Published: July 2012
Well it’s the first day of the school holidays and I need to chalk one up and take the pressure off. A museum will skirt too close to education and a theme park is maybe just too facile, so an invitation to Warwick Castle seemed ideal.
I hadn’t been to Warwick Castle for the best part of ten years but it always seemed to me to be one of those castles that if you shut your eyes and think “Medieval Castle”, something very close to Warwick would pop up. What William the Conqueror started, these days, is owned by the attractions behemoth that is the Merlin group, but you can’t fake Medieval and Warwick Castle is such a handsome and complete example.
Although the balance is towards the more dynamic, crowd-pleasing thrills and family fun, Warwick has retained the appeal it holds for the country house crowd too. You could spend your day here wandering the grounds (complete with Capability Brown gardens) towers and ramparts (or is it castellation?) and absorbing the history of the place by tromping through one artifact-filled room after another, you pretty much get 1000 years of English history on offer. Frankly I’d have been happy to do so, but I brought my 7-year old daughter which changed the itinerary somewhat.
Even for a city-dwelling 7-year-old, the sheer castleness of Warwick sweeps you straight into fantasyland before you even dip into it. First up was the Castle Dungeon attraction which had a new addition, the “Witches of Warwick” room. This attraction is so well oiled and performed with its jocular and informative tour through the grislier aspects of medieval dungeon life. Part historical theatre, part ghost tour, I think it is deservedly Warwick’s “must-see” attraction. For kids it is all “Horrible Histories”, making the ghoulish realities of history cleverly and vividly spring to life. For grownups, it echoes Blackadder and there are plenty of fruity gags that sail over the kids heads – a neat trick well executed. And that’s not all that is well executed, you may end up losing your head yourself as the executioner’s art is demonstrated. The advice is that the Dungeon experience is recommended for kids 10 years old and over. This is quite wise in my opinion, it was a bit touch and go for my daughter - although she is now able to repeat a whole host of unsavory medieval facts on gruesome pestilence, the foul art of torture (the “castrator” for pity’s sake!), incarceration and was later to re-enact the “be-heading of Dad” in the hotel room.
It was, though, the newly unveiled Witches of Warwick room that pushed her over the edge and scared the living wits out of her and just about everyone else. Job done. The newest Dungeon addition is distinctly darker, borrowing more from modern horror movies in its style and shock-tactic techniques and is very effective. Say no more.
Tears wiped and a few jellybeans later (her, not me - honest) it was being picked to be the Dragon Hunter in the Merlin attraction that completely restored her. Based on the BBC fave, this is another big draw here and it promises all the star quality and sorcery of the show but it ends up being a very compact experience compared to the Dungeon – it you are a grown up that is.
Then, a place where the damned are subjected to eternal anguish in the pit of fiery hell, a fate worse than a newly qualified torturer on probation after a good night’s sleep – (cue diabolic music) – the Princess Tower! Unless you are female and seven, in which case this is somewhere close to heaven. For an ageing liberal like me this saccharine dose of shameless class and gender stereotyping was a dire fog of pink fluff, a cheap trick that delighted every little girl present. Bah Humbug!
Beyond these family heavy-hitters lies the chance to soak up all the Castle has to offer in the grounds beyond. The wonderful Warwick Warriors, who put on a display of Medieval battle with verve and humor, busting a number of Hollywood myths on the way took centre stage. Second the Flight of the Eagles, a really ace falconry show with some amazing birds. Also, just newly launched, is a boating experience that takes in a whole new view of the castle. In what I think might be Warwick’s signature event, you can see how a medieval siege engine worked with the replica “Trebuchet” they have there. The display was as fascinating as it was impressive and must count as a genuine piece of living history.
History, of course, is Warwick calling card, and for all the clever attractions and shows you can’t beat the setting and its story. If they were all in some purpose built fake castle-like theme park the whole thing really would not work. Although the Kingmaker exhibition maybe a little old these days in comparison, it is the place to get to know the quite significant part this place plays in England’s history and sets the context for the rest of your journey of historical discovery.
Warwick’s wide variety of attractions lacks a little cohesion, and certainly consistency, and it may seem a little crowded at times, but the place is alive with activity and vibrancy. It does get the offering right, enough to keep half-term families engaged and thrilled without turning the whole place into some gaudy medieval funfair.
I would though, encourage any family thinking of visiting to look around for packages and offers (for example those traveling on Chiltern railways to Warwick get 2 for 1 on the entrance price) or book in advance as the bill can take a savage sword swipe from your wallet. Warwick Castle is not an exception in this regard and things like the Dungeon and Merlin are not included in the entrance price. Also in common with far too many attractions is the underwhelming and overpriced food, but it is a grand place for a picnic.
Warwick Castle is a heavyweight British historical attraction, rightly so, and it was actually a proper pleasure getting to know it again and better still introducing it to my daughter, who still sleeps with a Warwick Castle sword next to her bed.
Matt has been making programmes for Travel Channel all over the world since 2000. He is a passionate cyclist and loves the great outdoors, when he is not too busy filming in a far flung reach. His latest favourite destination is Yukon, in northern Canada – however he says there is always something to love about everywhere you go!
To find out more about Warwick Castle, visit