Regular readers might remember I did a post featuring Kenilworth Castle HERE but that was about the book ‘The King in Yellow’ (1895) and not the location, so finally here is a review of that. I won’t re-post any of the info in that one because frankly I hate repeating myself, I don’t like red hair on me (though I’ve had various shades over the years), I rarely do low-cut and just general ugh-ness at repeating myself, didn’t I just say that? 😉
A lot of people came and went, fought and partied within my walls, and here I am still standing in bits and pieces but my spirit remains. My memory lives on.
Some might see that as something more akin to ‘sick building syndrome’ but without getting too esoteric for those who find such talk uncomfortable this building holds a certain thrall for me. I felt an immediate ‘like meets like’ affinity and sympathy for the place. I don’t usually get that for places frequented/lived in by the filfthy rich and/or dis-gracious (particularly not in the massive monoliths plonked onto the landscapes, Heritage inherited as too expensive to keep or made into museums/govt establishments) but something about this peachy coloured, overall harsh looking yet soft on my peripherals and still strong to the touch architecture drew me in. Perhaps its partial ‘ruined’ state speaks to me and I wouldn’t like it had it been whole in the prime of its life.
Anyway getting ahead of things here, pause, rewind.
I’m going to a castle tra la la, la la
Sitting on one of the buses from Warwick I realized that Kenilworth high street leading upto the castle reminded me quite a bit of Woolworth Road, Elephant and Castle, London in the 80’s – basically a greyish place, tired/dated but well lived in, dignified (on a quiet day) if sad and so I was already feeling on familiar terms (there’s also a nice clock tower worth stopping to take a look at). A quick refresh/search tells me that you can get on an X17 or 16 bus from Coventry (passes through Warwick) and the castle is approx a 10min walk away from the bus stop; the concrete jungle giving way to a very leafy, affluent looking street and the road to the castle elevating as you go along. And then…
Rising up is a behemoth red sandstone structure at the end of this very defined road and you realize ah “this is actually the causeway and I’m in the castle grounds before I even got to the ticket office/gift shop”. On either side the causeway are sloping (downwards like ditches) former wetlands that are now drained fields/marshes and remnants of the outer wall and then you look ahead again at this towering edifice and smile “hello fortress”.
The front of this area of the grounds is now the car park, at the interestingly contrasted cinder block looking office which is very modern and staffed by polite people you decide if you want the audio or self-explore, I decided to forgo the audio, further along is the grounds map and general introduction.
The grand feeling of an adventure is a bit yellow brick road like and does take a ramble to actually get to the buildings because it’s long, uneven and curves. The causeway or ‘tiltyard’ (for such non-barbaric contact sports *ahem* as jousting) was a damn and all that land around the castle a lake – heh a moat wasn’t enough!
After the causeway you get to the circular outer defenses/remnants but still high walls – unfortunately you don’t get to explore them as the outer perimeter is not accessible to the public (and wouldn’t be easy).
War after war, successions of conquerors, royals and aristocrats and this brazen thing just walks in like it’s nothing!
Sometimes there’s a feeling of trespassing when visiting places like this (let alone when you’re doing the uncovering), like you’re seeing something naked or reveling tackily over the defeat of another but I didn’t feel that here though I did want to embrace it or put a figurative strong hand on its shoulder and say “its ok, my friend [I’m here]”.
Obviously the closer you get to this part the more you see but once you get to the inner court your view widens widescreen/panoramic style to encompass the rest of the still standing buildings. You’ve gone from hard road to soft grass and the land is still very uneven with hills; to your bottom left is a kind of parkland with seemingly intentionally planted trees and a pond, upper left is the main structure, middle right a gatehouse and lower right a large stable house and none of them seem from the same time period.
Ok, some history is needed lest this great relic seem heritage-less and unwanted (though I’d still want it on its own merit)
The four areas of the inner court are in stark contrast to my eyes, rather than say a broom you’ve had for decades that is called the same broom despite the parts having been replaced, this place looks like puzzle pieces from different jigsaws than a cohesive battlement/castle over the ages. I can’t speak with authority over castles/fortifications that have been ‘slighted’ and continually worked on by non-conservationists i.e. beat the crap out of (its defenses made defenseless) so that even if it’s still around it can’t fight back, reconstructed, changed, added to, maybe torn asunder, maybe a few more times and things getting decidedly more makeshift and then perhaps a windfall where someone decides to ‘do up the place’ again etc etc but from modern finds handling and conservation I know that we’re supposed to show where we’ve made changes whilst keeping the general form. I guess I was expecting the quarters to look a bit more of a mish mash of styles rather than distinctive from each other, but that’s just the facade!
