I was traumatised by Warwick castle as a child. Our visit must have taken place not long after David Greville gave up the financial struggle to maintain it and sold to the Tussauds Group in 1978. I remember there were some waxwork figures in the State Rooms, but it was Guy’s Tower than terrified me. I was brought up in a bungalow and was slow to get the hang of stairs. Narrow, spiral stairs with partly worn steps were something else entirely. But once committed, there was no way out. There were people behind us, the only way was up, handing on to my father for dear life as he hauled me up, hoping that my sweaty palms wouldn’t slip out of his. It was a relief to arrive at the top and see the view, but then things took a turn for the worse. We had to go back; being pulled down the uneven steps was ten times worse. I have never been so relieved as when we emerged onto the ramparts.
That was forty years ago, and I had learned about the Beauchamp and Neville earls of Warwick in my medieval history degrees, I hadn’t visited Warwick Castle again. Until now. The Tussauds Group is now part of Merlin Entertainments, and the emphasis is very much on a fun family day out.
I had forgotten how much of the state apartments was Victorian. The state rooms are dressed as recreation of a weekend house party hosted by Daisy Greville, the 5th countess, for members of the Marlborough House set. Waxworks of guests including the Prince of Wales (to my eye possibly refashioned from Clement Freud) and Lord Roberts are entertained with singing from Clara Butt. Countess Daisy was something of a character. As well as throwing extravagant parties, she kept a private menagerie on an island in the lake. Later, she because interested in socialism and stood for parliament as the Labour candidate for Leamington and Warwick in 1923, losing to Anthony Eden.
Deciding not the brave the towers (I’m still nervous of spiral stairs to this day) we found ourselves instead in the peacock garden where the eponymous fowl (the only remains of the menagerie) strut among their topiary fellows. A shower of rain led us to take refuge in the nearby conservatory tea room, where we enjoyed a pot of lemongrass and ginger tea whilst admiring a replica of the Warwick vase, a huge piece of Roman pottery excavated near Tivoli in 1771 and presented to George Greville, the 2nd earl.
Fortunately the weather improved as we took our seats for Falcon Quest, the birds of prey show. Before it started, recorded announcements stressed the conservation and welfare of the birds and the breeding programme. The show itself was like no other I have attended. It was themed as the quest of a humble fisherman’s son who vowed to the earl that he would bring birds of prey back to Warwick. But the quasi-medieval tunic and hammy gestures did not detract from the spectacle of the birds themselves. A humble barn owl was first, followed by a white-tailed eagle, a pair of Steller’s sea eagles with impressive large yellow beaks, an eagle owl, Harris hawks and an Andean condor which swooped so low over my head I could feel it.
Walked back to the car, we passed the ‘Knight school’ where children were being trained in the arts of archery and sword fighting. It looked good fun, though some of the pupils were wielding umbrellas rather than the wooden swords available from the gift shop.
My childhood self would have loved that.
I revisited Warwick Castle in August 2020