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July 18, 2014 5:37 pm
Things have changed a bit since Edward IV’s day. England’s first Yorkist king would probably not have had the end of his loo roll folded into a smart point as ours is. Nor, in what the Middle Ages euphemistically called a “garderobe”, was Edward likely to have had the benefit of a complimentary spa manicure kit (“time for nails”). And while taps by Heritage Bathrooms (founded in 1924) might usually confer an air of architectural originality, in this bathroom (founded c1330) they feel daringly modern.
This is the Rose Suite in Warwick Castle, former seat of the Earl of Warwick, defensive stronghold of William the Conqueror and, for several weeks in 1469, the place where Edward IV is thought, the castle says, to have stayed as guest (or rather, as the history books have it, “prisoner”). And tonight, it is where I am staying too. Because, from this month, Warwick Castle is offering guests the opportunity to sleep in the same rooms in the tower where Edward slept. The castle is, perhaps inevitably, promising a “royal welcome”.
In many ways, the passing of 700-odd years has left relatively little mark. Edward, when he was here, would have climbed the same spiral staircase as I did and slept beneath the same vaulted stone ceiling. Perhaps most pruriently, as Aaron Manning, the castle’s head of historical interpretation explains, the modern toilet is plumbed into the medieval plumbing, so Edward “would have sat in exactly the same place as guests would today”. A happy thought.
Royal thrones aside, there have been some more obvious changes. Arriving at the entrance gate, I am waved through the ticket barrier by a wench in medieval dress who is chatting on the phone. A Viking and a Saxon (Emma and Mark, apparently) wander past together as they go off-shift and, it must be said, somewhat historically off-track. I am advised not to miss the flaming trebuchet at 4.30pm. You wouldn’t get this at Windsor Castle.
But then again, given that Windsor’s royals are still in residence, you wouldn’t get to stay in their bedroom either. Which is the real difference here. It is often said that those visiting stately homes tend, in the face of all statistical likelihood, to imagine themselves as owners rather than the kitchenmaids. In many castles, such imaginings are hampered by the fact that the nobles are still in residence. Not so here: in 1978 the Earl of Warwick sold the castle and its heating bills to the Tussauds Group (owners of the famous waxworks as well as theme parks). The closest thing that Warwick now has to a noble is, well, me.
And a very pleasant feeling it is too. I walk past groups of what Shakespeare would have called “commoners” in the courtyard as they enjoy their bread and circuses (or at least burgers and vulture shows), content in the knowledge that I needn’t join their queues because champagne and canapés are waiting for me in my suite. I also discover that this suite is reached – and this is perhaps the most delicious experience of the whole weekend – through a door marked “No Entry”.
I lounge on the bed eating canapés, drinking bubbly and playing with the television, which I discover rises – Excalibur-like – from a blanket box at the touch of a button. It’s certainly novel. Equally thrilling is the discovery that the fire escape opens on to one of the battlements.
People visiting stately homes like to imagine themselves as the owners, rather than as the kitchenmaids
However, although there is much to savour, I am mildly ashamed to admit that perhaps the most memorable pleasure is when lost tourists, thinking that the room is open to the public, tentatively push the door open. I wave them away imperiously, or so I like to think.
Still, it does feel a little strange. I am more used to castles where the pleasures are in the Grand Tour mould: places that offer the past up amid silences and scones – and where even an audioguide can seem daringly avant garde. I am not used to places offering giant trebuchets (“the largest working siege machine IN THE WORLD!”), Castle Dungeon experiences (“terrifying”), and rising TVs. These have joys of their own, no doubt. But it’s hardly Wordsworth in front of Tintern Abbey.
And that is perhaps the point. Romantic poets may have liked to sense the sublime before the crumbling walls of monuments; but then they didn’t have to pay the repair bill. Merlin Entertainments, the visitor attractions group which acquired Tussauds and now owns Warwick Castle, has spent more than £6m in the past 10 years restoring it. Next year another £1m needs to be found to repair the north wall. Warwick’s dungeon experience (entrance £9) helps. But the royal experience in the tower (admission £600) plays its part, too.
