Thursday, June 19, 2008

Warwick Castle - History Lite at a Price

Recently, the editor invited me to tag along on a business trip to Warwickshire. Boasting two of Britain’s leading tourist attractions, Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick Castle and tons of other historic sites, there was plenty to keep me busy.

On day one, I decided to see what Merlin Entertainment Group (owners of Legoland and Madame Tussaud’s) had done to Warwick Castle, Britain’s most magnificent medieval fortress. I had last been there 15 years ago, travelling with three small boys who had found the dungeons and torture chambers very inspiring. They purchased plastic swords; beat the living day lights out of each other while the adults ignored them and soaked up the 1,000 years of English heritage. I don’t remember it being terribly expensive.

The first indication that things had changed came when I entered the courtyard where you pay for tickets. The place had the look and feel of the Magic Kingdom with a lot of focus on line management. On the day I was there it was mid week and pissing down rain so that the control barriers weren’t really necessary. Still, when they asked me to shell out £17.95 for an Adult Walkup ticket ( discounts are available if you book online), I was not amused. What on earth can you do to a castle that can justify such a price?

Well, you can turn it into a wax work exhibition. Warwick Castle has two – the Kingmaker which tells the story of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who helped depose King Henry VI in favour of King Edward IV and a Royal Weekend Party which recreates the time when Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick would entertain the likes of Edward, Prince of Wales and Lady Randolph Churchill. Following on the wax theme, you can also have your picture taken with a wax model of Queen Elizabeth for £9 which, I have to say, was absolutely hilarious.

For £17.95 you also get a tour of the Ghost Tower where Sir Fulke Greville was brutally murdered. The tour includes a cast of ghostly actors whose remit is to scare the living daylights out of you and they are pretty good at it. One American lady on my tour burst into tears and assaulted her husband for forcing her into the tower “when you know how much I hate these things”. She wailed all the way to the finish line.

For £17.95 you also get special exhibitions of jousting, birds of prey and demonstrations of siege machines. Conveniently located throughout the site are opportunities to purchase the dear little plastic swords and weapons which are such a hit with the kiddies.

Arguably, the least commercial thing you can do at Warwick is to take the ramparts walk. The best thing about it is that anyone with “mobility issues”, “heart conditions”, “fear of heights” and the like is discouraged to attempt this daring athletic feat which involves climbing some steep narrow stairs. This conveniently eliminates both the tour groups of retirees and the families with small children leaving a much smaller subset of visitors to enjoy the experience. The views over the Warwickshire countryside are terrific.

So what’s the verdict on Warwick Castle? Frankly, it was disappointing. If you don’t mind spending £17.95 and you are not turned off by history lite, I suppose you could do worse things with both your time and your money. But for my money, don’t bother. A much better bet, if you do find yourself in Warwick, is to head for the Collegiate Church of St Mary, the historic church of the Earls of Warwick containing the magnificent Beauchamp Chapel, often described as the most important medieval chapel in England. The Beauchamp Chapel, which was built between 1442 and 1460 for the then phenomenal cost of £2,481 contains a fabulous gilded bronze effigy of Richard Beauchamp, the man who presided over the trial and burning at the stake of Joan of Arc. Of course they don’t charge for entry.

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