Towns / Cities Visited: 112
Countries Visited: 22
Steps Taken Today: 11,155
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,029,710
Our four night stay at our Airbnb in Banbury had come to an end, and although that doesn’t sound like a long stay in the grander scheme of things, its was the longest we were staying in one place during our entire six week stint in the UK. Bidding it adieu, we bundled into the car and headed to our day’s destination, and one which would wholly absorb our attention; Warwick Castle. The castle is, unsurprisingly, located in the town of Warwick, and has a long and fascinating history in which the land passed through many hands, so allow me to give you a short snippet. The first fortification in this land was built all the way back in 914 when Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mecians and the daughter of Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, had a burh built here to protect the area from the raiding Danish vikings. Later, in 1064, none other than William the Conquerer replaced the burh with his own wooden motte and bailey fort. This was eventually rebuilt in stone a couple of centuries later, and further reinforced in the 14th century during the War of the Roses. The castle remained a stronghold until the 17th century when King James I granted it to Sir Fulke Greville in 1604, a man who was both a poet and a politician. Greville transformed it into a country house for his family and descendants, who would later rise up the ranks of the aristocracy and become the Earls of Warwick. They remained the owners of the land until it was purchased by the Tussauds Group in 1978, when it began to be used entirely as a tourist attraction; unlike many of the other castles in the country which remain, at least in part, private residences.
Now that you’re at least mildly up to speed on the background of the site, allow me to continue. We parked the car, and soon found ourselves drawing closer. It was only at this point that we realised the true scale of the castle, which sits proudly atop its great plinth of earth, surrounded by its now lush green dry moat. Its intimidating stature seemed so juxtaposed to the clear blue skies overhead, and we approached with a strange mix of pleasure and reverence. At the front gate we had received a schedule of the events taking place for the day, and a map of the site, and we were excited to see that there was a plethora of entertainment to occupy us for the day.
Before delving inside we decided to do a circuit of the exterior wall, and as we passed around the bottom corner, we found ourselves arriving at the mill and engine house which sits beside the River Avon, that flows right past the castle. This building was originally a water powered mill used for grinding flour for the castle’s kitchens since the 14th century. Despite its semi aquatic placement, the mill was severely damaged by a fire in 1880 which destroyed the equipment inside. The walls and waterwheel remained though, and given the advantageous position of the building and the current technological advancements happening at the time, it was decided to harness the flow of the river to power an engine which would provide electricity to the castle for the first time. Although it is not longer in use, you can still go inside and see a replica of this engine. There is a wealth of information provided, and even if you have very little knowledge about hydro power, you leave with a fairly solid idea of how it all works.
Continuing on, we made our way to the other side of the castle, but were disappointed to see that we could not cross the bridge that headed over the river to the island which once housed the exotic menagerie of the 5th countess of Warwick, and occasionally hosts jousting tournaments in the summer months. The reason for this though, soon became clear when we realised that the replica trebuchet which now sits on the land was being set up for their daily demonstration. With a little time to spare before said show, we quickly scurried over to the mews of the castle, where their birds of prey are housed. From raptors and eagles, to vultures and owls, they have a stunning collection of powerful and lethal winged beasts; an Air Force I can truly get behind.
Heading back over to the riverbank, we plonked ourselves down amongst the gathering masses, snatching a clear view of the astonishing siege weapon across the water. As the staff organised readying the trebuchet, another member of staff wandered amongst the crowd, educating us on the ins and outs of such artillery in medieval times. The example here is, in fact, the largest working trebuchet in the world, at 22 tonnes and 18 metres tall. For those of you unversed in medieval weaponry, trebuchets were a type of catapult which use gravity and a counterweight system to fling objects from a sling at or over the walls of strongholds. Although we would be seeing this one toss a large stone, we learnt that they were sometimes used to also send festering animal carcasses, or clay pots of human refuse over the walls of besieged castles in order to spread disease; a truly ingenious but thoroughly disgusting example of medieval biological warfare. It was incredible to learn how much teamwork and synchronicity it takes for the men inside the turn wheels to draw back the throwing arm, and how the slightest misstep, or insecure clasping of the sling during loading, could easily result in the injury or death of those involved. It took around fifteen minutes to ready the machine, and the crowd collectively held its breath as the countdown began. 3, 2, 1; down dropped the counterweight, and up high into the air flew the rock, soaring a good few hundred metres over the tournament arena and into the trees in the distance. As a couple with a fascination with the history of medieval warfare, it was one of the coolest things we’ve seen on our travels.
