WARWICKSHIRE

warwick castleWarwickshire, meaning ‘dwellings by the weir’ (small dam) is a picturesque county that is set upon the River Avon. Known for its great countryside and rich history, Warwickshire is home to several pretty little towns and villages that lie scattered in its five districts. However, it is not the natural landscape that has made Warwickshire the second-most visited region in UK. Warwickshire is a shrine for Shakespeare lovers, as the region sheathes his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. Thousands of tourists flock to this town to get a feel of the home of this legendary playwright. Other interesting sights that lure visitors to the region include the magnificent Warwick castle, Kenilworth Castle; as well as the many cathedrals of Coventry.

Layout
Much of Warwickshire has managed to escape harsh industrial and modernization changes and as a result, the county has preserved its pastoral plains, woodlands and rolling hills. While the town of Coventry sits at the region’s northernmost section, Kenilworth, Warwick and Stratford-upon-Avon line up in a southwest-bound line from here.


 

Despite having a history that dates back to the Bronze Age, Coventry (pop 315,700) hardly houses any great historic structures, as it was severely damaged by Nazi bombings during the Second World War. In fact, the destruction was so widespread that the Nazis coined a new term after the city (‘Coventrieren’ meaning to flatten).  Therefore what you see to day in Coventry is a result of intense post-war rebuilding works, which have resulted in a somewhat ‘concrete jungle-like’ appearance. Nonetheless, the city manages to attract a fair share of visitors to its doorstep, as it houses a pretty cathedral quarter that has intelligently married the ancient ruins with modern restoration works. These cathedrals lie conveniently within a distinct ring road in Central Coventry. The first stop in the cathedral tour is usually the ruins of St Michael’s Cathedral.  It is believed that this cathedral was constructed sometime in the 14th century. Historical claims have indicated that the cathedral was once one of the largest parishes in England and that it served an important religious function in the region. However, the Nazi bombings (which took place on the 14th November 1940) destroyed a significant portion of the cathedral leaving behind just a small part of the original edifice. Today, you can still sight the magnificent Gothic spire that presents a panoramic view of the city, if you can withstand the 180-step climb to the top. The roofless hall of the original building also managed to survive the attacks. These ancient sandstone ruins of the St Michael’s Cathedral have been symbolically joined with the modern, Sir Basil Spence-designed, brick cathedral [Priory Row, +44 2476632577 http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/ ad/ch £7/5]. Inside, you will find the giant Graham Sutherland tapestry of Christ, as well as beautiful stained glass window paintings. You will also find a small exhibition in the Priory Visitor Centre [6 Priory Row, +44 2476332242 http://www.prioryvisitorcentre.org/ Free], which documents the history of Coventry’s original cathedral and priory- St Mary’s, with audiovisual displays and archeological finds.

Part of Coventry’s resurrection was fuelled by its growth in the automotive industry. The Coventry Transport Museum [Millennium Place +44 2476234270, www.transport-museum.com/ Free] documents the city’s involvement in this sector; it also houses one of the biggest collections of British vehicles. Most of these vehicles (ranging from bicycles to fire engines) have been assembled in Coventry itself. The museum also houses the local tourist office.
Coventry is one of the most accessible cities in the region (thanks to its contribution to the transport business). You can arrive at the city via trains (located just outside the Central Coventry ring road) or bus at Pool Meadow bus station. 

 


kenilworth castleKenilworth (pop 22,582) in central Warwickshire warrants a visit mostly for its evocative ruins of the Kenilworth Castle. The town is easily accessed via buses that run from major cities like Coventry and Warwick.

Sights
The dramatically set ruins of the Kenilworth Castle [Castle Green, +44 1926748900 www.english-heritage.org.uk/ ad/ch £8/4.80] have been a source of inspiration to many, including writer Walter Scott, who wrote his novel Kenilworth based on this ancient structure. Constructed in the 12th century, the Kenilworth castle has housed many important figures in its heydays. These include names such as John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster who was responsible for the castle’s current perpendicular Gothic style), Simon de Monfort and Robert Dudley (a close associate and rumoured love interest of Queen Elizabeth I).

This great sandstone castle began as a humble Norman structure that was built to surround a tower. Successive owners in the 13th and 14th centuries were responsible for the castle’s expansion. Hence, the building features a mix of architectural styles that range from the Norman to the Gothic period.