Back in the medieval early 12th century the castle was founded as a counterbalance between rivaling nobles Roger de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick, who already had his castle and Geoffrey de Clinton, Lord Chamberlain to Henry I, who wanted his own – aw the ever throwing of the toys out of the pram. It wasn’t completed though as when such people throw hissy fits or decide they can’t wait for dead men’s shoes there’s battling and/or nations go to war and everybody plays musical chairs with their loyalties. By the end of the century we had the Revolt of 1173–74 where pater Henry II was rebelled against by his wife and three of his sons with the backing of France of which they were already intimately related, how nice. Geoffrey de Clinton died and the castle fell into royal hands for military purposes. Henry [jr] ‘the younger Henry’ and apparently the oldest of the legitimate sons was succeeded by Richard ‘the lionheart’ (the tv show ‘Maid Marian and Her Merry Men’ 1989-1994 does a better job describing him than Robin Hood legend imo) and then the King John we all know and… It was he who upgraded the castle significantly, creating the artificial lake for example.
Like a child in a particularly bitter divorce court trial it then played pass the parcel between barons and royals until the pope got involved and met out ecclesiastical judgement basically kicking Henry III (John’s son) up the backside after which a compromise was made called the ‘Dictum of Kenilworth’ issued on 31 October 1266 (postponed until 14 December) where the barons could buy back their lands and surrender the castle to the crown.
In a short period of relative peace and merriment with much festive competition, beating the crap out of each other for sport with ladies and handkerchiefs all aflutter etc the castle was extended and upgraded but the truce between loyalists and rebels broke down. It went back and forth again and there were daggers at the ready within the royals as well, so on 21 January 1326 when Edward II was made to resign from his kingliness by his wife Isabella et al, she kept Kenilworth until her own demise.
After a series of deaths John of Gaunt (one of the sons of Edward III) inherited and in the latter 14th century he ensured that the castle underwent more building with increasing focus on grandeur over fighting function. It continued as a popular hotspot (with a mock castle built on one side of the lake) for Henry’s IV, V and VI until the mid-15th century (War of the Roses 155-1487) when Henry VII lost his marbles and Margaret held court.
Jumping to the mid-16th century the castle underwent ‘modernisation’ that is to say it had gone from Norman/Romanesque, to Gothic, to Tudor hands hence receiving a more classical overhaul. Robert, Earl of Leicester, decided he wanted Kenilworth fit for a Queen (though a number had already passed through) with royal apartments, he had his eye on Elizardbeth I. Oh she visited, multiple times with largess suitable of typical royalty or upper class but took imposing on hospitality as far as possible with the size of her entourage and length of stay(s). She obviously liked his improvements and he died in debt.
Pause *breath* I can’t take much more of this soap opera telling, I’m summarizing as much as possible – I should have just done this ‘horrible history’ style… Granted it’s horrible enough, but you know what I mean – this, this and that happened, then that person clubbed that person, blood, gore, more bodily fluids and here we are! Ok back to it…
In the 17th century garden and grounds work were focused on but you know something just had to happen, cue the three Civil Wars. It was in 1649 that the official slighting took place, my poor sad castle! Typically the guy who next ‘owned’ it was the one who oversaw the desecration and maybe saw it as spoils/just conquered desserts, especially now he’d made it cheap. He stripped it and made it into more of a farmstead. It pretty much stayed that way until Sir Walter Scott’s novel ‘Kenilworth’ (1821) which cemented its journey as an open to the public tourist attraction.
In 1958 the castle was handed over to the town of Kenilworth and English Heritage started management in 1984.
Not yet, wait! I was yet to visit!
From the inside and the back
Ok so everybody who was anybody passed through and many hands partook in the decoration; once you clamber inside, all around, up and down the awesome remains of the main building you see the overlap and juxtaposition of different periods although they’re very well done and blend in nicely together; most obviously and generally Norman at the front, Tudor at the back and what we call the Elizabethan garden bringing up the rear. For example there are floor to ceiling high conclaves in the towers with little ‘doors’ in alternating positions as they go up, slightly pointed arches transitioning throughout and then you have the great hall with its massive windows (yes places for actual glass windows!) It starts to get palatial.
You can’t scale everything (health and safety for you and the building) but stairs and platforms/walkways have been added to assist viewing. Some of those are more narrow than others and there’s both wooden stairs and metal grating ones & banisters. At one vantage point I saw some tents on the left side of the garden but unfortunately I didn’t find out what they were doing as it wasn’t public.
You can overlook the garden from the ruins and as it is a reproduction in the style of Elizabethan gardens it is one of 20th century parts of the castle. It’s very ornamental, heavily manicured Italian ‘man master over nature’ garden grooming; very pretty, quaint, novel to look at and float through on tete-a-tetes. I first looked at its sectioning and thought “this isn’t a maze but” and later read that the style is called the ‘knot’ method. There’s an aviary, regularly placed wooden obelisks and a marble fountain with the usual mythological detailing (akin to the popularity of the ‘rape of’ scenes in Graeco-Roman art). The partially enclosed, rectangular and blockish terrace leading to the garden features similar blockish staircases with symbolic animal insignias. To me the terrace/stairs aren’t grand enough to ‘do the people watching’ or make an entrance. There’s not very much to the garden imo so I barely spent any time there but there were some ladies delighting in its elaborate charm and the same could be said of the ruins leaving people cold I guess but I felt those to be far more atmospheric.
