Now, I am generally a very positive person who likes to celebrate the good things in life. However, today I am playing the part of ‘appalled from Leamington’ and feel the need to rant.
A friend came to visit me earlier in the week so, naturally, I took him to Warwickshire’s most famous attraction, Warwick Castle. It was my third visit there and, once again, I was struck by my sense of distaste and disappointment whilst wandering round the magnificent buildings and extensive manicured grounds.
There’s no doubt it’s impressive with its soaring towers and battlements, but there’s something about it that seems fake and plastic. The site is owned by Madam Tussauds and, perhaps it’s the subsequent prevalence of realistic waxworks scattered through the castle rooms that gives it this air of artificiality. However, it’s more than that. It’s as though they have tried to give it the feel of a theme park, and there are strong similarities to the absolute fakeness of Alton Towers; from the themed fast food joints painted to look like they’re made of stone, the speakers lurking in the flowerbeds that play out rousing, dramatic ‘battle’ music, the plastic astroturf delineating the prescribed paths that turn the tourists into IKEA zombies stumbling blindly through the grounds, and the audio and fake ‘smells’ that help to tell a cheesy narrative of the night before a big battle.
The irony of this is huge. It’s one of the best preserved castles in a country that has castles coming out of its ears (a castle coming out of your ear – that’s got to hurt). Yet they’ve managed to shrink this awe-inspiring structure into a mocking charicature of itself through corporate signage and commercial greed (after your £30 entrance fee you can then pay a not-insignificant extra amount to be scared by ‘real actors’ in the dungeon or to visit a princess in the princess tower or to take the ‘Merlin tour’, linked in with the BBC programme – yuk…).
Through in-your-face efforts at recreating the past for a quick-fix, attention-deficit and consumer-heavy modern populace, they have ironically removed all of the castle’s inherent atmosphere. When I visit old buildings, what I love is the sense of history seeping through the walls and grounds that have seen so much. I love to find a peaceful corner and sit and imagine how the place would have looked and sounded and smelt in its heydey. I like to touch the places where the rock has been smoothed by centuries of previous palms and tread the corridors and steps that are hollowed by ancient footfall. I especially like ruins; I like to see nature and history vying for supremacy, enjoying the knowledge that nature will always win in the end, unfurling its ferny victory pennants from crevices in the stonework and spilling mossy blood onto the stone-flagged battle-fields. I like to let history speak for itself.
You can feel glimmers of this at Warwick Castle, for example by standing at the foot of the large earth mound that housed the original timber castle, now long gone and replaced by gnarly yews and oaks. But then you’re stung from your reverie by a loudspeaker instructing you to go and watch the ‘Trebuchet Fireball Extravaganza’ or by a shouty sign encouraging you to part with more cash to ‘test your archery skills’. It’s like a very expensive village fete, but without the heart-warming sense of community and home-made wholesomeness. There is very little space in the crowded grounds for contemplation and imagination; the castle’s story is shoved down your throat like a processed hot dog from a white van masquerading as a fortress.
Anyhoo, that said, the peacocks are beautifully odd, with their comical miaows, the battlement stairs provide a surprisingly vigorous cardio work-out, the river-side setting is stunning and, as we discovered, if you arrive after 3:30pm, you can pay half price to enter for the remaining hour and a half. It’s a good job we did that, otherwise I fear this would have been a ‘full-price’ double-the-length rant!
Fake robotic peacocks roam the grounds.