Warwick Castle has changed a good deal in the twenty or so years since my last visit. Merlin Entertainments, the group behind Legoland, Thorpe Park and Madame Tussauds, turned it into a ‘castle-plus’ after spending £26m on refurbishments. As well as the castle itself, built by William the Conqueror in 1068, visitors can now explore a host of seasonal and permanent attractions, like the Time Tower, Horrible Histories Maze, and Dungeon. A new Knight’s Village gives overnight accommodation in wooden lodges, to complement the existing Medieval Glamping and Tower Suite accommodation. You can read about the Knight’s Village in this post by my friend Nat.
We visited over Autumn half-term, as part of a trip with Shakespeare’s England. Warwick Castle’s the sort of place that could easily keep families occupied for days. We arrived from our nearby hotel, Chesford Grange, in the late morning, so we only had a few hours to explore the place before dusk. Even so, we managed to pack in plenty of fun.
What we saw
For Hallowe’en, Warwick transformed itself into a Haunted Castle. A few temporary attractions were on offer, including the Haunted Hollows, a walled passageway through a tree-lined space with different sections. In the Hollows, the medieval tunes that were played around the castle grounds were replaced by quiet, eerie music, and mist streamed into the tunnel of fronds at the entrance. Our daughter (aged five) is easily spooked, but she wasn’t too fazed by the graveyard with a man dressed as a gargoyle, who muttered at the passers-by, the pumpkin field (complete with pumpkin-headed actor), or the creepy looking skeletons.
In fact, D took a shine to one of those.
Flight of the Eagles
The Flight of the Eagles was a falconry display like no other I’ve seen. Colossal birds soared up to the castle ramparts, and then back down again, skimming low over the spectator’s heads. (Tip: if you want the birds to fly over you – and it really is incredible when they do – stand with your back to the castle. If you want to avoid the gusts of wind from their huge wings, stand on the other side).
As we watched Chilean eagles, American eagles and colossal vultures swoop down from the turrets, the falconer gave an interesting patter about the birds’ habits, and the history of falconry at Warwick. This included the time when an eagle savaged a duck in front of 2k spectators (the bird in question was sacked).
We always find it impossible to leave an attraction without at least dipping our toes into any playgrounds there. Warwick Castle’s playground is shaped like a mini-fortress, with curly slides, towers and ramparts to climb. It’s not huge, but there are plenty of other opportunities for a runaround in the castle’s 64 acres of well-kept grounds.
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six…… The castle’s trebuchet is 18 metres high and modelled on the enormous Medieval catapults used to breach fortifications. The trebuchet (on the left in the picture above) is put to use as part of a regular show, which sees it hurling a 14kg missile across a field. I did rather hope to see it smashing into the roof of a small barn on the field’s other side. But, as my son pointed out, that would have meant completely rebuilding the roof every time the show was staged. Fair enough.
Horrible Histories Maze
The maze, a permanent feature at the Castle, is a collaboration with the popular BBC Horrible Histories series. Instead of finding your way to the centre, you had to look for different time zones in the maze: Vikings, Tudors and Middle Ages, to name a few. Boards around the place gave grusome facts about each era, and children could stamp a card when they found each time zone. The maze was well done, with plenty of opportunity for learning. Each zone gave a sensory example from the era, like a mini Viking ship the children could climb on, or a mocked-up trench from WWI.
The combination of the Halloween attractions and it being a brilliantly sunny day in the half term holidays, meant that the place was teeming with visitors. We poked our noses into the Undercroft and Coach House restaurants. Although their menus looked varied and affordable, the queues were so long we decided to buy lunch at one of the stalls dotted around the castle instead. From a choice of turkey legs, burgers and pulled pork, we decided to buy two enormous turkey legs (they really were gigantic. I turned veggie for a few days afterwards). The queue for the legs was long, but it was pleasant waiting in the sunny castle courtyard, watching Hallowe’en performances on the Dead Centre Stage, with the castle’s Mound in the background.
What we missed
My top tip for visiting Warwick Castle in school holidays would be, arrive early. By 11.30am there were no more spaces in the main parking areas, and we ended up in the overflow parking, a good twenty minutes’ walk from the castle entrance.
We also missed the opportunity to go inside the Witches’ Tower, which looked tantalising from the outside. Normally the Princess Tower, for Hallowe’en the Tower became a venue for potion-making, face-painting and other witchery. By the time we arrived at the Tower the earliest time slot available was 17.45, which was too late for our schedule. We contented ourselves with watching the display of talking pumpkins and the smoking cauldron outside.
Towers, ramparts and interior
As we spent the entire day outside, we missed out on a major feature of the castle: its interiors, which from the guidebook look lavish and beautifully reconstructed. Next time, we’ll be sure to explore the 13th century Great Hall, the Green Drawing Room, with artefacts from the English Civil War, and the Time Tower’s immersive multi-media show, describing the castle’s past.
The Haunted Castle hosted a fire joust, which at 8pm saw two knights on horseback, battling each other with flaming lances. Sadly, we had to leave before then, but I was tempted to sneak back after the children’s bedtime.
For an extra charge, visitors could brave the Dungeon. If Merlin’s other Dungeon attraction, the London Dungeon, was anything to go by, this would have been a seriously spooky spectacle. Warwick’s Dungeon experience comes with a warning that it’s not suitable for under-tens, so we’ll be saving it for a few years’ time.
The castle is in the town of Warwick, less than two miles from junction 15 of the M40. Warwick train station is a mile from the Castle, and an express coach runs direct from London.
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