Still, I’m curious, so I descend from my tower rooms to the riverbank to watch the trebuchet. And I discover that it is fascinating. It’s not just the unexpected look of it when it is released (less of a ping than a lollop). It’s also the commentary, which tells me that blind men were used to walk in the hamster wheel that powered the machine (they didn’t suffer from motion sickness) and that if they fell, they’d probably break their backs. I don’t recall ever being told this by the National Trust.
There is, to my relief, more traditional entertainment, too: those who stay in the tower get a private tour of the castle. I meet Manning in the courtyard in the late afternoon. By now, the crowd is thinning; their places on the lawn taken by flocks of crows in search of the morsels of bread the visitors have left behind.
The tour is wonderful. We climb on to a forbidden battlement, its stones in places as whittled and wind-worn as Cappadocia, and the experience begins. Going past the “No Entry” signs and red ropes is the least of it. We peer at 17th-century civil war graffiti by the light of Manning’s iPhone, climb into the opening of a 14th-century secret passage and look at the dungeons by torchlight. When I admire a 16th-century suit of armour, I am invited to try on the glove. It bends easily as I move my hand.
I also learn that Warwick Castle provides a good historical precedent for ignoring historical precedent, not to mention a laisser-faire attitude to culture. One earl, having bought a portrait by Van Dyck, decided that its size didn’t fit in with the decorations in his sitting room, so chopped the head out and threw away the rest. The seventh earl, fancying himself as a movie actor, built a large cinema screen on the roof (Ingrid Bergman partied in front of it). Suddenly the flaming trebuchet (which is at least historically accurate) starts to seem less egregious.
By now, the castle is almost empty. Manning leaves and I walk back across the deserted courtyard. Even the crows have gone. I walk through a rose garden in the gloaming, its silence broken only by the cry of a peacock. Then I climb up the spiral staircase to the castle’s highest battlements. Alone, I stare down at the grounds, which are – just for tonight – mine.
And suddenly, the silence, and the solitude, all starts to feel a bit too much. I go back to my room, pour a glass of wine, and switch on the exciting TV. I like to think the seventh earl would have approved.
Catherine Nixey was a guest of Warwick Castle (warwick-castle.com). A tower suite costs £600 per night, including breakfast, concierge service, a private expert-led castle tour, two days priority access to all castle attractions and car parking
Correction: The original version of this article wrongly referred to Edward IV as “Britain’s first Plantagenet king”. It has now been amended to “England’s first Yorkist king”.
Doyden Castle, Cornwall At the mouth of Port Quin inlet on the north coast of Cornwall, the castle was built in 1830 by wealthy bon viveur Samuel Symons, who wanted somewhere to drink, gamble and feast with friends, writes Kasia Delgado. A small fortress on the edge of a Cornish cliff, Doyden has one double bedroom with a dining room, kitchen, bathroom and cellar. The sandy beaches of St Ives, Polzeath and Port Isaac are within four miles. It costs from £855 for two nights (all prices listed are lowest available for summer period until September).
Barcaldine Castle, near Oban in the west of Scotland, was built in 1609 and restored in 1897. It is now a four-star B&B with five large rooms including the Caithness, at the top of the castle, which has impressive views over Loch Creran and the mountains of Glen Coe. Guests can do day trips from Oban, taking the ferry to Mull, Iona, Staffa, Kerrera and Lismore. There is a golf course nine miles away and a sea kayak centre close by. Barcaldine Castle is 90 miles from Glasgow airport. £185 for one night.
Peverell’s Tower was built on the grounds of Dover Castle in Kent by Henry III in the 13th century as an extra line of defence, and at one time it was used as a prison. The tower, which sleeps two, is comfortably furnished. Guests can access the castle grounds at night when the day visitors go home, exploring the castle and secret wartime tunnels. The castle itself, sitting on the famous white cliffs, was originally built as a palace designed for royal ceremony and as a showpiece with which the king could impress important visitors to England. £530 for two nights.
Langley Castle Built in 1350 during the reign of Edward III, Langley Castle is an imposing Norman fortress with 7ft-thick walls and 10 acres of land, situated in the Tyne valley in Northumbria. There are nine rooms in total, with five bedrooms. In true regal style, all have four-poster beds and some have spa baths or a sauna. The Tower room is one of the most popular, located in the castle turret at the top of a staircase, 100 steps up. £189 for one night.
Photograph of the Rose Suite: Rod Kirkpatrick/F Stop Press
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