Grinning from ear to ear, we collected ourselves and headed off to wander the Peacock Gardens. True to their name, there were both a number of topiary peacocks, and actual peacocks amongst the manicured flowerbeds; although a few of the peacocks and peahens seem to care little about staying in their assigned area, and can be found sauntering around the grounds. With its fountain splashing happily, and the light and airy conservatory housing the sites tea rooms, its a tranquil place to pause a moment. We considered stopping for tea and scones, but the place was packed, and we had much to see. As such, we simply settled for a quick pasty from one of the food vans.
With a little time to spare before the next activity began, we decided to quickly check out the Conquerors Fortress, the mounded area of the wall which once housed William the Conquerors fort. As you wind your way up the ramp, you pass a series of information boards which tell the tale of the battles fought which led to the downfall of Æthelflæd, and the success of the Normans. Once we hustled past the rather rude middle-aged American tourists physically blocking the way so they could take seemingly a million selfies, we took a moment to admire the view, both of the inner area of the castle, and the view out over the river and the trebuchet.
Coming back to earth outside the walls once more, we hurried over to the small arena on the grass for one of our favourite kinds of shows; falconry. Along with a couple of raptors, the falconer displayed the might of a number of eagles, including a truly massive sea eagle, which is one of the biggest in the world by weight, as well as the easily recognisable bald eagle. Its true what they say, that you learn something new everyday, and we were intrigued to learn that bald eagles are names as such, not because they look bald, but because in old English the word bald was used to mean white spots, as it is used in the term piebald. In this case it refers to the white feathers which cover these bird’s heads when they mature. Seeing them dip and swoop, catching food midair, backed by the cloud dappled sky, made my heart soar along with them. We were sad when the display came to an end, but were equally as elated to discover that there was another show scheduled for later in the afternoon, which was to include different birds, and thus we rearranged our plans to ensure we would be right back there in time.
Now it was time to finally venture within the castle itself. As we stepped inside, we realised that the space is separated in two, in order to demonstrate two different eras of the castle’s history. We decided to work chronologically, and thus headed left to the area with rooms donned in medieval furnishings. Armour and weapons are arrayed from wall to wall within the first room, and they remind you of a time when this was a true fortification and not a pleasure palace. The grandeur takes a more showy turn in the next room, with its gild edged white walls and ceiling, glittering chandelier, and ostentatiously presented aristocratic portraits. The remaining series of rooms are beautifully decorated with period furniture, and even the massive cauldron which used to feed the garrison of soldiers who protected this place. Given that the site used to be owned by the Tussauds Group, it is unsurprising to also find one room playing host to seven full sized wax figures; Henry XIII and his six wives. This side of the castle tour finishes in the well appointed personal chapel of the Greville family.
Making our way back to the central point, and heading to the right, we passed into a special exhibition that the rooms here house. The Royal Weekend Party, as the display is called, is designed to show the castle in a snapshot of a quintessential Victorian era party that Frances, the countess of Warwick, threw in 1898 in which the guest of honour amongst the high society attendees was the Prince of Wales, who would later go on to become King Edward VII. The Tussauds Group did an amazing job of creating historically accurate figures of the known guests, and posing them in such a way that it honestly feels like you are walking through a frozen moment in time; as though you should apologise for passing between two conversing ladies, or you should stop and listen to the musical talents of the guest who has taken the helm at the piano. Complete with livery clad footmen, and crisply attired maids, it is a fully functioning household in freeze-frame, and definitely worth the visit.
Moving back outside and towards the depths of the castle, we took a quick moment to stand in the cold dark of the prison cell, before stepping into another of the castle’s attractions. The exhibition housed in the depths of the castle, titled ‘The Kingmaker’, takes you alongside yet more wax figures depicting the army of Richard Neville, known at the Kingmaker of Warwick, readying for battle in the year 1471. Richard, who became Earl of Warwick, used his military prowess in the Battle of St Albans in 1455 to help Edward, Duke of York, gain the throne, and after this he soon rose to great power amongst the aristocracy. As you pass through the rooms you see the plethora of workers needed to fit out an army for battle; from blacksmiths making weapons to whitesmiths finishing them, from masons carving cannonballs, to seamstresses sewing banners and leatherworkers fixing together gloves and shoes. Its easy to forget how much work going to war was in a time when everything relied on man and horse power. Speaking of power it took a fair amount of will power for us to get through the medieval gift shop at the end without buying literally everything.
