Jane Leigh walks in the footsteps of Ethelfleda and JRR Tolkien
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