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Place: England - Warwick Castle

England - Warwick Castle
By Michael Russell

Warwick Castle was taken over by the Tussaud Group in 1978 when it was bought from the 37th Earl of Warwick and the Group began a restoration program that is still in progress nearly thirty years later. In the process, the venerable old castle has become something of a theme park, touted by its owners in their literature as "Britain's Greatest Medieval Experience". This is not to denigrate their efforts however, because Castle restoration is an expensive undertaking and the "Medieval Experience" has helped pay the way.

Special events, medieval banquets and a suite of rooms enlivened with wax figures of the Earl and Countess of Warwick preparing for a royal party create an almost circus-like atmosphere. Yet, underneath the glitter and fanfare lies the real attraction - the great medieval castle itself. Displaying the stately splendor that showcased the status and ambitions of the Earls of Warwick for 800 years, Warwick Castle represents the best of castle-building in England.

Peacocks preen and crow their welcome as visitors make their way out of the car park towards the castle's main entrance. The effect is almost surreal and it pulls your attention away from the present in anticipation of a journey back to the Middle Ages. The powerful curtain wall points ahead to the twin towers of the barbican and gatehouse. After passing through the gatehouse, you enter into the magnificent inner courtyard, which only enhances the effect of being transported back in time. Surrounded on three sides by a dry ditch and the River Avon on the fourth, this powerful structure is a classic stone-enclosure castle.

The earliest records reveal that Ethelfleda, the daughter of Alfred the Great, first fortified the settlement at Warwick in about the year 914 AD. Begun as an earth-and-timber (motte and bailey) fortress shortly after the Norman conquest, Warwick Castle displays relics from every castle-building era. Today the well preserved motte and the ruined shell of its keep sit discreetly at the western end of the stone fortress. Commanded at strategic points by lofty polygonal towers that are linked together by a wall-walk, this formidable stronghold would have capably withstood even the most intense of attacks or sieges, had it had the opportunity. Only weakly attacked on two occasions, these massive defences never faced an onslaught. As its lord of the time supported Parliament against Charles 1 in the English Civil War, Warwick even managed to avoid the slighting that ruined so many other castles in the 17th century.

Two towers rise on either side of the gatehouse, the quatrefoil Caesar's Tower and the 12-sided Guy's Tower. Standing over 120 feet high, these 14th century towers offer unobstructed views over the Warwickshire countryside, they contain a maze of rooms and fine staircases and give access to the intact wall-walk. Still accesible via a steep staircase, the dreary dungeon sits at the base of the Caesar's Tower. Besides the medieval torture devices, the chamber's most haunting feature is the oubliette, a tiny windowless chamber in which prisoners were kept in total darkness, with barely enough room to lie down. Food and water were delivered via a trapdoor in the ceiling.

Across the courtyard stands the 14th century Watergate Tower. This is also known as the Ghost Tower, as the spectre of the murdered Elizabethan and Jacobean politician and poet Sir Fulke Greville (1554-1628), who owned the castle from 1604, is said to haunt it. The squat tower provided access to the River Avon, which flows at its base and functioned as a natural moat. Across the river, half-timbered and brick houses line the closest lanes. Historically associated with the castle as quarters for servants and other workers, these well-maintained medieval homes offer a fascinating glimpse into the less glamorous and more mundane aspects of castle life. To reach the castle, employees originally crossed a stone bridge, the ruins of which still spans the Avon. Visitors to the castle are welcome to explore the exterior of these houses, but must respect the privacy of the owners.

Back inside Warwick Castle, the State Apartments express the grandeur of an earl's life, much as it was during the 18th and 19th centuries. Visitors can explore the Great Hall, the State Dining Room and the Red, Green and Cedar drawing rooms. Also on view is the Queen Anne Bedroom, the Blue Boudoir and the Chapel. Decorated with gilded plasterwork ceilings, shining armour, skilfully carved woodwork and the very best of furniture from a number of styles and eras, these graceful rooms contrast colorfully with the castle's intimidating gray walls.

Warwick Castle contains a treasure trove of fascinating memorabilia. The building is open to visitors throughout the year for an entrance fee. Information on special events, medieval banquets and other attractions can be found on their website at warwick-castle.co.uk

Michael Russell Your Independent guide to Tourism

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