Peter Welcome to our travel podcast, we’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re looking back over a thousand years of action-packed history at Warwick Castle in the heart of Middle England. This medieval fortress, complete with battlements and dungeons, is situated in Shakespeare country, barely a ten-mile drive from Stratford-Upon-Avon. If you’re going to do Stratford, particularly as a family, it makes a lot of sense to combine this with the visit to Warwick Castle. Over the past millennium, the castle has slowly evolved into the entertainment centre that it is today with genuine historical overtones that make a visit here both fun and educational, the children of all ages in quite stunningly beautiful surroundings.
Felice Since it was first built, the castle has had 36 individual owners. At least three of them died in battle, two were executed and one was murdered. Interestingly, the original earldom allowed the right of inheritance through the female line. So over the centuries, there have been three female owners, one of them a girl aged just two when she inherited it.
Peter The present owner is unlikely to die in battle or indeed be executed. It’s British commercial property investor, Nick Leslau, who lays claim to it through his Presbury Group that also owns Madame Tussauds, along with theme parks Alton Towers and Thorpe Park. All four attractions are run by Merlin Entertainments. At the castle’s Great Hall bedecked with suits of armour and life-sized waxworks of former inhabitants and visitors, we met up with tour guide, Charlotte.
Peter Charlotte, tell us about Warwick Castle and how it all began?
Charlotte So the castle itself is actually over 900 years old, 953 this year. It was built by William the Conqueror two years after his win at the Battle of Hastings in the year 1068. He created a lot of castles up and down the country that were known as Norman motte-and-bailey castles. What that means is you have a mound in one area and then around the outside a ditch and a bailey area, which is a big courtyard. Most of this is still surviving today. However, the walls have changed from being wooden walls, as they were at the time, to stone. So the castle has almost always been owned by an earl of Warwick or a noble family. It was originally given to a man named Henry de Newburgh by William the Conqueror.
He lived here with his family until he ran out of children. It passed on to a series of cousins by a man named William Mauduit and then on to a family known as the Beauchamp family. From there is passed into the hands of a man named Richard Greville, who was very powerful during these Wars of the Roses, a very influential figure in our history and the history of the entire country. And from Richard Greville it went into the hands of Richard the Third. The Tudors owned it for a while but didn’t live here, basically did nothing with it, and then into the hands of the Greville family where it stayed right up until the year 1978, where it was sold by the family to Madame Tussauds.
Peter Hence we see quite a lot of wax figures around.
Charlotte Yes, Madame Tussauds certainly have put their stamp on the place. A lot of the rooms here in the castle do have Madame Tussauds original waxworks recreating scenes from the castle’s history right from the medieval period up until the Victorian era.
Felice So are those figures mainly in the Great Hall, or around the Great Hall?
Charlotte Yes. So a lot of those figures can be found in the Great Hall and state rooms in the Royal Weekend Party and the attraction known as the Kingmaker exhibit, which is downstairs underneath the Great Hall.
Peter And are there dungeons and nasty torture chambers and all the horrible things that go with medieval castles?
Charlotte Yes. So we actually do have an original dungeon or gaol cell here at the castle. It exists under the tower known as Caesar’s Tower, which was originally a tower that was, in fact, entirely dedicated to supporting prisoners and holding them here. Not an awful place to spend your time, not massively torturous unless you are in the gaol itself.
Peter That all sounds exciting. Let’s go and take a look. No good medieval dungeon is worthy of the name without an adjoining torture chamber, complete with red-hot irons, thumbscrews and a rack. Warwick Castles certainly is suitably furnished in this respect. Modern-day visitor trips to the dungeon here or at your own peril and cost extra, with actors on hand to embellish the experience.
Felice It’s scary enough that if you’re under 18, you need to be accompanied by an adult. We met up with a couple of the dungeon’s sinister staff when they came up for air. I have to say that the bloodstained face mask gave them an extra-evil appearance. The jester, for a start, seemed to be pretty short on jokes.
Peter So you’re the castle jester?
Jester/First Actor I am indeed, yes.
Peter Tell us what you do?
