Liz Gill takes a walk on the scary side with Tony Robinson on an ideal multi-generational day out
Tony Robinson has immersed himself in a lot of different historical periods both comically as Baldrick in Blackadder and seriously as the presenter of Time Team, the programme that popularised archaeology. So is there, I asked him, any other era in which he would have liked to have lived?
The answer is swift and decisive. “Absolutely not. I never feel I want to live in any other time and in fact when I visit schools I try and drill it into children how extraordinarily privileged we are to live in the 21st century, to be well fed and warm and have a roof over our heads and not be beaten up by brigands. In fact the more I learn about other ages the more grateful I am to live now.”
We are speaking on the day Tony has turned the key to unlock four new rooms at Warwick Castle. Shut up and neglected for centuries the Barbican Battlements, the Bear Tower, the Watergate Tower and the Guards’ Room are now open to the public and, says Robinson, “incredibly evocative. They’ve really been brought back to life.”
Bringing them back to life includes the sound of wretched bears growling in their pit, a costumed actor in the Guards’ Room recounting a Civil War siege (the castle was a Parliamentary stronghold) and then lightening the mood by revealing that the only casualty was a drinker in the local inn who was hit by a cannonball and a guide describing how the ‘murder holes’ in the Barbican were used to pour down quicklime and boiling urine on enemy soldiers trapped below.
There is quite a lot in this vein at Warwick and for those who like their histories really horrible there’s the visit to the Dungeon where young performers play torturers, plague doctors and merciless judges with lip-smacking relish, commandeering audience members into the roles of victim or accused. It’s all a bit hammy, of course, but the atmosphere is rather scary and the theatrical tricks do make you jump – a stranger and I actually clung to each other at one point.
Less nerve wracking is the section recreating the household of Richard Neville (father-in-law of Richard III) and its preparations for the Battle of Barnet in 1469 in which the Earl, once so rich and powerful he was known as the Kingmaker, perished. Other sections of the main house – not actually a castle but a French style palace – recall other eras. The great hall has fabulous suits of armour including two for horses and one for a four year-old boy. The latter, says an accompanying note, was a way of showing off one’s wealth, a sort of mediaeval bling.
The place is good at such notes. It was fascinating to learn, for instance, that the spendthrift earl, George Greville, had to be bailed out by the tips guests had left to his housekeeper, or that a later handsome duke landed a Hollywood contract and appeared in a film with Errol Flynn and David Niven. The 12 room section recreating with wax figures a Victorian weekend given for the Prince of Wales in 1898 is full of delicious gossipy detail.
You can self guide or tag along on a tour given by enthusiastic guides. Other attractions include falconry displays, sword fights, longbow demonstrations, raising of the portcullis and the firing of the trebuchet,t at 18 metres high and 22 tonnes in weight one of the large siege machines in the world and capable of firing missiles over 170 metres.
Warwick Castle is not for purists who want to wander round with a serious guide book in their hands. It’s owned by Merlin Entertainments who also own places like Alton Towers and Madame Tussauds and there is a history-as-visitor-attraction feel to the place.
It’s not particularly cheap either. There are special deals like a two adult two children ticket for around £75 if booked online in advance but the Dungeon is an extra £9 and the car park is £6. (I went by train: 86 minutes with Chiltern Railways from London’s Marylebone and topped and tailed the day with a stroll through the town which has some fine old buildings and attractive antique shops.)
But it is a great deal of fun and a good trip destination out for three generations or a place for grandparents to enjoy with grandchildren. It makes learning a little more history seem effortless and it also makes you very glad at the end of the day to be returning to modern times.