The time had come to see our second falconry display for the day, and we settled in happily beside the arena. This show saw us viewing another bald eagle, the son of the one we had seen earlier; a hilariously rascally owl who gave the handler nothing but grief as he seemed set on doing just as he pleased; a group of five kites (basically smaller and nimbler falcons) snatching food midair at incredible speed; and the most impressive of them all, an Andean condor, the world’s largest bird of prey. As the condor swooped over the crowd, it was greeted with a gasp from everyone below; it was truly amazing. With a wingspan of up to ten feet, its hardly surprising to note that the bird usually lives amongst the clifftops, as taking off from the ground is basically impossible for such a large and heavy bird. Even here it must take flight from atop the castle walls and you can literally see the effort it must put into its down stroke in order to lift off. They may not be the most appealing to look at, but there is no denying the fact that they are majestic in the air.
From the depths to the heights, we made our way past the room in the base of one of the towers which used to house the bears they used for the cruel activity of bear baiting, and up onto the very walls that encircled us. Moving along and through the towers we were greeted with a stunning view out over the town of Warwick, which the Earls here used to lord over. One of the towers houses an exhibition about Joan of Arc, which seems obscure until you realise that it was the Earl of Warwick in 1431, Richard de Beauchamp, who oversaw the trial and execution of the famed religious soldier. As you draw above the front gate of the castle walls, you are given a perfect view down over the barbican which served to trap invading forces and eliminate them through the medium of arrow fire through the arrow slits, and a barrage of missiles and stones from the murder holes above. These methods may seem barbaric, but they were incredibly effective, with very few enemies ever breaching the walls.
The day was almost at an end, but we had just enough time to visit the last attraction, and one of the newest of the castle; the Time Tower. It is an immersive audio visual presentation which brings to life some of the stories of the 1100 years of rather bloody and treacherous history which have passed within these walls. It was a perfect way to round off the visit, and reinforced all we had learnt thus far. As we made our way back to the car, taking a last few snaps of this beautiful place, and settled in for the long drive to our next home for the night some three hours away, we chatted happily about all of the incredible things we had learnt. After finding ourselves stuck once more in the gridlock of British motorways, we eventually made it to another warm and welcoming Airbnb, and settled in for a quick sleep before another chock full day of sightseeing.
A millennia of history floated through my head as I lay in bed, and I found myself replaying the powerful swing of the trebuchet over again in my mind’s eye. War has changed so much over the centuries, and being in a time where our battles are mainly fought from a distance, behind computer screens on the other side of the world or from the air, its hard to imagine the chaos and barbarity of hand to hand combat which made up the bulk of medieval warfare. In watching that stone fly, and fall 300 metres away, it was the first time I had really considered that that used to be the farthest you could be from the frontline. We are so used to guns and explosives that the idea of dying slowly on the battlefield from a sword to the abdomen; or being trapped in the walls of a castle, dodging the missiles of the mighty trebuchet and hoping not to starve to death or succumb to disease before the opposing team gave up their assault, seems almost unimaginable nowadays.
Modern warfare may mean a quicker, and generally more painless death, but it also results in much higher amounts of collateral damage. Bombs dropped on a city cannot and do not discern between soldiers and civilians, and we can now kill millions at the mere press of a button and with wanton disregard as to their innocence or lack thereof. The death radius has gone from a few metres to a few kilometres, and with weapons which harness nuclear power, the potential for destruction now is mind-boggling. We can affect not only the lives of those here and now, but the health of future generations. There is a huge difference between trying to spread disease by dropping a cow carcass amongst an enclosed castle and hoping people get sick, to engineering a highly contagious virus and purposely infecting an entire population. We have become desensitised to the damage done when we do not have to stand amongst the aftermath. Looking at your enemy through the sight of a sniper rifle is not the same as being at arms length, evenly matched with sword and shield, and a hope that your dance with death is superior to theirs. In not having to face our foes in close proximity have we also lost our sense of humility? Don’t get me wrong, I abhor war in all of its forms, but our advancements in warfare seem to be one factor of human development which by far does more harm than good, and perhaps it is something we should have left behind in the dark ages.