A postcard from Warwick
PUBLISHED: 16:14 19 September 2018 | UPDATED: 16:58 19 September 2018
Tracy Spiers takes Emily, daughter number two, who shares her love for anything historical, to this vibrant place and get lost in a heady mix of wild bears, Middle Age punishing devices, timber-framed buildings and live bees
It’s provided an authentic backdrop for many a television drama, it boasts one of the most dramatic and complete mediaeval castles in the country and provides visitors with an enriching back-in-time experience. People living in the beautiful town of Warwick are understandably proud of their heritage and therefore passionate when they speak of its rich background.
Founded on the banks of the River Avon in 914 AD as a defence against the Danish invader by Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great, Warwick is like a living history book.
• One of the joys of having five children is that each one has interests that they may not necessarily share with their fellow sibling, but they do share with me. Emily, who doesn’t like clothes shopping, but does enjoy finding out about the history of a place, is the ideal choice for this outing. After a hot sticky drive to Warwick, we are rewarded with a history lesson of the best kind - that of experience rather than text book reading. We begin our ‘lesson’ at Warwick Visitor Information Centre where we are welcomed by warm, helpful and enthusiastic staff – notably former mayor Trudy Ashmore-Offer and Victoria Bibby. They love their town and soon find out why. The VIC is based at the former Court House, a stunning Grade 1 listed venue lovingly renovated thanks to a grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Upstairs is a splendid ballroom which has paid host to many a dance, feast and ball; on the ground floor is the Mayor’s Parlour – the former Magistrate’s Court – and also home to the VIC, whilst in the basement is The Warwickshire Yeomanry Museum, with exhibits from the town’s military past. Victoria kindly shows us where we are on the map and the key places to visit – all of which are within walking distance. Trudy explains what she loves about the town. “Not only are we friendly here but we want to share the town we love with everyone who comes here. Warwick is small and perfectly formed. Everything is close by and you can go to lots of places in a very short distance. It’s a bit like Rome but not as glamorous.”
• We start our history walk by visiting the Collegiate Church of St Mary, which dominates the town centre with its imposing tower. A church has been on the site since Saxon times, but the Saxon church was rebuilt by Roger de Newburgh in 1123. We venture into the impressive mediaeval Beauchamp Chapel which houses the tombs of past Earls of Warwick including that of Richard Beauchamp, described as “one of the masterpieces of mediaeval art,” in Simon Jenkin’s book England’s 1000 Best Churches. I don’t particularly like being in confined spaces or underground for that matter, but we walk down to the Norman Crypt, dating back to 1123 AD and are intrigued by a ducking stool, one of only two remaining in England. Having just studied crime and punishment in her history GCSE, Emily is particularly intrigued by the scary structure, used to punish scolding wives, women of immoral character, suspected witches and even quarrelsome married couples.
• We are relieved to get back outside in the fresh air and decide to find out more about the town’s history and visit Market Hall Museum located in the Market Hall, a 17th century landmark, recently refurbished with the help of a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It’s a lovely hands-on museum with lots of interaction for the young and young at heart. It is here where we find out about Warwick’s Great Fire of 1694 which destroyed many of the town’s central streets. Some 250 homes – a quarter of the houses in Warwick - were burnt down in the blaze which lasted over six hours. I meet the scary looking brown bear which features on the town emblem, touch the skeleton of an ichthyosaur, admire Sheldon’s Tapestry Map, meet Oisin the giant Irish deer and observe the live observation beehive. We have a chat to cheerful museum assistants Alice Williams and Aileen Cook who also serve delicious cakes and coffees at the Café at Market Hall, as well as provide useful information.
• Inspired by our museum trip, we head out to the High Street and the spot where the fire started. It’s opposite one of Warwick’s most photographed places, the wonderfully wonky mediaeval buildings which make up The Lord Leycester Hospital. Thankfully it was untouched by the fire. Founded as an almshouse for aged or disabled soldiers in 1571 by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leycester, it incorporates the Westgate Chapel of St. James, the 14th century banqueting hall and the council chamber of the combined Guilds of Warwick. I chat to Peter Taylor, who has been living here with his wife for 11 years. Hidden behind is the tiny Master’s Garden, an historic plot, enclosed by the town wall of Warwick, which has been cultivated for over 500 years. We have a peep inside and note the 12th century Norman arch and a 2,000 year old huge stone vase, which once topped a column on the banks of the River Nile and the conical thatched summerhouse. This was mentioned in the diary of Nathanial Hawthorne, the American author, who visited the garden in 1855.
