Warwick, famous for its mediaeval castle, is an intriguing town that is bursting with character. Its hidden gardens, rich mix of architectural styles and fine historic attractions make it a great place to spend a day or two and will appeal to a range of tastes and needs.
The town has visibly enjoyed an extensive history and recent excavations have found evidence of neolithic man living in the area nearly 5,000 years ago. Since then, it has become a Saxon settlement, afforded protection to William the Conqueror and his army and survived, albeit in part, The Great Fire of 1694.
Warwick can boast buildings from every period of the last thousand years, even though much of the town centre, as seen today, has been shaped by The Great Fire, which started on 5th September 1694 behind the Friends Meeting House on the south side of High Street. The fire lasted for only six hours, but left a third of the town’s population homeless and destroyed a majority of the timber-framed buildings in the town centre area. At the time it was viewed as a great disaster but ultimately led to a grand rebuilding programme during the architecturally elegant reigns of Queen Anne and King George I. It accounts for the varied style of both design and materials in buildings that can be found even within the same street.
Warwick’s historic character and large number of independent shops and businesses give the town a distinctive identity. Chic restaurants, antique centres and art galleries can be found amongst the historic buildings and charming gardens, providing group visitors with a varied offer that can be easily explored on foot.
Warwick is well connected by train services, with good links available from Birmingham, Stratford-upon-Avon and London (Marylebone) to the station that lies just 10 minutes walk from the town centre. Coach parking options are available at Myton Fields and St Mary’s Land Area 1, around a 15-minute walk from the centre, whilst pick up and drop off points can be found a little closer at St Nicholas Park and Puckering Lane.
A good starting point for groups is the Tourist Information Centre, which houses a wealth of useful visitor literature and is situated in the Court House on Jury Street. The elegant Georgian building, designed by local master-builder and architect Francis Smith, dates from 1725 and also houses the civic assembly rooms, a ballroom and the Warwickshire Yeomanry Museum.
Turing left onto Castle Street takes you to a fine timber-framed building that pre-dates the Great Fire. The property, known as Oken’s House, was home to Thomas Oken, the town’s greatest benefactor. The building dates from the early 16th century and is today home to a quaint tea rooms and a shop selling local produce.
Alongside Oken’s House runs the narrow Castle Street, which leads to Warwick Castle’s Town Entrance. From here you can turn left, walk alongside the Castle Walls and then take a right up Back Lane to High Street.
Walking along High Street towards the town’s West Gate, you will notice a number of fine buildings that date from both before and slightly after the Great Fire. One of the most notable post-fire structures is Alderson House, which was built in 1695. The building is a good example of a pre-Georgian residence and, whilst normally closed to the public, has function rooms that are available for hire.
Moving along the street you will come across Warwick Unitarian Chapel, which dates from the early 17th century. One of Warwick’s wonderful hidden gardens can be found at the rear of the building and another can be discovered a short distance away in the grounds of Friends Meeting House. Originally the home of some of the earliest Quakers in the town, the centre houses a pleasant café that, during the summer months, extends into the adjacent garden.
Clustered around the town’s Norman West Gate is the magnificent Lord Leycester Hospital. Its timber-framed buildings date from the 14th and 15th centuries and were the base for Warwick’s medieval guilds before becoming a rest home for retired servicemen, known as Brethren. The group of medieval buildings are a must see for any visit to the town, as is the adjoining Chapel of St James that forms part of the West Gate and dates from 1123. A group tour of the hospital and chapel, led by the Master himself – Lt. Col. Gerald Lesinski who served 35 years with the Grenadier Guards – is a great way to explore the many magnificent rooms, courtyard and, during the summer months, the Master’s Garden.
On exiting the Lord Leycester Hospital, you might take a closer look at the impressive West Gate, next to which stands a rare Doric column pillar box. Dating from the mid 19th century, it is one of only eight surviving examples in the country and, amazingly, another can be found close to the town’s East Gate.
If you make your way up Bowling Green Street, you will find the hidden hedged gardens at Hill Close. The gardens offer a wonderful place to relax during the summer months and feature a number of attractive summerhouses.
Moving onto Market Street and Brook Street, you will be struck by the variety of independent shops and tea rooms, which provide the perfect excuse to indulge into some retail therapy and well earned refreshments. Market Square provides more shopping opportunities, as well as some good pubs and restaurants, and on Saturdays the offer is enhanced by a popular open-air market. On the edge of the square is a statue of local boxer Randolph Turpin, who defeated Sugar Ray Robinson to become Middleweight Champion of the World in 1951.
Situated between Market Street and Market Place is the County Museum. The former market hall, built in 1670, houses permanent collections of geology, archaeology and natural history, which are complemented by a programme of temporary exhibitions. Entry to the museum is free of charge and highlights include the famous Sheldon tapestry, a plesiosaur skeleton and a large Warwickshire brown bear with ragged staff.
Leaving Market Square along Barack Street, you will pass the town’s former jail, where you should look out for an original outer door of a prison cell. Turning right onto Northgate Street will bring you past the grand buildings of the old Crown Court and into the grounds of the imposing Church of St Mary.
Founded on the site in 1123 by Roger de Newburgh, the Earl of Warwick, the church was largely rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries with further additions made following the Great Fire. The Crypt remains from the original Norman building and features a rare medieval ducking stool, whilst the magnificent Beauchamp Chapel, built in the 15th century, provides a fine example of European ecclesiastical architecture. The impressive tower, another building constructed by Francis Smith, and his brother William, in the early 1700s, offers some wonderful views from the top. Entry is free, apart from a small fee for a tower visit, though a donation is suggested to help maintain the building.
From Church Street, you should take a left along Jury Street towards the East Gate. Enroute look out for a well-preserved 17th century black and white building, which is now a Pizza Express.
If you walk through the 15th century East Gate, which now houses a luxury holiday apartment, you will pass the other rare red pillar box and emerge onto Smith Street. Left largely untouched by the fire of 1694, it is the oldest shopping street in the town and hosts a rich mix of independent shops, restaurants, galleries and pubs. At the top of the street, close to the East Gate, is Landor House, which dates from 1692 and was once home to the poet Walter Savage Landor. Whilst at the other end of the street is Warwick’s oldest pub, the Roebuck Inn, that dates from 1470.
After enjoying Smith Street’s charming offer, you may choose to indulge in some local history at St John’s House. The fine 17th century Jacobean building, previously used as a boarding school, is located at the very far end of the street and houses two fascinating museums. St John’s Museum, located on the ground floor, tells the story of Warwickshire people over the last 300 years through a range of permanent exhibitions and changing displays. On the first floor, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Museum provides an intriguing insight into the rich history of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, through to the Fusiliers, from 1674.
Close by is St Nicholas Park, which offers riverside walks, boating, floral displays and a café. It is a great place to take a break or picnic, especially during the summer months, while some wonderful views of Warwick Castle can be enjoyed from the nearby Castle Bridge.
If you walk back along Banbury Road and then take a left to Mill Street, you will discover a picturesque cobbled street featuring some fine 15th and 16th century houses. At the end of the row of houses is Mill Garden a pleasant and peaceful cottage garden that hugs the edges of the River Avon and offers some more wonderful views of the Castle.
From Mill Street, it is just a short walk through the pedestrian lodge gate to the entrance of Warwick Castle.