Sword fighting, scaremongering and sensational surroundings: Lottie Gross finds out why Warwick Castle isn't just fun for the kids.
As expected, upon arrival we discovered we were one of only two couples without children in the entire campsite. Fortunately, our medieval Warwick tent – complete with double bed, two singles, plush duvets and mattresses fit for kings - was set back from the others, overlooking the river, giving me hope that there may be some peace to be had that evening after all the kids had been put to bed.
We were about to embark on what Warwick Castle call their "medieval glamping experience", in which we're shacked up in luxury tents, given two full days to explore the castle and get to feast at a medieval banquet in the evening. I had wondered what on Earth we'd do for two whole days here, but after seeing the extensive programme of events I worried that we wouldn't fit it all in. Just the walk from the glampsite to the castle grounds took us 45 minutes as we stopped to take in the view of the rather elegant conservatory and peacock garden, meet a bizarre bird of prey with head feathers that resembled Rod Stewart, and examine a huge wooden trebuchet which stood poised threateningly at 18 metres tall.
We first opted for a picnic on the lawn outside the castle; a safe and relaxed introduction to the grounds, I thought. That was before an enormous sea eagle swooped down from behind me, a few feet above my head, landing in the fenced off area to my right. Instinctively I cowered to protect my not-so-medieval ham sandwich from its sharp, bright yellow talons.
We'd sat down just as the twice-daily falconry display had begun and it turned out to be a pretty exciting half an hour once I'd got over the fear of having my lunch pecked from my hands. We saw three types of eagle and a white-backed vulture gracing the skies above our heads, flying unimaginably high (sometimes up to thousands of feet) then gliding down to get food from the falconer who was leading the show. There was something mesmerizing about watching an animal so enormous and heavy float like a feather through a glorious blue sky.
The Castle is celebrating 1100 years this summer, although of course the walls we see today aren’t quite that old – an earthen rampart was built here in 914 and since then has been the site of various defensive structures. The stone castle was constructed 1260 and has grown to the deceptive size it is now over the years.
We found ourselves lost in a myriad of opulent rooms in the main enclave of the castle, where suits of armour lined the corridors and hundreds of swords adorned the walls. During guided tours of the Great Hall we were able to handle the some of the hefty metal weapons – scores of men were queuing up to hold these lethal blades, none of whom I’m sure would have the strength to swing it with just one arm.
Upstairs in the living quarters mannequins dressed as Earls and Ladies were poised mid-action – the busty women gossiping in a boudoir, the men smoking in the library – and recordings played out their conversations as if it were just another day at Warwick. Similarly, below ground in an exhibition called the Kingmaker, we found ourselves in the midst of battle preparations for the 1471 battle lead by Richard Neville in the War of the Roses. The sights, sounds and even smells (from the mock-up horses stables to the fake fires) told the story of behind-the-scenes Warwick.
Even further below ground, however, is where we found the real adult entertainment (not like that, get your mind out of the gutter). During a terrifying half an hour, I cautiously tip-toed through a labyrinth of dark rooms, trying to stifle the compulsion to clutch strangers’ hands and hide behind those taller than me. The Dungeon of Warwick Castle is not a place for the weak, the faint-hearted or – as it seemed during our visit – children: some were so terrified they were reduced to tears.
We were ferried through a torture room and a doctor’s lab before we were put on trial for all manner of atrocities then let loose in a misty maze of mirrors. It’s usually only after a heavy night that I’m afraid of my own reflection, but in that room I almost unable to look up from the floor for fear of what might look back. The climax of the tour of terror ended in a room full of screaming adults as the seats came alive and tickled our backsides while a crazed witch cackled in our ears. Fortunately, by this time the bar was open and a stiff drink was placed firmly in my hand upon arrival at back at the camp.
The promised “medieval feast” left a little to be desired; the whole hog with an apple in its mouth I’d imagined turned out to be a roast dinner buffet. But the subsequent entertainment delivered more then enough amusement for the kids – that was until the parents commandeered the fun. While the Warwick jester was distracting the children, we lined up to try our hands at archery, sword-fighting and jousting. Suddenly, a mixture of gin and tonic and plastic swords culminated in wives slaughtering husbands in clumsy battles, and fathers jeering at their sons when they couldn’t hit closer to the archery target.
We finally fell into our tent at 2am after sitting by the river with a bottle of wine, putting the medieval world to rights. Thankfully, a full English was laid out the following morning to soak up our hangovers, and a stroll through the peacock garden made for a romantic recovery.
We witnessed the raising of the portcullis, where an animated archer told gory tales of failed enemy attacks, then took a stroll along the castle’s defences to admire the beautiful grounds from above. The breeze from the top was refreshing and as I looked down on the estate I remembered my first trip to Warwick Castle; I was 13-years-old on a school trip, and I couldn’t have been less interested in its dramatic history or personal stories. I considered how this weekend had been a testament to the castle’s appeal as an attraction that’s not just for children.
Warwick Castle's medieval glamping runs throughout summer until 31st August. For more information see warwick-castle.com/glamping and to book call the Glamping Hotline on 0871 663 1676 (lines open Monday – Friday 9am-5pm). Chiltern Railways provides train travel to Warwick from London Marylebone and Birmingham stations thirty times a day. The castle is a ten minute walk from the station.
Top image © Paul Banton/Shutterstock