The inner court of the Kenilworth Castle, features a well-preserved great hall (with its baileys that are classic of the Perpendicular Gothic style), which was used by John of Gaunt himself. The rest of the castle is divided into the Base, left-hand and right- hand courts, each a stalwart structure. The beauty of this red-pink castle is enhanced by the lush green Elizabethan garden that surrounds it. This recently restored garden had been forgotten for almost 400 years.

 

 


The small and quiet town of Warwick (pop 23,350) sees hundreds of visitors annually, thanks to its majestic Warwick Castle. This ancient town (in existence since the Neolithic period) also houses several other well-preserved historic buildings, which have survived the great fire disaster of 1694.

Layout
Warwick lies south of Coventry, upon the Avon River. The A429 bisects the town with the Westgate and Eastgate guarding the town’s borders. The Warwick castle lies south of this, overlooking the river. You can arrive at town via train (northeast of town) or bus (close to the Westgate).

Sights
The main sight in town, the Warwick Castle [+44 8712652000 www.warwick-castle.com/ ad/ch £21/15], stands proudly on a sandstone bluff overlooking the River Avon. Dating back to the 10th century, this castle started off as rampart that was built to protect the territory from Dutch raiders. The structure became a full-fledged castle, only in the 12th century and it became a procession of the Earl of Warwick in the 13th century. The castle saw much development, reaching the heights of its fortunes under these Earls (one of them being the famous Richard Neville, the Kingmaker). During this time it also saw many battles, the imprisonment of important men, as well as the murder of one of its owner- Sir Fulke Greville (the reason behind the many ghost stories that haunt the castle grounds). Although the castle went into disrepair in the 16th century and was almost destroyed by a fire in the 19th century, most of its former splendor has been restored precisely. The castle still boasts beautiful interior décor in its private apartments, which come fully furnished. Being a property of the Tassauds Group, the castle also houses several lifelike waxwork dolls, which are usually put together to celebrate the ‘Royal Weekend Party, 1898’- a recreation of a 19th century social gathering of the nobles, which is held in the private apartments. You can also walk around to sight the dungeons (that comprises of a torture chamber where you can still find a gibbet), the armory and the well-maintained, landscaped gardens.  Do allow yourself almost an entire day, if you wish to fully experience all the sights of the castle.

Another ancient structure in town is the Collegiate Church of St Mary [Old Square, +44 192403940 www.stmaryswarwick.org.uk/]. Built in 1123, the church’s tall tower dominates the skyline of central Warwick. Located a few miles northeast of the castle, the Collegiate Church of St Mary is a survivor of the Great Fire of Warwick, which destroyed much of the town in 1694. Restoration works were carried out quickly after the disaster and they managed to preserve some of the church ancient relics, like the Beauchamp Chapel (a 15th century building), which houses the tomb of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. You can also find a 12th century crypt in the church.

If you head a few miles southwest of the church, you will find yourself at the Westgate, where the Lord Leycester Hospital [60 High Street, +44 1926491422 http://lordleycester.com/ ad/ch £4.90/3.90] stands. The building never functioned as a hospital; instead it was a retirement home that was set up by Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley (earl of Leicester and her rumoured lover) in 1571. Perched atop a sandstone cliff, the Lord Leycester Hospital functioned as a perfect spot for the retirement of tired soldiers and their wives. This cluster of timber-framed buildings is an excellent example of Elizabethan architecture. The ‘hospital’ also houses a fine courtyard, a chapel and a guildhall. It welcomes visitors who wish to find out more about its history, by inviting them into its small regimental museum.

 


William Shakespeare's House, Stratford upon AvonThe humble market town of Stratford-upon-Avon (pop 25,500) receives about three million visitors annually, thanks to one man- William Shakespeare. The legendary playwright was born in this town back in 1564. This is the sole reason as to why almost every other attraction in Stratford, is a Shakespeare-related one. Many Shakespeare enthusiasts, flock to Stratford to catch a glimpse of the writer and his family’s home. Hence, the town teems with tourists (especially in summer) making it important that you get your visits in the right season, if you wish to have a fruitful trip. If so, this well-preserved, picture-perfect town will definitely keep you entertained with its collection of historic buildings that line the banks of the River Avon. Some visitors also use Stratford-upon-Avon as a base to explore the nearby Warwick and Kenilworth castles.

Layout
Stratford-upon-Avon lies along the River Avon, in the southern section of Warwickshire. The old town  (where most of the sights lie) and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre lies on the western bank of the river and is easily accessed by foot. You can arrive at the town via bus [Bridge St] or train (west of central Stratford).

