair of us in order to be property fortified to scale the… er… fortifications! The tickets are bought at the old stables buildings which also house the toilets, a cafe and a shop. On the way from the entrance, we saw a notice on the green just outside the castle gates promising an exhibit at 1:30 on “Deadly  Skills’! You just can’t argue with Deadly Skills!

That means we have an hour. We bought a pre-made sandwich in the cafeteria which is in a vaulted 14th C undercroft, nothing special there. The cooked food might have been better, I don’t know. Chris wanted to start with the Ghost Tower which was the next tower along and is one of the oldest still standing parts of the Castle. Unfortunately it was pretty naff. It was all recorded “spooky” music and the lighting was bad. There was a bedroom filled with antiques but you couldn’t see them and the audio over top of the music told the story of  Sir Fulke Greville who was murdered in the tower by a servant. Upstairs (downstairs? I forget) there was another dark room with a gauzy curtain. High above you was a glowing face of Sir Fulke, in reality a spotlight on a painting behind the gauzy curtain. I kept expecting Dorothy to appear and click the heels on her ruby slippers!

I wanted to go up on the castle walls so we headed across the esplanade to Guy’s Tower, the tallest of the towers along the wall. I started up and Chris brought up the rear, warning me about the sign at the entrance, advising folk that 500-odd steps could be tiring. Gulp. But it was a one-way system so you couldn’t turn around and go back out once you were in. The staircase up into the first tower was a narrow stone spiral and there were others coming up behind. It wasn’t 500 steps though, but by the time you finished the trail and landed back on the ground I suppose it would have been that in total. I took my time and a few brief rest stops and made it to the top of the tower.

It’s now a lovely sunny day with a bit of a nice breeze, blowing a bit stronger atop the castle walls. You can see over the town of Warwick and the Avon Valley. Following a few flights of stairs down you walk along the curtain walls to the Gatehouse and Barbican guarding the castle’s main entrance. Up a few flights of stairs to the top of that. There is actually a drawbridge over a dry ditch and a huge portcullis. We made our way up and down the next set of steps and walls leading into Caesar’s Tower where the guard house was located, and down to the grounds again just in time to go over to a roped off area on the green to see the Deadly Skills!

Archery. The man that did the demonstration was dressed as a yeoman soldier from the medieval era complete with longbow, sword and “bollocks’ knife. He was probably a better comedian than he was marksman but he put on a good show all the same. He had three sticks with little heads on them and placed them on a platform as a target by only hit one of them by the end of it all. He was pretty funny though as he explained what it was like to go to war in the 1400’s and how you would train all your life from childhood on with the longbow. It looked like quite a skill to master. He asked for a volunteer from the audience and proceeded to demonstrate the various methods of hand to hand combat with his sword and knife on the hapless fellow who just stood there looking a bit white around the gills with the blades thrusting about his body.  Deadly, indeed! We were satisfied with the show and ambled back to the castle grounds to check out the dungeons next.

That *was* creepy. They only let a few down into the dungeon area at a time as there wasn’t a lot of room and the passage was low and narrow. The walls are stone, the floor is dirt. There is graffiti scratched into the walls that must be 500 years old though I don’t know what they would have used to do it with as I’m sure the prisoners wouldn’t have been given sharp implements. There was a suit of chains hanging from the ceiling which purported to send shivers down the spines of the prisoners threatened with it’s cutting edges. We saw a little hole in the ground where you might be dumped if you were in particular disfavour, the “oubliette’ where you would be forgotten and left to die.

Back above ground, we proceeded to the rooms that had the torture instruments. They even had a full sized rack and a lot of medieval contraptions that, when explained were even more chilling than the dungeon. We’re talking things like leg clamps with spikes on the inside into which, once on your leg, would be poured boiling oil! There are an awful lot of devious ways to extract information by causing grievous bodily harm to another human being!

The armory exhibit is titled Death or Glory and traces the history of body armour through the centuries. We examined the many suits of armour, from various eras and countries, along with loads of armaments, swords, early guns, axes, right up to things used in the Napoleonic Wars. Ooh the creepiest thing on display here was a plaster death mask of Oliver Cromwell!

I think it’s time for a little “sweetness and light’ after all that gruesome cutlery. We headed to the main palace part where the Chapel, Great Hall and State rooms were. The Great Hall as it stands today was built in the 17th C and restored in the 19th C after a fire. There is a marvelous hammer beam ceiling, portraits of Earls of Warwick and their families line the wall along with dozens of stag horns and a few impressive suits of armour including two full set of horse armour, one 16th C Italian armour and one 16th C German. There is a huge 500 year old cauldron and a miniature suit of armour made for a small boy. The state bedrooms and reception rooms are decorated very much over the top, having been embellished over the years by the inhabitants. No photos allowed in this section.

We continued on to the display called the Weekend Party which features the Taussaud’s figures set up as if it were a late Victorian weekend function. The guests are in the dining room, salon and various bedrooms. Photos are allowed here and the figures were very realistic. We followed the queues through the exhibit and examined the old photos along the walls. The rooms have been able to be set up exactly as they were 100 years ago because there are existing photographs taken at the time. Two of the more famous houseguests portrayed are the Prince of Wales, soon to be Edward VII and a very young Winston Churchill.

I’m going to fudge a little here. We somehow missed the Kingmaker exhibit which shows how a medieval household would prepare for war during the 15th C. There are apparently a few wax figures in this too. We were in and out of buildings and towers and missed the entrance to this which is near the dungeons. Once we emerged from the castle buildings, Chris wanted to climb up the mound at the end of the grounds, where the original motte fort would have been built 900 years ago. Dear God there are a lot of stairs in this country! Chris goaded me good naturedly into trekking up the (ahem) “gentle incline’ and indeed it wasn’t so bad walking up the sloping ramps. Again a lovely view over the valley and river from this vantage point. I took lots of photos today, as expected and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this Castle. There’s a lot to see and do even if it’s somewhat commercialized. In the summer there are jousting events on the tiltyards and they have events all year round including themed banquets. Check the website for events and updates. It’s well worth it!

We had a little look in the peacock garden by the conservatory and left the castle around 4:30 I think and had a look through the town of  Warwick. We found an old old building called Lord Leycester’s Hospital, a leaning half timbered structure with a chapel that was very old and in Elizabethan times owned by one of her favourites, Lord Leycester and turned into a hospital for old soldiers. There’s a little museum in here but we were a bit tired of walking so we just went to the lovely tea room for a hot drink and tea cake to tide us over.  The town of Warwick is very pretty and very old. There’s a market there but it was packing up by the time we arrived. There are lots of B&B’s within spitting distance of the castle so if you’re thinking of visiting, you should be able to find a room as a base.

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