If you had to read English literature in school, you'll remember names like Kenilworth and Warwick and their castles, perhaps in works by Sir Walter Scott or men of that ilk. Whether you did or not, it's a thrill to visit the real castles which featured in those 19th-century tomes, and if you go to what the public relations people call Shakespeare Country, you can have a healthy appreciation of what castles stood for, how they operated and what they mean today.
Of the two most famous in the area, I visited Kenilworth and Warwick recently, the latter for the second time, and marvel at how different they are.
Back in 1821, Sir Walter Scott published his romantic novel, Kenilworth, which made Kenilworth (Warwickshire; tel. 011 44 1926 852078; www.english-heritage.org.uk/kenilworth; admission £7; open daily except Dec. 24-26 and Jan. 1) a major tourist attraction, such tourists as there were back then. Many prominent visitors came to see the ruins, including Queen Victoria (1858), Charles Dickens (1838) and Henry James (1870s). The owner, Lord Clarendon, found in 1937 that he couldn't keep the place from falling into further ruin, so in that year, the castle was purchased by John Siddely, an automobile manufacturer, who gave it to the nation after he was created the first Lord Kenilworth in the same year. (The New Yorker might call this a funny coincidence, but it wasn't.) The castle is owned and maintained by the town of Kenilworth to this day.
Dating back more than 900 years, Kenilworth is one of the most spectacular castle ruins in England, worth a detour, anytime. The first castle here was built in the early 1120s by Geoffrey de Clinton, whose son died in 1174, at which time King Henry II appropriated it. The castle's Gatehouse, built by the Earl of Leicester in 1575, has been completely renovated, and this is what will focus your interest today with its relatively contemporary (1930s) furnishings. On the top floor here, you can see a copy of the earl's last letter to Elizabeth I. It is said she kept it in a casket by her bed until the day she died. Leicester married someone else in 1578 and died in 1588 without male issue, so the castle reverted to the Crown after 20 years of family arguments. The castle was damaged during the Civil War (1650s) and ended up with the first earl of Clarendon in 1776. At the nearby Stable, you can see exhibits about the castle and have tea in the small café.
The ruins consist mostly of The Keep (1120s), The Great Hall (1373-1380) and Leicester's Building (1571).
The Elizabethan Garden here was introduced in May, 2009, recreated from what Robert Dudley designed to astound his beloved, Elizabeth I. Since it hadn't grown much since the opening by the time I saw it a few months later, I found it difficult to visualize what it will look like when mature. There's an ugly 18-foot-high marble fountain in the middle, an attractive aviary on the edge. It is said that Elizabeth I was astounded and delighted by the plantings, which were inspired partly by the Tivoli Gardens near Rome, but she didn't marry Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, anyhow.
Kenilworth is part of the venerable National Trust, of which you can become a Life Member or just buy an annual pass for £47.50 (www.nationaltrust.org.uk). Kenilworth is also a member of the English Heritage group. Check out that organization's website at www.english-heritage.org.uk or phone them at tel. 011/44 870 333 1181.
The town of Warwick (Warwick; tel. 011 44 871 265 2000; www.warwick-castle.co.uk; adult admission £17.95) was founded on the banks of the Avon in 914 by Ethelfleda, sister of Edward the Elder, as a defense against the Danish invaders, on a site overlooking earlier riverside settlements. William the Conqueror built a moat and fort here in 1068. The castle today sits on the edge of town, which lies inland from the river, and is as imposing a castle you're ever likely to see. That's the good news, the exterior and magnificent view of the castle itself.
I enjoyed the performance by some of the characters wandering around the courtyard as people lined up to buy tickets. Some were so convincing that I believed they were understudies at the Royal Shakespeare Company down the road. My favorite was the gravedigger, whose repartee and behavior many a famous thespian might wish to emulate. The castle has a daily program, kids, of course, being the primary audience. There's the Raising of the Portcullis at 10:30am, the Grave Digger Show three times daily, demonstration of the Trebuchet ("the largest siege machine" or catapult "in the world") at noon, a show by the Falconer at 1, a parade at 4:15pm and fireworks at 4:30pm.
The bad news is that since the Madame Tussaud Group bought the castle in 1978, the property has been highly commercialized. The company that now owns the castle (since 2007), and a few dozen other attractions in Britain, has turned the place into a kind of Disneyland, although perhaps not as well coordinated. I even found a tent in the courtyard selling print-outs, certificates and coats of arms for people seeking information about their ancestors. I gave them a couple of names and found their reports wholly inadequate. Under "Ball," for instance, they had no information on the fact that Mary Ball was the mother of George Washington. Perhaps they didn't have information about the family after some Balls left England for the USA in 1650, or they don't do American Balls, only the Balls who remained behind. In any case, I would not look to them for a complete family history, myself.
There's an audio tour, but I found the instructions too complicated and nobody offered to teach me, so I just gave up.
The Merlin company, in addition to owning Warwick Castle, owns nine other attractions in Britain, including Madame Tussaud's, the London Eye and Legoland. More info at www.merlinannualpass.co.uk.
In the town of Kenilworth you'll find the Petit Gourmand (101-103 Warwick Road; tel. 011/44 1926 864567; www.petit-gourmand.co.uk), which has won the Restaurant of the Year 2008 award and a similar one from Warwickshire Life & Food magazine. My colleagues and I all loved the pumpkin soup at £3.95, and I a fricassee of wild mushrooms, asparagus and artichokes with potato gnocchi and truffled cream at £11.95. My companions also liked the country style pate with sweet red onion marmalade at £5.50 and the smoked haddock topped with Welsh rarebit on creamed leeks and spinach at £13.75.
For more information on Shakespeare Country, go to their website; www.shakespeare-country.co.uk.
For all things British, check out the website of Visit Britain, for free maps, brochures, vacation-planning advice and a wide selection of passes and transport tickets. That's www.visitbritain.us.