• Another man responsible for founding almshouses, (and aiding the poor), was Thomas Oken, a mercer who dealt in silks and luxury goods. Emily and I walk past his beautiful old house, set against the Castle wall, which is now a quintessential English tea rooms, reknown for its afternoon and cream teas, served with a choice of over 30 fine loose leaf teas.
• At the bottom of Castle Street we find ourselves walking on cobbles – the surviving part of the road surface which once joined Mill Street. There is an entrance to Warwick Castle here and we can hear people up in the tower and the various displays going on. Both of us have visited this magnificent landmark in recent years and are sorry not to have the time to explore today. But it is well worth setting aside a few hours to journey back to the Middle Ages and explore this castle, listen to the stories told by actors and interactive displays, wander across some 64 acres (26 hectares) of parkland and take in the views from the ramparts. When we visited, we both enjoyed the stunning Flight of the Eagles show and watching the world’s largest fireball catapults. There is the option of including a 50-minute walk-through the castle’s dungeons, which we have yet to do.
• I take Emily on a walk down Mill Street, lined with picturesque rows of timber-framed houses of the 15th and 16th centuries, where at the bottom is a garden boasting the best view ever. The Mill Garden, open daily from April 1 – October 31 lies in a magical setting on the banks of the River Avon beneath the walls of Warwick Castle. This beautifully-kept informal cottage garden is a profusion of plants, shrubs and trees and well worth a visit. It’s a great stop for capturing the magnificence of both nature and Castle.
• While we are in walking mode, Emily and I venture to one of the town’s popular green open spaces, namely St. Nicholas’ Park, a stone’s throw away from St. Nicholas’ Church. Ideal for families, this park has a crazy golf course, amusement rides, children’s play area, pony rides, outdoor paddling pool, boats for hire during summer months, as well as tennis, football courts, recreation ground, indoor swimming pool, a leisure centre and café. The day we visit is hot and the sound of children enjoying the paddling pool fills the air.
• Hill Close Gardens in Bread & Meat Close is also worth visiting. It is an impressive network of individual Victorian gardens, separated by high hedges – restored by Heritage Lottery Funding. It is a tranquil spot and has delightful summerhouses, gnarled old fruit trees, heritage flowers and vegetables. Visitors can enjoy tea, coffee and cake in the sustainable visitor centre.
• Incidentally there are plenty of walking opportunities for those inclined. Warwick Walking Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org) offers a unique guided experience around the town, with the choice of four languages; whilst Warwick Trivia Trail provides a chance to have some screen-free time and enjoy a scenic walk whilst answering clues and challenges along the way. An informative 90-minute walk, which starts outside the Visitor Information Centre and conducted by Blue Badge Qualified Tour Guides is also available.
• Another important open space which adds to the charm and attraction of this town is Warwick Racecourse, one of the country’s jump courses which has a regular programme of 17 meetings throughout the year. The central grandstand incorporates the first stand built in 1808. Established in Warwick as early as 1707, the racecourse is one of the earliest on record known to have existed.
• Walking through town, we note how eclectic and interesting the shops are. Although there is a sprinkling of national chains, most of Warwick’s shops are independents and therefore offer something different and special for shoppers. In keeping with our historic experience, we pop into Mary’s Sweet Memories, Warwick’s oldest traditional sweet shop, where we chat to owner Nigel Ackroyd, who describes it as “200 jars of nostalgic nonsense.” “I’ve been here for six years and I would say we get about 60% locals and 40% tourists. Everyone is a child at heart, so we get adults in here spending a lot of time looking and reminiscing while the younger ones know what they want straight away. Sweets are very evocative and each one holds a different memory for different people. A man came in here the other day to buy coconut mushrooms, only because it was his late mum’s favourite sweet. He was buying a memory.” Perhaps one day my girls will buy some school chalk – liquorice coated in a white sugary shell – in memory of me?
• But the idea of buying time or more accurately a time gone by is essentially what Warwick does. By spending a few hours here, I can promise you that there is ample opportunity to have a history lesson and an experience that is both uplifting, moving, challenging and thought-provoking. It makes it quite surreal as you walk amongst your fellow 21st century comrades whilst having a tangible experience of walking in the footsteps of those who lived and worked in Warwick years and years before. Warwick may be small, but it is definitely compact, perfectly formed and leaves a huge historic impression on all who visit.