A Castle on a Hill
Tuesday, 24th May
Day five turned out to be a typical spring day. The weather changed every fifteen minutes. After a lazy morning, Z fixed a lovely pasta dish for our lunch, then we set off or the train station for the short trip from Birmingham to Warwick.
I had specifically asked to tour Warwick Castle because I was hoping to find ideas I could use for my library's summer reading programme. The theme was 'Dragons, Dreams and Daring Deeds'. A trip to a medieval castle was just the thing for inspiration.
The sky was clear when we arrived at Warwick, so we decided to walk through the town centre to the castle. I immediately fell in love with the town. Warwick is a picture postcard town situated on the banks of the River Avon. It was founded in 914 as a defense against the Danes, but much of the town was destroyed by a fire in 1694 and was rebuilt in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
We had a pleasant walk. If there had been more time I would have enjoyed browsing through some of the antique shops that lined the streets, but I wanted to make sure I had time to see the castle properly.
Warwick Castle is one of the best preserved medieval castles in Britain and is a major tourist attraction. It was the home of the Earls of Warwick until 1978 when it was purchased by the Tussauds Group. The original wooden motte and bailey castle was begun in 1068 at the command of William the Conqueror. Stone structures began replacing the wooden ones during the twelfth century. The castle and its owners featured prominently in English history from the mid-thirteenth through the seventeenth century and they played host to the famous and powerful during the Victorian era.
Tussauds Group undertook extensive restoration after purchasing the castle and created exhibits using wax portraits - as one might expect. In addition to these, there are regularly scheduled programmes on in the castle grounds. There were both archery and falconry demonstrations that afternoon. There was also a programme called 'Monarchy and Murder' in which nine British monarchs were put on trial.
The two exhibits I most enjoyed were from different eras - 'The Kingmaker' and 'A Royal Weekend Party'. The Kingmaker was, of course, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick from 1450 until his death in 1471, who for 16 years played a crucial role in the Wars of the Roses. It was Neville who imprisoned Edward IV in Warwick castle and Henry VI in the Tower of London. The exhibit is in the Medieval Undercroft and depicts Neville's preparations for his final march against a combined Yorkist and Burgundian force. The exhibit shows Neville's men preparing armour, and weapons, a wheelwright making a wheel for a cart, carts being loaded with provisions and other preparations for battle. It also depicts daily life in a medieval castle and is accurate to the point of actually being able to smell the urine soaked in to the ancient stones.
The royal weekend party takes place in 1898. It is hosted by 'Daisy', Countess of Warwick. Settings recreated include the Library, the Music Room, the Smoking Room, the Ladies' Boudoir and a number of bedrooms including Daisy's. Guests for the weekend include a young Winston Churchill, his mother Lady Randolph Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, The Duke of York, later George V, and singer Clara Butt.
The castle has over 1000 pieces of arms and armour, some dating to the early Sixteenth Century. And the most recognizable architectural feature of the castle, Caesar's Tower, was constructed during the Fourteenth Century. It rises 45 metres from the River Avon and is considered a masterpiece of medieval architecture.
There are a number of state rooms, the most impressive of which is the Great Hall which contains some fantastic armour and an absolutely spectacular oak buffet created by local craftsmen for the Great Exhibition of 1851. We also saw the Chapel, the State Dining Room, the Red Drawing Room, the Green Drawing Room, the Cedar Drawing Room, the Queen Ann bedroom and the Blue Boudoir.
Z and I skipped the Ghost Tower, which is said to be haunted by Sir Fulke Grenville. We also skipped the dungeon, which is located in the lowest level of Caesar's Tower. I had seen recreations of dungeons and torture chambers in wax museums before. But I did buy a small book about dungeons and torture in the gift shop. I figured the little miscreants back home would enjoy it, and they did. I found a number of small items in the gift shop that I could use for reading prizes for my summer programmes. There are several kids in Webb City with souvenirs from Warwick castle and my stock went up with them considerably.
Before we ventured back outside to wander around the castle grounds, Z and I visited the Undercroft Restaurant for a break and a snack. There were a number of foods and beverages I wanted to sample while in England and so far hadn't managed a single item on my list. This was about to change. We had a cream tea. If there is any way to get more calories on a scone, I don't know how. But it was delicious. I ate every bite. For our non-British readers, a cream tea consists of a warm scone spread with clotted cream, which is very rich and actually looks more like butter than cream, topped with jam and washed down with a fresh pot of tea. I decided that when I got home it would be the perfect treat for a Sunday afternoon, but alas, I can't find the cream.
Warwick Castle has two small formal gardens that Z and I visited. The first was the Peacock Garden which is so named because it contains both live peacocks strutting around as well as peacock topiary. It is located near a conservatory which, despite being obviously well tended, was rather ordinary and uninspiring. The second garden was the Victorian Rose Garden. We were too early in the season for it to be in bloom, but we were able to appreciate the design. This garden was laid out in 1868 by Robert Marnock who also designed the Peacock Garden. It was later covered by tennis courts. It was restored from the original drawings in 1986.
The castle sits on the banks of the River Avon and has a fully restored mill and engine house that was opened to the public in 2002. It was one of the first hydro-electric power stations in England and was used to generate electricity for the castle until 1940. The restoration cost over two million pounds.
We left the castle and headed back through town to the train station. We stopped at the Collegiate Church of St Mary for a look at the Beauchamp Chapel. The church dates back to 1123 when it was founded by Robert de Newburgh, Earl of Warwick. The Beauchamp Chapel is considered a national treasure. It was built in the Fifteenth Century to house the tomb of Robert Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. The chapel also has the tombs of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick. Z and I inadvertently got in on a private tour being conducted by an aged church warden who seemed terribly pleased to have us in the audience.
As an aside, I want to ask a simple question. How on earth do you get 'Beecham' out of 'Beauchamp?' Granted, the US has some regional dialects and accents that often defy logic, but the pronunciation of English proper nouns is bizarre. How does anyone ever learn how to spell? It's bad enough that you have an apparent love affair with 'ou', use the letters 'z', 's', 'c', 'y' and 'k' in strange ways and add all those double consonants where they don't belong.
The weather was co-operating so we had a pleasant walk back to the train station for the return to Birmingham. I hadn't walked so much in years. I was managing, but it was definitely starting to take its toll. I was beginning to worry that I would give out and let everyone down. One of the things that I learned about myself during my trip is that I am a born stroller, rather than a power walker. I can stroll all day with no problems. In my own defense, I need to point out that I am barely 4'11" tall and have short legs and a short stride. What is a reasonable pace for tall people can leave me jogging to keep up. I am also decades older than Z and my other sightseeing companions, live in a car culture and spend all day behind a desk. I was out of shape and by day's end was feeling my age. I am absolutely, positively going to be in better shape for my next visit.
The town of Warwick was lovely, the castle provided a wealth of ideas for my summer reading programmes, I had my first cream tea and we didn't need our umbrellas. It had been a successful day.