Warwick Castle has played a pivotal role in much of British history, from the Vikings through the Norman conquest to the Wars of the Roses. It’s also been owned by a rich cast of characters, from Ethelfleda, the Mercian queen who first built fortifications on the site in 914 AD, to William the Conqueror, Richard III and Warwick the Kingmaker (fans of the recent Hollow Crown may remember his role in the Wars of the Roses).
It’s now owned by Merlin. Merlin Entertainment, that is, the conglomerate behind theme parks such as Thorpe Park and Legoland, who have turned the castle into a sort of Historyland — history done by Disney. But not the sanitised, saccharine Disney, more the entertaining, kids-love-it Disney.
As well as the traditional castle entertainments of counting the steps on the vertiginous walk along the ramparts (500+) and running up the mound to the site of the original Norman motte and bailey, children are delighted by the free displays of jousting, archery, birds of prey, and the chance to train with a sword in the knight’s school. Then there’s the demonstration of the castle’s mighty trebuchet (allegedly the world’s largest catapult) shooting a flaming fireball 150 metres into the air — go for the last show of the day for a fitting finale to your visit.
New for this year are a couple of Horrible Histories attractions, which fit neatly in with the castle’s established mix of entertaining, gruesome education. Head straight to the disorientating Horrible Histories Maze, where the object is not to find the centre and get out again, but to visit different eras of history, collecting stamps on your Time Passport as you go, and then get out again. To reveal too much would be to spoil the point of the maze, but it’s scattered with typically gruesome HH facts, fun interactive elements and bewildered parents wondering how to get from the Tudor period to the First World War. Even the exit is fun.
Follow that with a bit of a sit down at the Horrible Histories stage show, a high-energy, two-man act that tells the history of Warwick Castle in trademark irreverent style. Grown-ups probably get more out of it than children (I’m not sure how many five-year-olds will appreciate the references to Location Location Location, David Dickinson and one of the funniest impersonations of Keith Lemon I’ve seen), but there are enough silly gags and songs to keep them laughing and clapping along.
In short, there is a wealth of things to do at Warwick — I haven’t even mentioned the displays, exhibitions and interiors of the castle itself. But all this entertainment does not come cheap. For a family of four paying at the gate, a day ticket costs £84.20; book at least five in advance and that is reduced to £17.60 per person (children aged 2 and under go free). And that’s before you factor in the exorbitant cost of the on-site food concessions (top tip: bring a picnic to enjoy in the Capability Brown landscaped grounds — avoiding any hungry peacocks or swooping birds of prey).
Given that it is quite a stretch to fit in everything within the opening times (10am—5pm all year round), it makes sense to turn a one-day visit into a two-day break with an overnight stay in the Knights Village accommodation, set in a wooded glade a short walk from the castle.
You can choose from a bit of “Medieval Glamping” in a themed bell tent, complete with wooden floor, double bed, two singles, wifi and two power points (themes are basic medieval, luxury kings, and pink princess); or you can opt for a bit more comfort — no midnight dash to the toilet block — with one of the new lodges.
They come in two sizes: the bijou Woodland, a semi-detached lodge with a double bedroom, a kids’ room with bunk bed, and an ensuite; or the grand Knight, which is similar to the Woodland, but spread out over a ground and mezzanine floor, with an extra sofa bed meaning you can sleep up to seven rather than five (if you include a cot bed for a nipper).
The Woodland lodges may be compact — look out for the weirdly small cupboard with hangers that hasn’t enough room to hang anything — but they are very cosy and comfortable, and come with mod-cons. Who would expect cable TV and wifi in a woodland lodge?
The early evening resounds to the noise of youngsters recreating the knightly battles they’ve seen during the day, chasing each other through the glade while their parents relax on the porch of their lodges enjoying the complimentary tea, or a refreshing glass of something.
Between 6.30 and 8.30 each evening, exclusively for guests staying in the Knights Village, there is have-a-go archery, knights’ school and jester school — with all the costumed instructors offering patient, affable guidance to pupils of all ages. For £7.50 extra per person, you can also take part in the birds of prey experience, which basically involves a falconer guiding one of their charges (either a kestrel or falcon) to fly to your gauntleted hand. It’s your chance to play at Kes — minus the brutality.
A cooked or continental breakfast is included in the price of your stay, served in the onsite “Medieval Banqueting Hall”. But if you want, you can also enjoy an all-you-can eat buffet dinner in the hall, for £18.95 per adult and £9.95 per child. Though don’t expect a medieval hog roast and flagons of mead, the hall is more a stylised refectory in reality, serving typical mass catering fare. But it will definitely fill you up. If you want to book a table, go for the early 5.15pm slot, which will mean you can enjoy the full two hours of the evening entertainment before retiring to your tent or lodge.
The glade may be filled with the noise of rampant children during the early evening, but as night falls it turns into an idyll illuminated by a star-filled sky and the soft glow of lights from the glamping tents. Sitting outside staring at the night sky offers the perfect antidote to the excitement of the day.
If you take into the account the price of a day ticket to the castle, the prices of the accommodation offer excellent value (you get two days’ access to the castle included). Glamping starts from £37.50 per person per night (based on up to four sharing) and the lodges start from £40 (based on up to five sharing).
So if you want to give the kids a treat at the weekend, you could do worse than a stay at Warwick. It makes that horrible history a delight.