Or Leicester’s Gatehouse, itself a replacement of an earlier one and built in its former likeness on the outside at least. It was the second most interesting feature to me, especially as it’s a reproduction of a reproduction internally. I worked in a museum that was wholly a reproduction in the inside, all the interiors were crafted ‘in the style of’ and to me that made it seem a bit deflated plus it was very conservatively done. The rooms in Leicester’s Gatehouse vary from somewhat sparse to moderately furnished but there is heavy detailing on the structural parts so the wood paneling, fire places, walls, finishing touches on tables/chairs etc. What it lacks in soft furnishing and sometimes space (some have walkways around) it has in solidity but it feels lifeless unlike the ruins. I’m not a fan of spiral staircases so I took the lift (totally modern of course) to the upper level and strangely enough that’s where I was most inspired in this building.
Upstairs is exhibition space, you know the type; white walls, subdued/shadowy lighting with low spotlights, dioramas, bits of text, pictures and it seemed the historical standpoint was that of romance, the love or not-to-be love of past incumbents (notably Rob and Liz). It was the small classroom however with suitably young aged games/teaching materials and some rather strange reading material on a small shelf on the side that piqued my curiosity. I was surprised to find writings about ancient Babylons and Egyptians outlining respect of women, so I stood there for longer than expected whilst people passed by picking up a book or two and putting them back quickly before moving on. What a tiny gem in an easily ignored room beside the big exhibition!
The Stable – Tea Room/Exhibition
A large and distinctly Tudor looking building externally, modern but in keeping on the inside with one main door; left side eatery and right side gallery. I think after the walkaround I would have preferred to see a more decorative tearoom but it serves as a modern cafe, sleek and clean. I didn’t buy anything but they sold the regular assortment of sandwiches, some baked goods, canned/bottled drinks and additionally hot meals, there are picnic tables outside too. I looked through the exhibition which was a bit disappointing, seemed more like something you browse through idly and inattentively or for parents to send the kids on a short walk while they take a break. It consisted of a few ‘bits and bobs’ artifacts like finding tons of crushed pottery on a site, so much you don’t bother with it and have to be careful not to trip up over whilst waiting for a free wheelbarrow, except in this case it was bits of masonry. Then you could have ‘fun’ pushing buttons near the walls to see them light up with info, tidbits that escape my memory. Unfortunately I had to go into the food area when I couldn’t open the door and thought there might an exit I was missing. I’m no weakling, seriously, so I don’t force things ‘too much’ just in case and out of worry I made more of a fool of myself asking the counter staff if there was an exit. Met with disdain and staring from the eaters they told me that was the only door, fine then – I went, gave it a semi-good shove and went. It had opened fine from the outside!
The other castle nearby
So what about Warwick Castle then, why bother with this one when you can go there, especially if you have a Merlin Pass?
I’ve visited both twice because they’re close and I prefer Kenilworth but both are very different in their appeal. For starters Warwick isn’t a ruin, it has built up grounds, showpieces such as craft tents and weapons, an exotic greenhouse, peacocks, costumed people doing displays, the princess tower (that the annoyingly cute pigtailed woman wouldn’t let me into even though unaccompanied adults – sans children – are allowed to go into to look around without seeing the show), and all that jazz castles have. It’s more in keeping with a family friendly, themed attraction – dazzling, bit tiring, packed with visitors and all a bit ‘must see – been here, done that, got the t-shirt’. I liked it but it wasn’t special; it wasn’t sombre, stoic, thoughtful, a place where you can sit and be part of history or on the forefront of time. You can’t just sit and be. It’s a spectacle that’s lost its soul to me though at the same time buzzing with excited people. Kenilworth was probably like that in its heyday, now it’s a bit haunting although still majestic; it’s more a walker’s castle for those with sturdy footwear and abit more strength than it takes to climb those stairs in the perimeter wall at Warwick. You can feel very tall and look out at the land from both, but one is more of a memory kept in vibrant stasis and the other is a memory of itself hoping to be appreciated.
Prices (Giftaid available)
Heritage Member: Free
Child (5-15 years): £5.80
Family (2 adults, 3 children): £25.00
Opening times vary month to month so it’s best to check the website first:
‘Last admission half an hour before closing. Access to Leicester’s Gatehouse and/or the Stables Tearoom may be limited if there is a hospitality event booked, please call or check the website before you visit. Tearoom closes 30 minutes before site closes.’
There are unisex, baby changing and disabled friendly toilets in Leicester’s Gatehouse. I wouldn’t call the place very mobility friendly, some areas are easier to traverse than others but it’s the lower land stable and gatehouse that would be easier to reach.
Dogs are allowed.
There is a parking charge but it is refunded and on bank holidays they have a free shuttle bus from Kenilworth town centre.