Jester Basically it is my job to frighten anyone that comes within this vicinity, particularly small children and anyone with a nervous disposition.
Peter Tell me more.
Jester Well, you see, small children tend to be quite frightened by just looking at me, which I thoroughly enjoy. Making them cry in particular is one of my special talents. Oh, and you’ve got people that are nervous or try to be brave, and then as soon as they encounter me, they run screaming. Very nice, I like to think.
Felice Whereabouts in the castle do you live?
Jester I live within the dungeon. You say it’s nice and dark and I don’t really like the sun. It doesn’t do well for my complexion.
Felice Who else lives in the dungeon with you?
Jester Well, we have a monk in the dungeon. We have the judge; I wouldn’t cross him if I were you. We have the almoner, and if you’re very lucky from time to time you might meet the witch. Very frightening.
Peter Her companion, the torturer, was an altogether more imposing figure with a grey flecked beard and a thousand yard stare. A man short on words and clearly big on action. Let’s get this straight, you’re the castle torturer?
Torturer/Second Actor Yes, that’s right.
Peter What’s that involve?
Felice What sort of torture?
Torturer All of it. It depends what kind of mood I’m in.
Peter And what’s your favourite one today?
Torturer Ah, it’s not very family friendly, but I have been removing pieces…of gentlemen.
Peter That’s not very nice.
Torturer They deserve it.
Peter What sort of crimes that they committed in order to be guests of yours?
Torturer I’m not interested in the crime. It’s my job to listen; it’s my job to find the truth; and it’s my job to torture.
Peter What other tortures do you use?
Torturer Oh you see, we would like to remove various parts. If they don’t talk fast enough, let’s say they lose the ability to articulate their words shall we say…
Felice You remove their tongue?
Torturer It has been known.
Felice Do you have a rack?
Torturer We have been known to use the rack in the past. Yes, I like to treat some more torture victims like decorations. So sometimes we hang them up and we hang them up from wherever I see fit because my hook goes where it likes.
Peter Then having completed the torture, you have an executioner down there do you?
Torturer There is an executioner. And let’s say, he will put a full stop to my sentences.
Peter Yuck. Let’s go back to Charlotte.
Felice When did all the outdoor attractions first open?
Charlotte So actually the castle has been a tourist attraction – the gardens specifically – since 1815. The family themselves, the Greville family, opened it up as a tourist attraction. The gardens were redone by Lancelot Capability Brown in the 1750s. And they have been, open as an attraction since the 1800s. The attractions we’ve got here, things like the Conquerer’s Castle, which is our original mott, opened as a walk about three years ago now – in 2018. The towers and the ramparts have been open for a very long time, and things like the new birds of prey demonstration only started a couple of years ago.
Peter Tell us about the different attractions. I mean, is there jousting?
Charlotte We’re hopeful that there shall be jousting in the future. We have excellent jousting team from Warwick. They are local. They perform a show for us called The Wars of the Roses Live, which essentially brings the Wars of the Roses into a means that can be understood by everybody.
Peter Yes, the theme of Warwick Castle today, majors heavily on the Wars of the Roses, a particularly turbulent period of civil war in England. It lasted for 32 years during the 15th century. It’s so complex that it’s confused subsequent generations of British schoolchildren, not to mention their teachers and all foreign visitors. So a quick history lesson: the Wars of the Roses was a series of struggles for the throne of England between two rival branches of the ruling Plantagenets who preceded Henry the Eighth and the Tudors.
In one corner lay the House of York, represented heraldically by a white rose. In the other corner was a house of Lancaster with its emblem of a red rose. What happened next won’t go into here, but of all the castle owners, the most famous was Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. At the time, he switched sides and because he was the most powerful political figure of the period, he was dubbed the Kingmaker. In April 1471, Richard Neville at the Lancastrian army against the Yorkist during the Battle of Barnet, just north of London. Richard was killed in the battle. Here we are on the eve of the battle.
You want to make sure there’s no chinks in your armour, so we’re in the armours’ quarters putting together a bit of chain mail.
Felice The figures are pretty amazing, you can see that Madame Tussaud was very important here.
