Jane Leigh walks in the foot­steps of Ethelfleda and JRR Tolkien

Cotswold Life - - CONTENTS -

Com­bin­ing el­e­ments of past and fu­ture, the county town of War­wick­shire has plenty to of­fer vis­i­tors keen on re­liv­ing days gone by whilst en­joy­ing all the ben­e­fits of the mod­ern age.

Here you can tread the foot­steps of pow­er­ful no­ble­men, pros­per­ous traders and hum­ble labour­ers from me­dieval times, whilst tak­ing ad­van­tage of the best in en­ter­tain­ment, ac­com­mo­da­tion, shop­ping, and eat­ing and drink­ing.

The site may have been set­tled in Ne­olithic times, but the first of­fi­cial men­tion of War­wick is in the An­glo-saxon Chron­i­cle: it’s noted that in 914AD, Ethelfleda, daugh­ter of King Al­fred the Great, built a for­ti­fied dwelling at War­wick to de­fend against Dan­ish at­tack.

Wil­liam the Con­queror im­proved the for­ti­fi­ca­tion, es­tab­lish­ing a motte and bai­ley cas­tle in 1068, while Henry II re­placed the wooden fort with the stonework that re­mains to this day.

The town now fea­tures half-tim­bered me­dieval build­ings rub­bing shoul­ders with Ge­or­gian de­signs, the Great Fire of War­wick in 1694 hav­ing de­stroyed many of the ear­li­est dwellings. The re­sul­tant Fire Act pro­vided a blue­print for the re­build­ing of the town, with roads of reg­u­lated width and a stan­dard house de­sign, cre­at­ing to­day’s el­e­gant town­scape.

Ap­proach­ing from the south or east, War­wick Cas­tle dom­i­nates the town – and acts as a mag­net for vis­i­tors with chil­dren in tow.

Its rep­u­ta­tion as a venue with some­thing for ev­ery­one is well earned – the sum­mer pro­gramme fea­tures a Wars of the Roses live­ac­tion spec­tac­u­lar with bat­tle re-en­act­ment and joust­ing, while the cas­tle is gear­ing up for a Hal­lowe’en spook-tac­u­lar from Oc­to­ber 21 to 31. And for the full his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence you can even stay overnight in your choice of Knight’s Vil­lage Lodge, a Tower Suite, or Me­dieval Glamp­ing.

The town cen­tre it­self of­fers a trea­sure trove of ar­chi­tec­tural gems. East and west you’re met by the last re­main­ing sec­tions of the orig­i­nal town walls, in the shape of the East and West Gates (on Smith Street and West Street re­spec­tively). If you’re plan­ning an overnight stay with a dif­fer­ence, the East Gate – it’s not quite the orig­i­nal, hav­ing been re­built in 1788 - can be hired as hol­i­day ac­com­mo­da­tion.

Head­ing into the cen­tre, vis­i­tors stroll past half-tim­bered me­dieval and Tu­dor houses - 10 to 14 Jury Street, and an or­nate 1634 prop­erty on the cor­ner of New Street and Swan Street are amongst the Great Fire sur­vivors - be­fore en­coun­ter­ing some beau­ti­ful Ge­or­gian build­ings, re­flect­ing the pros­per­ity of the cit­i­zens.

No­table prop­er­ties in­clude: the el­e­gant

Ge­or­gian Court House in Jury Street, which now houses the War­wick­shire Yeo­manry Mu­seum; The Col­le­giate Church of St Mary, home to a me­dieval duck­ing stool and the mag­nif­i­cent Beauchamp Chapel; and Lord Leyces­ter Hos­pi­tal, 14th and 15th cen­tury build­ings once used by the town guild but a rest home for re­tired ser­vice­men since 1571. The Hos­pi­tal also fea­tures a beau­ti­ful Mas­ter’s Gar­den com­plete with 2,000-year-old Nilome­ter.

If you’re be­wil­dered by the choice, there are guided tours in­clud­ing War­wick Scan­dals, and His­toric War­wick Walls, while the com­pet­i­tive vis­i­tor might en­joy the Trivia Trail, in which teams race around town for 90 min­utes of fact find­ing.

And for a unique view of the cas­tle you can pad­dle your own ca­noe, along with up to 20 oth­ers, on board a long boat on the River Avon. The 30-minute ex­pe­ri­ence in­cludes in­struc­tion, buoy­ancy aids and en­ter­tain­ment from a ‘Di­rec­tor of Imag­i­na­tion’.

‘It’s noted that in 914AD, Ethelfleda, daugh­ter of King Al­fred the Great, built a for­ti­fied dwelling at War­wick to de­fend against Dan­ish at­tack’

Even the cafés are his­toric. Vis­i­tors can take tea (on fine bone china) in the Thomas Oken Tea Rooms in Cas­tle Street, built over 500 years ago, or im­bibe some­thing stronger at the Tu­dor House Inn in West Street, an­other or­nate half-tim­bered build­ing.

Keen shop­pers will find plenty of choice, rang­ing from the Satur­day mar­ket (in the Mar­ket Place, of course) to Swan Street, the main shop­ping thor­ough­fare, as well as Smith Street with its quirky, in­de­pen­dent shops, West Street and Coten End.

The town of­fers a mix of in­de­pen­dent re­tail­ers and na­tional chains, and while the his­tory of the area is re­flected in a range of an­tique shops, there are plenty of gift shops, bou­tiques and art gal­leries to browse, along with fine restau­rants.

Mean­while, keen gar­den­ers won’t want to miss Hill Close Gar­dens, on the won­der­fully-named Bread and Meat Close, next to the race­course. This col­lec­tion of 16 Vic­to­rian gar­den plots was saved from re­de­vel­op­ment in the late 1990s and now of­fers an in­sight into 19th cen­tury life.

And if that’s not enough, vis­i­tors can also opt for a day at the races, as Septem­ber 26 sees the open­ing meet of the Na­tional Hunt horserac­ing sea­son. Rac­ing on the site, south west of the town, can be traced back to 1694 and the course still of­fers the thrill of the steeple­chase to to­day’s fans of the Sport of Kings.

Above: West Gate, and the Lord Leyces­ter Hos­pi­tal Left: War­wick Cas­tle

Hill Close Gar­dens - 16 re­stored Vic­to­rian de­tached gar­dens, some with sum­mer­houses

The Mas­ter’s Gar­den and Nilome­ter

The Na­tional Hunt sea­son gets un­der way on Septem­ber 26 at War­wick race­course

The Rose & Crown, Mar­ket Place, War­wick

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