Sights
Hardly anyone leaves Stratford-upon-Avon without visiting the cluster of Shakespeare Houses [+44 1789204016, www.shakespeare.org.uk/, ad/ch £19.50/12.00 (5 houses) ad/ch £12.50/8 (per house)], which are managed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. There are a total of five buildings under this umbrella- three being centrally located while the other two, just a little further out. First on the list is Shakespeare’s Birthplace [Henley St]. This half timbre-framed building has been welcoming visitors for over 2 centuries and it has become a somewhat shrine for Shakespeare enthusiasts. Other world-renowned writers like Charles Dickens and John Keats have also visited the house. You can find their signatures in the guest book. Inside the house, you will find recreated family rooms and a Shakespeare exhibition – charting the life of the playwright.

William Shakespeare spent most of his early life and five years of his married life in this house. He then bought a new residence at New Place (at the corner of Chapel St and Chapel Lane), upon his retirement in 1616. Unfortunately, this house was demolished and replaced by an Elizabethan knot garden. However, you can find the Nash’s House adjacent to this plot of land. Shakespeare’s granddaughter occupied the Nash’s house and it currently sheathes an exhibition on the town’s history; as well as an array of 17th century furnishings.  If you head further south to the edge of the old town, you will come across Hall’s Croft. This Elizabethan residence once belonged to Susannah (William Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, who married a doctor, John Hall). Hence the home befittingly exhibits artefacts from to the 16th century medical field.

MIDLANDS Anne Hathaways HouseHer mother, Anne Hathaway’s cottage lies west of this. This little farmhouse was where she lived before marrying Shakespeare. However, the highlight of this place is the Shakespeare Tree Garden, which is lined with most of the trees that have been prominently mentioned in Shakespearean plays. The last stop in the grand Shakespeare Houses tour is usually at Mary Arden’s house, which is located a few miles west of Stratford itself. This little cottage was the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother. These days, the cottage functions as the Shakespeare Countryside Museum, displaying exhibits on the local rural lifestyle over the past four centuries. A working farm that welcomes curious visitors also accompanies it.

Another sight that is well frequented by visitors is the Holy Trinity Church [Old Town, +44 1789266316, www.stratford-upon-avon.org/] and yes; it has a relation to the legendary playwright. Shakespeare lies buried here, making it the most visited parish church in England. However, the building itself merits a visit, thanks to its superb riverside location and ancient architecture. Although the oldest part of the church is the 13th century transept, the chancel remains the most visited section of the church, as it houses the baptism and burial records of the great writer. It also contains the graves of William Shakespeare and his wife, as well as a bust that was created just seven years after his death.

There are also a few other buildings that you can pop by whilst on a walk around town. The Harvard House is a 16th century building with an elaborately carved, half timbre façade, belonging to the Harvard University. The building now plays host to the Museum of British Pewter [High Street, +44 1789204507]. The local Guild Chapel and King Edward VI School (long speculated to be the institution that Shakespeare attended) are some of the other buildings that can be easily accessed by foot or bike. Both buildings date back to the Middle Ages.

 


William Shakespeare sculptureWilliam Shakespeare (1564-1616) is touted to be the best poet and playwright in the English-speaking world. The literary genius was born to an alderman and glover, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, a well-to-do yeoman farmer’s daughter; in a mid-sized house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. His social status allowed him to be educated in a grammar school that taught the young writer Latin grammar and the classics. Having been a student until the age of 14, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (who was seven years his senior and also pregnant at the time of the wedding) at the age of 18. It has been speculated that this was a shotgun marriage; however there aren’t any concrete evidence to indicate such an affair. After the birth of his three children, William Shakespeare left for London to build himself a fortune via theatre. He forayed into acting and playwriting, building himself a successful career as an actor-manager (partially owning the theatre companies- the Blackfriars and Globe Theatres), as well as a writer.

He retired from his active London career at around 1613, when he had already written the bulk of his most renowned works. Shakespeare had written 37 plays in his lifetime ranging from comedies to tragedies. Although he had already earned himself quite a reputation during his lifetime, it was only during the literary period of Romanticism and the Victorian era that he was truly revered as a genius. He was also known for his highly stylized sonnets and poems. His works have been adopted and reworked by many since the 20th century. Today, he is still widely studied and read across various languages and cultures.