Peter I don’t know what’s going on here. Oh, the arrows,…
Felice It has a sort of battle smell.
Peter I’m not sure what that is. It’s a pre-battle smell, I think.
Felice Yes, not blood and guts.
Peter You know what it is? I think it’s the glue that they use to put the flights on the arrows.
Felice There are just people – figures – everywhere, just like in Madame Tussauds but with a theme of battle.
Peter Charlotte, judging by the number of targets set up around the grounds, archery plays a pretty big role at Warwick Castle?
Charlotte Yes, we have a bowman here at the castle. He stands around on the east front or sometimes down by the river, practices his shooting and loves talking to all of our guests about archery and the uses that had in the medieval era here at the castle.
Felice Can people get involved in the archery, for example can they have a go?
Charlotte Yes, we do offer a very good ‘have a go’ services here where we have a set of targets set up so that people can come and try them out for a small fee. Both adults and children can have a go at the archery and learn exactly what it was like.
Peter So here we are on the grounds of Warwick Castle. Felice, what do you think of it?
Felice I think it’s great for a family day out. There’s so much to do for all ages, especially if you’re interested in history. So you can see things…all these lovely, really, really good models in the room sets and outside. Ranging from the Wars of the Roses, that period with amazing costumes, to 19th and 20th century, the room sets are fantastic. So normally you might go to a museum like the V&A, for example, and see fabulous a room set, but no one in it. So you can’t quite imagine the people in it at the time. But here you’ve actually got the figures, the waxworks sitting in the chairs and sitting at the dining room tables and things like that.
Peter There is a sort of theme park atmosphere, isn’t there?
Felice Obviously there is. Yes, they could do without all the music in the background. It’s quite noisy, wherever you go there’s a different type of music. There’s lots of outdoor areas where you can take a picnic or you can buy food.
Peter You can stay here.
Felice Oh, yes, that’s what sounds really good. You can stay here either and you can either go glamping in a tent with a four-poster bed or you can stay in one of the turrets as well, which is quite luxurious. So that sounds really good fun. The place with the glamping is called the Knights Village, you could stay there. Staying inside the castle you stay in the tower suite, the Knights Village is by the river. What are the normal opening times for the castle on weekdays and weekends?
Charlotte So the castle is open 364 days a year – that’s every day except Christmas Day. Usually we’re either open from either 10am-4pm or 10am-5pm, depending upon the season and the amount of people we’ve got coming through the door. To find out more you can go to our website and we’ll have all the original opening times on that.
Felice What’s your website address?
Charlotte It is Warwick-castle.com
Peter Charlotte, thank you very much indeed. So for me, I think the highlight of the day was the Falconer’s Quest, the birds of prey show. I thought was actually fantastic, what do you think?
Felice I loved it. It was also my favourite thing. There were so many birds, I couldn’t believe it. By the end, there were about 30 birds all flying at once, which was incredible.
Peter Right up…when I say’ close’ to the audience, within six inches of the audience. How they train them to do that, I have no idea.
Felice They told us before it started that you must remain seated and I can see why, because their beaks came very close to you otherwise. I would be frightened of being pecked or something.
Peter And the whole setting was glorious, right on me on the riverbank in a sort of historic setting, wasn’t it, with beautiful, beautiful trees and ducks living rather dangerously, I thought, with birds of prey around.
Felice And geese flying around as well.
Peter And the real highlight of the whole show was a South American condor. It was one of the largest birds I’ve ever seen; it has a 10-foot wingspan.
Felice They are huge, like they like flying Labradors. I mean, so enormous, heavy, really, really impressive.
Peter It’s worth going to Warwick Castle just to see the show, actually, which is I gather one of the largest birds of prey shows in the whole of the British Isles.
Felice We’ve seen lots of shows. We’ve seen snake shows in Australia and I’ve seen birds of prey shows with just one or two birds, but this was fantastic.
Peter And the bald eagle, the American bald eagle was absolutely amazing up close. So big, so big in the sky. All in all, a great day out.
Felice Yes, I agree. It was a really good day out and fantastic for families with children of all ages.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected].
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